The federal government is currently pumping billions of dollars into our nation’s infrastructure, from improving roads and bridges to incentivizing a clean energy revolution. In fact, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) invests $1.2 trillion in traditional infrastructure in addition to public transit, clean water, and broadband access. The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) invests an additional $228 billion plus $324 billion in tax expenditures for clean energy and environmental justice projects, with $40 billion dedicated to low-income and disenfranchised communities.
Both the BIL and IRA present an unprecedented opportunity to cut climate pollution while bringing long-overdue investments to communities who need it most, especially since the funds will be implemented through the Justice40 lens.
However, neither the BIL nor IRA includes significant investments in affordable housing, which affects low-income residents at large. The Build Back Better framework, the precursor to the IRA, had almost
$50 billion in investments in affordable housing, but these funds were left out of the final bill. These provisions included investments for:
- Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) for affordable housing;
- the HOME Investment Partnerships program to fund affordable housing for low-income households; and
- the Unlocking Possibilities program to streamline housing regulatory requirements, which were clear tactics to solving racial inequities through social policy.
Gentrification and displacement were already on the rise before the IRA and BIL—but the current influx of funds has the potential to exacerbate and worsen this issue. Without critical housing investments, guidance from the federal government, and initiative from local governments, communities are at risk for being displaced by the investments meant to benefit them. As best described by the National Low Income Housing Coalition: “Outside of the HTF [Housing Trust Fund], no significant investment in new housing affordable to the lowest income people has been made in more than 30 years and there still exists a great shortage of housing.” We need to combat the affordable housing crisis by making broad investments in our affordable housing stock to protect residents from displacement and help them fight and prepare for climate change.
The IRA and BIL are starting points for serving disenfranchised communities equitably. The existing housing and climate crises teach us the need to invest in the most vulnerable communities that are affected by poor policymaking decisions. Investments in affordable housing, clean energy, and an equitable share of energy efficiency promote the social and economic mobility of these communities that have been targeted for being poor.
At the community level, we understand that housing is at the core of health, climate, and equity. Strategic investments through a racial justice lens can contribute toward bridging the inequities in the achievement gap. Creating viable solutions in partnership with the community to advance housing policies is critical—housing solutions that truly benefit communities must come from the community itself.
One example of strategic investments in disinvested communities at the federal level includes U.S. Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) new Climate Action Plan. According to HUD, its action plan is “an ambitious plan to tackle the climate crisis that will help communities across the nation build more resilient infrastructure, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, create well-paid jobs, and pursue environmental justice for disproportionately impacted communities.”
HUD’S effort advances the agency’s goals by working on solutions that address climate change, promote sustainable communities, and advance environmental justice—all of which are infused with equity approaches to serve impacted communities.
Recently, HUD and the Biden administration reiterated their commitment to equitably improving the nation’s disaster recovery. HUD also emphasized that the significance of building long-term, inclusive resilience to the impacts of climate change was fundamental, as it directly impacts historically marginalized residents.
Affordable housing and climate change
Investments in affordable and sustainable housing can double as investments in mitigating climate change. Older, energy-inefficient housing wastes energy and results in higher energy bills, which disproportionately impact low-income communities and communities of color. Retrofitting existing housing and building out new housing that’s sustainable and energy efficient will ease these burdens on low-income families while simultaneously reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
As extreme weather becomes the new normal, our country’s housing stock needs to be able to withstand natural disasters. We don’t want to build new housing just for it to be destroyed in a disaster later, such as a hurricane, flood, wildfire, etc. Resilient affordable housing should be sited and built to withstand specific hazards under future climate scenarios, which include the likelihood of both primary hazards (e.g., coastal or inland flooding, wildfires, stormwater, extreme temperatures, major thunderstorms) and the secondary hazards that can follow (e.g., mold, disease, toxin exposure, power and water outages). It should also be affordable over the long term, with cost-effective energy and water efficiency features that lower overall costs of living and increase sustainability. This will help curb displacement of the most vulnerable communities.
As our country moves toward an infrastructure revolution, affordable housing must be included alongside those historic investments to ensure the communities most in need reap the benefits from long-overdue investments. The federal government needs to fund the housing programs left out of the IRA; invest in community land trusts and land banks; have agencies require anti-displacement planning when disbursing IRA and BIL funds; and encourage and incentivize local zoning reforms intended to prevent displacement. This will help ensure communities can live and thrive in an ever-changing climate with the dignity they deserve.