Defender of Housing Justice

Energy efficiency and social safety net advocate Khalil Shahyd explains why supporting affordable housing is intrinsic to the climate fight.

A housing development that was built in the Upper Ninth Ward after Katrina destroyed neighborhoods when levees broke. Low-income residents who lost their homes live here and either rent or own their homes.

Credit: Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images

Khalil Shahyd is on a mission to ensure healthy homes for the millions of low-income renters across the nation. As a senior policy advocate with the Energy Efficiency for All Project (EEFA), Shahyd works with NRDC’s affordable housing partners to increase utility-funded energy efficiency programs and federal investments that help people keep their taps on, their electricity running, and their apartments comfortable—even when an environmental or public health crisis hits hard.

Before joining NRDC, Shahyd worked in urban and rural community development in this country and internationally and was an organizer for the economic and environmental justice movements. He holds a master’s degree in sustainable international development from Brandeis University in Massachusetts and hails from the Seventh Ward of New Orleans. In his hometown, Shahyd helped shape some of the city’s urban planning tools in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, such as the city’s first-ever community participation program, which enabled community and neighborhood groups to influence city budget and land use decisions.

At NRDC, you’ve been an advocate for both affordable housing and energy efficiency. How do those issues intersect?

I’ve been one of the most consistent voices within the organization for pushing our work beyond the boundaries of the built environment and expanding the policy space that we operate in. We’re used to focusing on emissions in a climate conversation; we’re not traditionally a housing organization. But over time, we’ve started to learn that in point of fact, we are.

A lot of what we do influences how people get access to housing—which determines the amount of emissions coming from those homes. We’re slowly learning that we have to think about climate policy as not merely the science of emissions or modernizing the grid or infrastructure. It’s also this core social policy about how people can afford to live in a safe, affordable, healthy home that is energy efficient and includes other green amenities. NRDC has come a very long way in thinking of itself as a holistic human institution.

Shahyd testifying about energy efficiency and affordable housing before the House Select Committee on Climate Crisis in Washington, D.C.

How has NRDC’s energy efficiency work evolved to demonstrate these values under your watch?

I came in specifically to work with EEFA in 2014. The coalition was conceived essentially as a utility advocacy project, so there was a lot of debate about whether or not we as an institution should invest our resources and time into pursuing energy efficiency retrofits for low-income affordable housing. There was a question about whether the savings and emissions reductions we gain would be worth the effort. Of course all those doubts were proved wrong. As residential energy efficiency remains an important tool in addressing climate change, we had to also address the fact that low-income families were not receiving a fair share of utility efficiency investments and were in a sense subsidizing energy efficiency for higher income households.

Once we began the work and had success in directing new resources to affordable housing, questions emerged as to what happens when building owners get retrofit dollars that utilities send their way, such as what’s there to ensure they don’t raise the rent?

The policy space we worked in was so narrowly confined to advocacy around the utility and the regulator in order to rehabilitate the built environment that we weren’t thinking about how people actually attain access to and live in these homes.

But with EEFA, we have a national affordable housing organization, the National Housing Trust, that’s funded right alongside us. Our SPARCC (Strong, Prosperous, and Resilient Communities Challenge) initiative is a similar type of multi-organizational partnership between affordable housing and community development organizations. Our coalitions have allowed the mission to expand. It’s not enough for us to say we want X amount to retrofit every home and apartment unit in the United States. Even if we got to that, we run the risk of displacing hundreds of thousands of people because the cost of those homes is going to increase one way or the other. So unless we’re also advocating for more resources to support affordable housing, we’ve learned we can’t accomplish the goals for energy efficiency with any sort of justice.

This month marks the 15th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, a disaster that led to profound housing injustice for New Orleans residents. What lessons did we learn in the storm’s aftermath?

During Katrina, we didn’t support people’s ability to remain safely in place or to be able to evacuate. We left people in harm’s way. What you saw in New Orleans was a kind of denigration of low-income people—low-income renters specifically. Many large public housing developments received no real water damage from any flooding. Yet those properties were boarded up, fenced off, sealed off, even with people’s belongings—pictures, high school diplomas, birth certificates, everything—inside. And people weren’t able to come back in and get them: Low-income renters had no rights, no protections.

And when we rebuilt New Orleans, we didn’t support people’s ability to return. We recovered the built environment but left hundreds of thousands of people displaced permanently from the place where they grew up because it wasn’t in our best financial interest to support their capacity to come home. What we’re seeing today is the fallout of our society allowing those negative perceptions of renters to exist and persist.

The Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood, December 26, 2005
Credit: AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma

What’s behind that negative perception of renters?

What that’s about is property values and the relationship between race and property values. There is an inherent property value in white identity that Black culture does not have. It is based on the assumption that renters—particularly low-income renters of color—are of lesser value, lesser market value, lesser social value, and, most importantly, of lesser consumer value. They don’t raise the value of property; they don’t spend enough money, so we don’t really need them here. So if your city’s economic growth is based on rising property values, the city’s administration will prioritize the interest of white consumers in your urban core, where the most valuable property is.

In a way, the displacement we saw after Katrina had been preplanned. There had been, nationwide, an ongoing push to disinvest from public housing. The mass evacuation of New Orleans gave city officials the pretext to board up and tear down those developments so that they could redevelop them. It was accelerated gentrification. There was a city councilman in New Orleans at the time telling the people he represented in his own district that we don’t want you back unless you have a job. (He eventually was sentenced to prison for unrelated corruption.)

What can cities do better to support all their residents’ rights to healthy homes and thriving communities, and how can we help people at risk of eviction during the COVID-19 pandemic?

We need to reprioritize human development over property development. We need to invest and create local economies that enable people to live and work with dignity. New Orleans didn’t do that because it was much easier to import tourists who could spend money than to develop the type of economy that would allow people to grow and invest internally.

But there are paths forward. For example, we’re working under the COVID-19 legislation and relief packages to propose extending federal eviction moratoria and emergency rental assistance to 30 million to 40 million renters across the country at risk of eviction due to the pandemic. This work represents a deeper commitment and articulation of an intersectional approach to environmental and climate policy.

As you push for more equitable relief for renters impacted by the pandemic—who are struggling to pay for basic necessities in their lives—do you see parallels for how we can help them prepare for a future similarly threatened by climate change?

We’ve asked people now for months to stay at home, walk away from their jobs and livelihoods, and from things that they love and give them comfort—all in the interest of public health. Climate change is similar: We’re going to ask billions of people across the planet to walk away from jobs, from the way they get to work or to church or wherever they want to go, in the interest of our global community. But we need to support their ability to do that—to help them pay their rent and pay for food or health care…all of that is part of climate policy. It’s not something we’re used to talking about in that way. That’s among the biggest lessons for us from COVID-19.

The national federal eviction moratorium expired on July 24. Nationwide, evictions have resumed—and they are expected to spike soon. If we don’t start supporting those people who are most vulnerable to these policy changes, it’s next to impossible to imagine the type of future that we want.

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