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Housing and Climate: Funding Holistic Solutions

By Dana Bourland, JPB Foundation

The following us an excerpt from the article "Housing and Climate: Funding Holistic Solutions," and is a part of FHO's Collaboration for Housing Justice series originally published by the Stanford Social Innovation Review. In the series, we share ideas, observations, and lessons from our housing justice efforts, including how and why the work will only move forward if it is systemic, anti-racist, and bridges sectors.

Illustration by Raffi Marhaba, The Dream Collective

The long and continued practice of racist housing practices and policies in the United States means that Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color are the most likely to have insecure access to safe and affordable housing, to be unhoused—and to live in places that are disproportionately vulnerable to the effects of climate change. The racial reckoning of 2020 opened many funders’ eyes to the fact that we cannot achieve housing justice without also addressing racial justice, and vice versa. As the number of climate-related disasters grows, a second truth commands attention: To solve the housing crisis, we must simultaneously solve the climate crisis, and do both in ways that prioritize those who have had the least to do with creating either.


Moving Toward Holistic Solutions

Two priorities in climate and housing justice are mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation aims to prevent further harm by avoiding and reducing emissions of greenhouse gases in the ways that we build and preserve housing. Currently, an estimated 20 percent of emissions in the United States comes from the energy used in homes. Mitigation practices include green building (i.e., using non-toxic building materials that were manufactured, transported, and constructed using low-carbon, non-polluting methods and materials); reducing energy consumption and pollution; and using integrative design, which incorporates sustainability up front and promotes good health and livability throughout the building’s life cycle.

Adaptation is about how we adjust to the climate and its effects; it aims to avoid or minimize harm. Adaptive practices in housing include changing building codes to make homes more weather resistant, using resilient design to ensure homes can be safely and comfortably used when conditions change outside (e.g., by storing solar energy), and thinking about what happens to housing after major climate events.

We desperately need both mitigation and adaptation—and that means we cannot simply focus on exciting new products and technologies. We also have to remediate the harm that has already been done. We must listen to and work with communities that already have taken control of their futures through solutions that build local wealth and stop the cycle of extraction and pollution. For example:

  • Community organizers in San Juan, Puerto Rico, persuaded legislators to establish a community land trust to prevent resort developers from grabbing land from low-income residents who must evacuate so the government can dredge a polluted waterway that floods when it rains. 

  • The United States has approximately 250 land banks—public or nonprofit entities that acquire, manage, and transfer buildings and lots that are vacant, abandoned, or foreclosed, often because of economic or natural disasters—and they sometimes redevelop these properties to provide affordable housing and stabilize property values. In Michigan, fast-track legislation gave county land banks leeway to creatively reinvest in and rebuild these properties; the Michigan State Land Bank Authority, which owns more than 4,500 such properties, many of which are contaminated, is exploring options for solar power development on some of them.

Strategies like these can prevent or reduce displacement in areas that are vulnerable to climate-related gentrification, and they demand our attention and investments.       

As we work to make future buildings healthier and safer for people and the planet, we also have to respond to the fact that half a million children, the majority of whom are in predominantly Black and/or high-poverty neighborhoods, already live in housing that exposes them to lead. As we lament that the percent of income spent on energy costs is three times higher in low-income households than in middle- or upper-income ones, we should also be concerned that the poor construction and condition of aging housing contribute to that disparity.

Mitigation, adaptation, and remediation are interconnected. But the solutions coming from the fields of housing and climate change often are not as holistic as they need to be. If we only think about housing in terms of the end product—simply sheltering people or putting solar panels on a roof, for instance, or lifting a building’s foundation to preempt flooding—then we’re missing the big picture. Housing is part of a broader ecosystem in which truly green building not only mitigates climate change but also boosts health, employment, and the economy not only for the communities where the housing is located but in all communities including those from where the electrical power is generated and the building materials are manufactured. If we shift to thinking about the problems and solutions holistically, we open up many more options to advance racial, housing, and climate justice in one fell swoop.


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