Public housing is home to 2 million people in the U.S. and a $70 billion backlog in repairs. It’s also largely an afterthought in American society, a place where people with seemingly nowhere else to go end up tucked away and out of sight.
Now, however, it’s the focus of the first piece of Green New Deal legislation. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Bernie Sanders unveiled the Green New Deal for Public Housing Act on Thursday. It’s the second time they’ve teamed up on climate legislation, but it’s much more ambitious than the climate emergency declaration they introduced over the summer. The new bill that ties together threads to address inequality, job creation, and climate change. In doing so, it looks to right some of the shortsighted aspects of the original FDR-era New Deal that helped shape public housing as it exists today.
“It makes total sense to flesh out the Green New Deal by starting with housing,” Tara Raghuveer, the housing campaign director with People’s Action, told Earther in an email. “The housing, energy, and climate crises converge in American homes.”
To understand how different the Green New Deal approach to housing is, you have to look at the origin of public housing. The Depression and inequality spurred a public housing movement with a few divergent visions. One vision for public housing was to provide a common good and homes for the poor and middle class. The other was to provide housing for the poor only. In Europe, the former idea won out. In the U.S., it was the latter. The U.S. government began tinkering with public housing in 1934 and codified it under the Housing Act of 1937.
In the intervening years, more than 1 million public housing units have sprung up across the U.S. More than 3,300 public housing authorities manage the properties, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development helps subsidize rents for the low-income families and other people living there.
“The explicit intention was to not compete with middle-class housing,” Daniel Aldana Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, told Earther. “That made it quite easy to neglect and treat as a last resort. That fork in the road is why you have beautiful public housing in Vienna, and in the U.S. you have neglected and in some cases, crumbling public housing.”
It’s not just housing that’s been neglected. So, too, have many of the people who live there. A 2016 study found that in nearly half of the 18,300 public housing properties analyzed, residents were forced to spend more than 15 percent of their income on transportation costs. Aldana Cohen noted that units managed by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) saw double the rate of broken toilets and roach infestations compared to non-NYCHA units. During disasters, the issues can compound even further. Hurricane Sandy, for example, left NYCHA residents without power for weeks. And the costs of installing air conditioners forced residents choose between staying cool during a heat wave or roasting.
That’s what makes the Green New Deal for Public Housing such a visionary concept. When Ocasio-Cortez rolled out her bill for a Green New Deal in February, it contained a strong focus on climate change as a justice issue. There are many injustices in the U.S. circa 2019 to choose from, but public housing is among the most glaring. And it also represents a powerful proving ground for progressives to show how government can not only be a force for good in people’s lives but transform markets.
The guts of the Green New Deal for Public Housing focuses on fixing the current public housing that is spread across cities, rural areas, and tribal lands. That requires everything from updating wiring and appliances to plugging ventilation leaks, to installing renewable energy on-site. All that would improve efficiency and help cut down on building carbon pollution, addressing the central tenet of the Green New Deal to get the U.S. zero carbon-free energy by 2030.
Doing so will also spur job creation, research has found. In an analysis for progressive think tank Data for Progress, Aldana Cohen and a group of co-authors found the retrofits would create 240,723 jobs, many of them in Republican-leaning states. But the scale of the work would also ensure that the benefits extend well beyond public housing units themselves. In a separate report focused on NYCHA, Aldana Cohen and his colleagues showed how the agency’s desire for energy-efficient, apartment-sized refrigerators helped shape the energy-efficient fridge market. If that’s the type of result one public housing authority can spur (admittedly, it’s the country’s biggest), imagine what all 3,300 public housing authorities could do together.
Likewise, workers installing energy-related retrofits in public housing would be learning skills that will come into demand across the building sector, which currently accounts for up to 40 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. The bill would further require any grants awarded be used to hire a rising percentage of low-income individuals over the length of the project.
“The government own public housing. For a long time, that was seen as a problem, but it is actually an opposite because this is [a] public asset,” Aldana Cohen said. “There’s a huge upside here in terms of investing in public housing as lever for building skills and putting career-track jobs in public housing. By investing in it, we don’t have to wait for market nudges.”
The bill also includes language about building bike lanes and having bikes available to residents and senior- and childcare centers, as well as accessibility to organic groceries. It’s these types of additions to the bill that actually get at the heart of the Green New Deal. One, because they will almost surely be derided by conservatives (who would’ve slagged the bill anyway). But more importantly, they help construct the vision progressives like Sanders and AOC are building for mid-21st century America.
In a September piece for the Correspondent, Eric Holthaus astutely pointed out that climate change is about how we treat each other. And so far, we’ve treated each other like shit, and we’ve treated those who vulnerable even worse. We often lament the $11 billion backlog for national park maintenance, but the public housing backlog is freaking $70 billion. It’s unconscionable.
The Green New Deal for Public Housing is a way to think about how to do better. It’s about lifting up those who have been neglected and hit hardest by the crises of inequality and climate change. And it’s about de-stigmatizing public housing in the U.S. and maybe even turning it into a place people want to live. The bill in many ways dovetails with other seemingly radical ideas gaining progressive steam like a homes guarantee.
“Tenants on the frontlines of the fight for a Homes Guarantee are also frontline communities, experiencing the deepest impacts of the climate crisis today,” Raghuveer, who has organized for the homes guarantee movement. “People-centered movements have long demanded the type of imagination that is represented in applying a Green New Deal framework to American public housing.”
There are some nits to pick (it doesn’t mention public transit once, for example), but the narrative of the legislation itself rings true. And though it stands no chance of passing with the current makeup of Congress, it offers something for Americans to consider and imagine.
“The future of public housing in my mind is Vienna where people make a choice … to live in good housing,” Aldana Cohen said when I asked him to picture America after the Green New Deal for Public Housing. “It’s a place where parents choose to raise children, where old people live out their lives near amenities they need. It’s about turning the public asset into a true hub of the good life. A good, carbon-free, safe life.”