Homes Are Infrastructure: GREAHT Leap for Affordable Housing

As the nation attempts to move out of the pandemic towards economic recovery, a crisis we’ve faced for years is coming into focus again: housing affordability. This is most keenly and devastatingly felt in an impending eviction crisis, as state moratoria on utility shutoffs and evictions expire—including a national moratorium ending July 31—and billions of dollars in federal aid to prevent homelessness is delivered slowly or inconsistently.
Credit: Photo by Zach Vessels on Unsplash

As the nation attempts to move out of the pandemic towards economic recovery, a crisis we’ve faced for years is coming into focus again: Housing affordability. This is most keenly and devastatingly felt in an impending eviction crisis, as state moratoria on utility shutoffs and evictions expire—including a national moratorium ending July 31—and billions of dollars in federal aid to prevent homelessness is delivered slowly or inconsistently.

Providing rental assistance and prohibiting evictions are important policy responses in the short term. As journalist Ezra Klein and reporter Jerusalem Demsas discuss on Klein’s podcast, we also need to build more housing especially in urban areas. We all must speak up and become “yes in my backyard” supporters of affordable housing construction, as opposed to pulling up the affordability ladder to our neighborhoods.

The other facet to this issue is a huge one: Our existing housing stock. And there’s a lot of it, about 140 million homes, to be exact, with more than one-third occupied by renters. A lot of this housing is decades old, with multiple physical and housing quality issues. These homes are often inefficient and unprepared for normal weather cycles and even less so for more extreme heat waves and cold snaps due to climate change.

The condition of aging rental housing exacerbates affordability and undermines the health and quality of life for those living in these homes. As several studies have found, related hardships such as energy burdens fall disproportionately on Black and brown communities and renters. Racist housing and urban development policies have led to inequities in the quality of housing, which drives up energy cost for Black, Indigenous and People of Color households. These same policies have created a scarred residential landscape where these neighborhoods tend to have less tree cover and other green amenities that help lower ambient air temperatures in an area. Research has also documented that Black residents are more likely today to be exposed to dangerously high temperatures due to the racist housing policies of the past.

Fortunately, there’s a golden opportunity for Congress to tackle these issues. First of all, as I’ve written about before, the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) needs to be fully funded and have its budget greatly expanded to meet the need and serve the opportunity housing presents. This Department of Energy program has long served as the federal supplement to state and utility programs to increase energy efficiency of low-income housing, and as we debate infrastructure investments it should be scaled up.

As my colleague Khalil Shahyd noted in testimony recently before the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, at its current rate of investment WAP retrofits a mere 35,000 homes annually when an eye-popping 40 million desperately need weatherization improvements. Further, in its current scope, WAP mostly delivers single-family home improvements. What about affordable multifamily housing, the least energy efficient in the residential sector, and where many renters live?

Thankfully our partners the National Housing Trust and the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy have been working with House and Senate allies to advance investments that would decarbonize and preserve the affordable multifamily rental housing stock, packaged in a bill aptly called the Green, Resilient, Efficient, and Affordable Homes for Tenants, or GREAHT Act. GREAHT is now in play in Congress, thanks to House Financial Services Committee Chair Maxine Waters including it in her Housing is Infrastructure bill, which she put in the hopper a few weeks ago (for more information about that and other bills she advanced, click here).

GREAHT takes a holistic approach by addressing the energy efficiency, resiliency, electrification, and health and safety in affordable housing. The proposal would achieve several outcomes including:

  • Upgrading and preserving about 8 million affordable multifamily homes;
  • Creating about 500,000 net new jobs; and
  • Cutting carbon pollution by almost 200 million metric tons.

Just as importantly, it would benefit the lives of millions of people by reducing utility bills, making homes healthier, and ensuring these buildings can weather extreme climate events.

The program would achieve these outcomes in coming years by providing building-improvement grants and “soft loans,” which are favorable to borrowers, of up to $25,000 to eligible owners including private owners of federally subsidized and “naturally occurring affordable housing” that commit to keeping rents affordable. Subsidies would flow through the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and qualified state and local Housing Finance Agencies (HFAs).

HFAs are well equipped to braid the new investment stream with programs they already administer, including the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, the HOME program, federal rental assistance, and state housing trust funds. HFAs also can leverage existing relationships with affordable housing owners, developers, and advocates. Three-quarters of these agencies already require or provide incentives for owners to meet green building standards to receive funding, so energy efficiency and weatherization are familiar priorities for these important agencies. Some states—such as Oregon and my home state of Maryland—even have existing multifamily improvement programs that can serve as fitting vehicles for making these new investments.

To advance efficient, healthier, and resilient affordable multifamily buildings requires substantial investment—an estimated $75 billion over 10 years. And these investments are long overdue and would deliver huge benefits to our families and our future.

As President Biden pursues his mission of Building Back Better, and Congress takes up the charge, these investments must be part of any package that moves forward.

Let’s get to work, because housing affordability can’t wait any longer.

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