By: Khalil Shahyd – Senior Policy Advocate, Natural Resources Defense Council

Having safe, healthy, and affordable housing options is integral to ensuring low-income families have access to sustainable livelihoods, and quality education, and health care. Now, we are beginning to realize the critical role of affordable housing in reducing the negative impacts of climate change while providing stable, resilient homes for families.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) joins the list of organizations calling for federal action to address the nation’s housing crisis. We cannot adequately tackle the dual crises of climate change and housing affordability in silos. When we work together across intersecting issues, we can take on complex challenges in ways that ensure complementing policies rather than competition.

By convening a multisectoral alliance of advocates, each of whom recognizes the central role that housing plays in our society, the Opportunity Starts at Home campaign provides an excellent opportunity for NRDC to leverage its position as a leader in environmental policy advocacy. Along with our partners, we can improve the quality of and access to affordable housing, while reducing the harmful emissions that cause climate change, and enabling families to have stable homes in communities free from toxins and other pollutants that threaten health.

Opportunity Starts at Home advocates for federal policies to meet the rental housing needs of the nation’s low-income families by focusing attention to solutions that:

  • Bridge the growing gap between renter incomes and rising housing costs;
  • Provide aid to people experiencing job losses or other economic shocks to avert housing instability or homelessness;
  • Expand the affordable housing stock for low-income renters; and

Addressing climate change and improving environmental quality relates directly to each of these three solutions.

Bridge the growing gap between renter incomes and rising housing cost

The gap between rents and incomes continues to grow, and rising costs now extend farther into the nation’s heartland. What used to be a problem isolated to the largest cities is now being felt in urban, suburban, and rural communities across the country.

One of the main drivers of housing cost for renters is home energy. A recent analysis by the U.S. Energy Information Agency Residential Energy Consumption Survey (RECS) found that one in three American households were “energy insecure” and faced difficulty in paying their utility bills or maintaining adequate heating and cooling in their home in 2015. This is happening even as total expenditures on energy are at the lowest levels in a decade.

Low-income rental households in urban communities—many of which live in older housing with poor ventilation and aging, inefficient appliances and heating systems—spend, on average, 7.2 percent of their income on utility bills. This amounts to about $1,700 annually out of $25,000 in median household income. That is more than triple the 2.3 percent of income spent on electricity, heating, and cooling by higher-income households. Low-income rural families face an even higher burden, expending 10 percent of their income to energy expenses. Energy efficiency upgrades such as adding insulation and sealing air leaks can lessen these energy burdens by as much as 25 percent.

In addition to the direct cost savings to families, making homes more energy-efficient can significantly reduce energy consumption, thereby reducing carbon emissions. A recent study has revealed that residential efficiency can account for as much as 550 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions reductions annually by 2050, which is equal to the combined electric power emissions of California, Texas, New York,  Florida, Illinois, and Virginia in 2016.

Since 2014, NRDC has worked in partnership with affordable housing organizations through Energy Efficiency for All to increase spending by state utilities on energy efficiency retrofits in affordable multifamily rental housing. Reducing housing costs for low-income renters also provides enormous benefit to the challenge of climate change.

Provide aid to people experiencing job losses or other economic shocks to avert housing instability or homelessness

Climate change increases housing insecurity. Low-income renters are especially vulnerable to climate shocks because planning and recovery programs fail to address their needs adequately. As a result, extreme weather events and climate emergencies can destabilize and displace families and communities. Recent research by the Center for American Progress examines the myriad ways severe weather driven by climate change can act as a multiplier of existing vulnerabilities faced by low-income renters. For example, displacement of low-income families in Miami increased when wealthier families fled to neighborhoods on higher ground at lower risk of flooding.

In addition to the potential of displacement of low-income renters from climate-related disasters, low-income renters also face increased instability when strategies to address the threat of climate change are “mal-adaptive” and don’t take into account their needs. Cities such as Miami are seeing a rise in housing costs and the displacement of low-income families from their communities as these areas sit higher and are at lower risk of flooding due to rising sea levels increasing the demand and subsequent value of land.

NRDC is working with a number of initiatives nationally and locally to address the climate risk to affordable housing in a way that preserves affordability and long term stability for low-income families. Through the EEFA coalition, NRDC has partnered with affordable housing lenders establishing the Sustainability in Affordable Housing Lender Learning Network (SAHLLN), and the MultiFamily Climate Resilience Financing Working Group to elevate the issue of climate risks to tenants, owners, and financiers to housing lenders of affordable multifamily housing properties.

In Los Angeles, NRDC is working with local advocates to ensure that city redevelopment efforts to improve resiliency do not displace the area’s existing low-income residents. Without careful planning, mitigation and adaptive strategies to climate change can lead to green gentrification and the displacement of low-income families.

Expand the affordable housing stock for low-income renters

As the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s latest “Gap report” highlights, the United States has a national shortage of more than 7.2 million affordable and available rental homes for families most in need. There is not a single parish or county in America that has enough housing to meet the need that families can afford with a full-time minimum-wage salary.

Preserving and expanding the supply of affordable housing is critical to ensuring that communities will have the capacity to respond to environmental challenges such as the climate crisis. When affordable housing is built to achieve higher population density and is near mass transit; the environmental and climate benefits significantly increase through reduced vehicle use, lower carbon emissions and improved air quality. Strategies such as brownfields and infill development can remediate environmentally hazardous places improving environmental health while creating more walkable communities with access to affordable housing.

NRDC again partnered with the National Housing Trust through EEFA advocates for the protection of federal financing and programs that preserve and build affordable housing while ensuring that they have access to modern clean energy services through efficiency retrofits.

Leveraging Partnerships to Address Common Challenges

NRDC is proud to participate in the Opportunity Starts at Home Roundtable. We look forward to the opportunity to leverage our collective strength for the benefit of low-income renters and families across the nation. The crisis of affordable housing is inexorably linked to the plight of climate change. By forging ahead together, we can create the political will to implement solutions that address the full scale of the threats faced by families who are most in need.