Dear HUD Secretary-Nominee, People Are at the Center of Housing and the Environment

Credit: Energy Efficiency for All

The core mission of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is to create strong, sustainable, inclusive communities and quality affordable homes for all, free from discrimination. It’s something that we, as environmentalists are deeply invested in, and, in fact, have been working diligently on for a long time.

More on that later, but first we want to say directly to the HUD secretary-nominee that it’s important to understand these connections between affordable housing, health, opportunity and our children’s success. We share a stake in these outcomes because they are also key to the environmental community’s health and climate goals.

And, as a former official at HUD, I want to disabuse the incoming administration of any idea that affordable housing is a dangerous ghetto that people should avoid. Secretary-nominee Carson is quoted as saying that his family eschewed affordable housing for this reason, but times have changed and there is ample evidence that publicly assisted housing has changed as well. In fact, with new approaches, it’s a foundation for more successful lives. We are always going to need affordable housing as our cities grow and change and it’s an imperative that that housing is healthy and sustainable.

Housing crisis

Housing overall is in a crisis in our country in ways that affect not only low-income families but middle-class Americans as well.

As cities draw Americans in record numbers creating new opportunities for growth, if we don’t think about affordable housing more people will be pushed to the edges. Displacement of low and middle income families to areas where they have less access to amenities, services and opportunity forces them to rely on cars for long commutes that generate more pollution. And, that’s a problem we can’t ignore since transportation is now the No. 1 climate pollution source in the United States, also contributing to asthma, heart disease, cancer and death.

As a former pediatric surgeon, secretary-nominee Carson, who faces confirmation hearings this week, has a special responsibility to further our children’s health. It’s not clear to me that he understands the close connections between that and the affordable housing-related issues I’ve laid out here.

At HUD, one of the important aspects of the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which for 40 years has obligated HUD funding recipients to reduce barriers to fair housing, is that it’s actually designed to encourage reinvestment in our communities and transportation options to job centers, and communities across the country need help implementing these ideas. That responsibility needs to be furthered and enhanced, not disregarded.

As it stands now, the energy burden that low-income families pay is five times that of middle-income households. NRDC, for one, is in the fight to help right that wrong.

Creating jobs and supporting local communities

As my colleague at Urban Solutions, Khalil Shahyd, recently noted, NRDC has worked with the Energy Foundation, the National Housing Trust, Elevate Energy and more than three dozen other national, regional, and state organizations to advance energy efficiency in affordable multifamily housing through Energy Efficiency for All (EEFA). EEFA has unlocked more than $230 million in new funding for energy efficiency investments in affordable housing, demonstrating the support for the benefits of energy efficiency in red and blue states, alike. Our City Energy Project—a joint initiative with the Institute for Market Transformation—also addresses energy efficiency in multifamily housing, and our Urban Solutions work in general uses equity as a driving principle.

Credit: Energy Efficiency for All

Energy efficiency investments create jobs (1.9 million in a recent analysis) and for every dollar a family saves in residential energy cost, $2 are put back into the local economy, supporting economic growth. In affordable multifamily housing, that can climb to $3 for every dollar invested—and it puts money directly back in HUD’s pocket for other important projects.

Who knew that affordable, energy-efficient healthy housing was at the crossroads of economic and societal opportunity? It is, and, it’s also key to helping our next generation become healthier and more prosperous.

City leaders are aching for help from the federal government on these issues, with affordable housing high on the list. These are challenging problems and, Mr. Secretary-nominee, HUD needs to take its place as an active participant.

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