With residential and commercial buildings contributing to nearly 40 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, climate advocates and green-minded policymakers are amplifying their efforts to inspire investment and legislation around decarbonization and electrification of buildings. Such investment will inch states and governments closer toward reaching ambitious and impending net-zero carbon targets, but affordable housing advocates warn it must be done equitably or risk leaving low-income communities behind.
“Electrification and decarbonization is inevitable,” energy efficiency and building science expert Krista Egger told Triple Pundit. “But equitable electrification and decarbonization is not inevitable unless we act proactively.”
The challenge of electrification
As electrification is prioritized and higher-income residents swap out gas-powered appliances for electric ones, low-income residents unable to make the same investments may face a price spike from natural gas companies finding themselves with a smaller pool of customers. Those higher income residents will not only enjoy monthly savings on their utility bills, but they’ll avoid the health risks associated with prolonged exposure to gas appliances. Low-income communities prioritizing basic needs like food over marginal monthly savings are likely to be excluded from such benefits, leading to even greater health and wealth disparities. And that’s not to mention the climate impacts of not electrifying and decarbonizing - impacts that hit communities of color and low-income residents harder than their wealthier neighbors.
At Egger’s role as Vice President of Initiatives at Enterprise Community Partners, a nonprofit tackling the United States’ small affordable housing stock, she’s mainstreaming the inclusion of green initiatives into affordable housing development.
“We view climate change as a threat multiplier for the community that we serve and our approach at Enterprise is not just looking at the climate change with sea level rise, flooding and crises, but how these changes really affect the lives of those that live in affordable housing,” Egger said. “How can we intervene, really explicitly, right now, and be able to tell a different story 10-20 years from now?”
One such intervention from Enterprise is the Green Communities program, which seeks to scale industry green building practices through holistic people- and resident-centered approaches, advocacy work and technical assistance to developers and investors.
The cornerstone of the initiative is the Green Communities Criteria, a one-of-its-kind checklist of standards that developers must abide by to ensure clean and green development of affordable housing units. Thirty states have mandated or encouraged developers seeking affordable housing funding to become Green Communities certified.
Affordable housing and electrification: can the two co-exist?
Affordable housing and sustainable design are often considered incompatible. How, after all, can you tackle the dearth of affordable housing in the United States while also requiring developers to jump through hoops to comply with building more responsibly and sustainably?
Egger says affordable and sustainable housing do not have to be mutually exclusive. Affordable housing developers are better off addressing climate resilience from the get-go because it makes for a stronger long-term investment in their property. Residents will feel cool in the summer and warm in the winter, better protected from climate shocks, and void of breathing in toxic particulate matters that arise from fossil fuels. And that’s all while paying less.
The benefits aren’t exclusive to the residents though. Developers and building managers will not only hear fewer complaints from residents, but they’ll also require fewer energy efficiency upgrades in later years. If electrification and decarbonization of buildings truly is inevitable, why wait to retrofit buildings later on?
“When we are creating new housing, we really want to make sure it’s going to be habitable, safe, efficient and affordable to operate over the long-term,” Egger said. “That’s why a marginal investment in green features for properties is a good decision.”
Momentum for the affordable housing sector
Affordable housing and climate activists are closely watching the Biden Administration’s Build Back Better Act as it works its way through Congress. The $1.75 trillion bill approved by the U.S. House includes considerable investment in the intersection of green and affordable housing. In addition to generous tax incentives (like the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit and Neighborhood Homes Tax credit) that are sure to spur affordable housing development, the bill earmarked $150 billion for affordable housing and community development.
The commitments from the bill align with Enterprise’s hopes for affordable housing that is also sustainable. In an article co-authored by Egger and three other housing and energy experts, they jointly supported the bill as an “historic opportunity to meet new climate commitments while influencing our country’s housing shortage, racial inequities, health crisis, and the economic downturn.”
The bottom line
Above all, Egger says, is the need to ensure the push for electrification and decarbonization among the housing sector doesn’t increase the energy or cost burden on low-income residents in affordable housing.
“If we don’t do anything today, we’re going to be exacerbating these inequities in a way that’s going to lead to significant health and life safety outcomes for those who are most vulnerable,” Egger said.
Image credit: Brandon Griggs via Unsplash
Based in Atlanta, GA, Grant is a nonprofit professional and freelance writer passionate about affordable housing and finding sustainable approaches to international development. A proud graduate of the University of Maryland, Grant spent four months post-grad living in Armenia where he worked for Habitat for Humanity and the World Food Programme. He enjoys playing trivia with friends but is still seeking his first victory - he ceaselessly blames his friends lack of preparation.