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Why climate advocates should focus on affordable housing

By Mark Funkhouser

If you’re a climate advocate, getting the attention of local officials these days has probably been challenging despite the historic level of federal investment contained in the climate bill enacted earlier this month. But there are other policy issues that can be leveraged to also move the needle on climate action.

One of the most important is housing. Just about everyone I speak with, from mayors and city managers to local stakeholders, identifies housing affordability as a big problem and a top priority—and with good reason. Rising interest rates, inflation and increased building costs are all contributing to a higher cost of housing and complicating goals set by policymakers.

The message climate advocates should be telling policymakers is this: There is no tackling housing affordability without also addressing climate change. Many of the cities that have committed to a zero-carbon future are the very places where the housing affordability crisis is most acute. In Denver, for example, buildings and homes are responsible for 64% of local carbon emissions. By 2050, about 40% of Denver’s building stock will be “new,” having been built between 2020 and 2050, a recent study found. It will be impossible for Denver and other cities to reduce their carbon footprint and build affordable housing unless that housing is energy efficient.

But here’s the good news: The new climate law, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), provides localities an avenue to work on both problems via an incentive to adopt net-zero zoning, requiring new buildings to be energy efficient and fully powered by renewable energy.

The IRA sets aside $670 million in grant funding to assist with adopting new residential and commercial building codes for zero-carbon buildings. It’s open to state and local governments with the authority to adopt building codes for residential and commercial buildings. Specifically, the law cites the zero-energy provisions in the 2021 International Energy Conservation Code, which provide a framework for zero-carbon buildings that use clean, locally generated energy. The framework applies to new commercial, industrial and mid- to high-rise residential buildings—the dominant building types being constructed in cities today. It can also be applied to retrofit existing buildings.

Combined with carbon-reduction funding available in last year’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, there is a significant opportunity for climate advocates to see their priorities addressed through the lens of affordable housing. Energy-efficient housing reduces costs for residents, is better for the environment and isn’t materially more expensive to build as long as energy efficiency is part of the calculation from the start.

In Denver, the housing crisis creates a huge opportunity for achieving energy and carbon reductions in the built environment. The city recognizes this and recently released a comprehensive plan to achieve net-zero energy use in new homes and other buildings by 2030.

The plan was developed after holding seven Net Zero Energy Stakeholder Advisory Group meetings in which the issues of equity and affordability featured prominently. To address these issues, the team looked at existing cost studies of energy-efficient, all-electric buildings, including two specific to Denver. Research shows that by leveraging the cost savings of eliminating natural-gas infrastructure and installing high-performance heat pumps, the new energy-efficient and all-electric construction will cost less to build and about the same to operate as a mixed-fuel building.

An additional equity consideration for residents is the potential for natural-gas bills to rise as more and more buildings are electrified, leaving fewer and fewer customers to bear the cost burden of maintaining aging gas infrastructure. That’s why Denver is looking for solutions that will electrify buildings and homes in its disadvantaged communities first, Amber Wood, the energy program administrator for the Denver Office of Climate Action, Sustainability, and Resiliency, told the National Building Institute (NBI). “We see that climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our generation, and impacts people in multiple ways,” Wood said. “Net zero energy buildings are healthier, more comfortable, lower cost and are going to make Denver more attractive and competitive.”

Denver is far from alone in this focus on net-zero building stock. The NBI’s Getting to Zero Buildings Database lists dozens of cities across the country, mainly in the West and Northeast, with net-zero multifamily housing in the works. Hope Works Station II in Portland, Oregon, for example, will create 65 net-zero units for low-income individuals and families, including homeless youth and homeless veterans. When considering the amount of renewable energy expected to be exported to the grid in a year, the building’s net energy usage will actually be slightly below zero, according to the NBI database.

Financed with federal, state, local and private dollars, the 31,000-square-foot-building will also have a career development center providing culinary and retail training as well as space for youth career offices and other partnerships. Hope Works Station is a prime example of how to combine and reinforce housing, workforce and climate goals all in one project.

That’s a lesson climate advocates should take to heart. Rather than simply trying to shout the loudest, they can make progress on their goals by working with housing folks to help communities. Whether it’s through zoning, land use or construction, there is hardly anything about creating affordable housing that doesn’t also address climate change; ensuring affordability for the long term requires solutions that are both environmentally and fiscally sustainable. Those who recognize this opportunity, and who help leaders leverage federal funding to create sustainable affordable housing, will find an eager audience.

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