By Nick Collins
Climate-related disasters displaced over 1.7 million Americans in 2020 alone. This figure doesn’t include the increasing displacement caused by secondary effects of climate change—the decrease in affordability, the rising cost of energy, and the loss of land via erosion.
Without significant investments to increase the supply of affordable housing, federal efforts to Build Back Better will fail to meaningfully advance racial and economic equity, and our country will miss an opportunity to embed climate resiliency in the fabric of our neighborhoods, particularly in low-income and BIPOC communities, which have been largely overlooked. The more than $300 billion in housing and community development programs passed by the House Financial Services Committee last month present a once-in-a-generation opportunity to revitalize long-neglected communities, ensure safe and affordable housing for all who need it, and close the racial wealth gap.
Fewer affordable homes means less resilient American families
More than ever, where and how we live is being driven by climate change. Climate change and economic disparity lay bare the legacy of intentional, racially discriminatory systems that disproportionately hurt low-income and communities of color. Renters, with fewer resources and less recovery assistance, are especially vulnerable to displacement during a crisis. Combine that with the fact that more U.S. households are headed by renters than at any point since 1965 and you’ve got a recipe for massive displacement.
Climate crises—e.g. a flooded roof, ice storm, fire—are an external shock to households that may not have the reserves to weather the storm. As rental rates continue to soar while income remains essentially stagnant, it’s becoming more and more difficult for households to save at all. College tuition becomes less within reach, and unexpected expenses like medical bills or car repairs become more frequent and harder to cover. The unfolding climate crisis is adding an additional set of external shocks to U.S. households that are already strapped for cash.
Conversely, we know that housing affordability means families are more likely to stay in place and able to absorb any sort of external shock.
Fewer affordable homes means worse health outcomes for Americans
The mental and physical benefits of housing stability are critical as we face an increasing amount of climate stressors, including additional mental and physical burdens on every day families. Climate related stressors—like extreme heat—require new design and adaptation of the built environment. This starts by addressing historically racist housing policies. Without adequate federal support, money won’t flow to cities attempting to redress these legacies and the most vulnerable communities—often low-income and disproportionately people of color—will experience the brunt of health issues brought on by climate change.
The only way to stop these compounding inequities is a large, intentional investment in our infrastructure. Housing is a foundational part of that infrastructure. Without comprehensive funding for housing, we risk building on the same inequitable legacies that we are working to remand. With worsening health outcomes, we’ll continue to increase medical expenses across the country and mortality rates because of climate-related health complications will continue to rise.
Conversely, we know that housing stability leads to better health outcomes.
Fewer affordable homes means a less energy efficient America
Energy, water, health, and resilience upgrades produce long-term savings in energy usage, financial cost, and environmental impact, yet the barriers like time, budget, and access to technical services make accessing these options almost impossible for a typical American household.
Assessing the potential options available to help building developers save energy and determining which may qualify for available subsidies is time-consuming and requires a vast knowledge of all the available funds. Piecing together funds from multiple sources, or not qualifying for funding sources altogether leads many building developers or families to skip this step entirely. The upfront costs and technical gaps result in projects that go forward with little to no resilience upgrades, leaving out entire families, small businesses, and neighborhoods, disproportionately in low-income and BIPOC communities.
What’s more is that this leaves BIPOC communities to take on the additional, compounding costs of climate change through continual building repairs, negative health impacts, and ultimately, displacement.
Conversely, we know that to make a more energy efficient America for everyone, we need to invest in affordable housing.
Dedicating funding for community-based housing options such as community land trusts and other shared-equity models that prioritize racial equity help to preserve and develop housing that is both climate resilient and affordable for the long-term. Where housing is located and how it is designed matters to reducing household costs and improving resiliency. This requires better coordination of housing and transportation including strategies like equitable transit-oriented development (eTOD) to include affordable housing as a critical part of resilient, healthy, and economically viable neighborhoods.
We have a once in-a-generation opportunity to invest meaningfully in improving racial equity, and to build homes for a climate uncertain future. To build back better, we need a future where families can remain in their homes. We must invest in affordable, climate resilient housing.
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