The Energy Upside to Ilhan Omar's Trillion-Dollar Public Housing Plan

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The nation’s 1.3 million public housing units are woefully underprepared for the worsening climate crisis. Nearly half a million government-subsidized households are in flood plains, and when climate disaster hits, affordable units are less likely to get rebuilt.

Though public housing isn’t in great shape, the nation could desperately use more of it. Since January 2018, rent on single-family homes in the U.S. has increased by 4.1 percent. There’s not a single county in the nation where a renter who works full time at minimum wage can afford a two-bedroom apartment.

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Another threat to housing affordability is the cost of energy, which is disproportionately high for low-income folks. A 2016 study found that while the median U.S. household spends 3.5 percent of their income on energy, the median low-income household spends 7.2 percent. It’s even worse for low-income households of color. According to a September 2019 study, residents of black and brown neighborhoods who make less than 50 percent of an area’s median income pay 27 percent more for energy than residents of white neighborhoods of the same wage bracket.

Despite the increasingly dire outlook for public housing and millions of Americans waiting for housing assistance, the federal government hasn’t made a major investment in public housing since the New Deal. Representative Ilhan Omar is trying to make sure the Green New Deal changes that. Last Thursday, the Minnesota congresswoman proposed the groundbreaking Homes for All Act, which would invest $1.2 trillion over the next decade to create 12 million affordable rental homes, most of them publicly owned. The bill prioritizes building units that are low-carbon and energy-efficient.

“Housing is a fundamental human right,” she said in a statement. “It’s time we as a nation acted like it and end the housing crisis once and for all.”

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Omar proposed the legislation just one week after after Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Bernie Sanders unveiled their Green New Deal for Public Housing Act, which would invest up to $172 billion over the next decade to upgrade 1.2 million federally administered homes.

“I think both bills really share a vision of public housing that is creating comfortable, safe, climate-friendly, beautiful homes that anybody would be happy to live in and lift up the communities they’re located in,” Daniel Aldana Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, told Earther.

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While the AOC-Sanders bill focuses on retrofitting existing affordable homes, Omar’s proposes building more of them at a time when need is extremely high. Roughly 1.6 million families are on public housing waitlists nationwide, and another 2.8 million families are on waitlists for public vouchers. And crucially, Omar’s proposal requires that new public housing is “designed, built, and operated according to the highest possible environmental standard.”

That could lower building-related emissions (which 36 percent of all carbon emissions are tied to) and relieve many households of energy cost burdens, as public housing includes utility allowances. By prioritizing low-cost energy, Ilona Duverge, a 22-year-old tenant and climate organizer from New York City, said Omar’s proposal could also help some folks who already live in public housing.

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“Even though they’re not supposed to pay a separate electricity bill because [public housing] residents pay a flat 30 percent of their rent, there’s been instances also where [New York City Housing Authority] management tries to have tenants to pay an extra fee if they want an extra air conditioner running, or something like that,” she told Earther. “So in reality, even though obviously compared to other low income families who have electric bills and aren’t living in public housing, public housing residents are still sometimes burdened with extra fees when it comes to electricity.”

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Section 8 also includes energy vouchers, but many tenants’ energy bills outstrip their allowances. A study published earlier this year in Housing Policy Debate, for instance, found that of 19,000 Florida households on Section 8, nearly half exceeded their energy allowances by more than $25 per month. By prioritizing low energy costs, Omar’s bill could alleviate some of that burden. Low-cost energy could also help providers of low-income and public housing, which Duverge said is useful, too.

“If that’s less expensive then yeah, that could really incentivize people building more of it and opening up more of it, more public housing,” Duverge, whose family has has struggled to pay energy bills in recent years, said. “The waiting list for public housing here is years long. So yes, we do need to build more public housing and yes, we do need to expand who can get into public housing.”

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To do so, Omar’s bill and the Sanders-AOC bill alike would repeal the Faircloth Amendment, a Clinton-era welfare-reform bill that capped the number of units the US public housing authority can own. This would allow the federal government to begin reinvesting in new public housing for the first time in 20 years.

Doing so would also create jobs. Research Aldana Cohen spearheaded for progressive think tank Data for Progress found that Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders’ proposal could create over 250,000 positions.

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“You’re looking at multiplying that by five or more with Omar’s bill,” Aldana Cohen said. “That’s looking like well over a million jobs a year.”

With Trump in the White House and a Republican-led Senate, the bill has basically no chance of passing for now. But there’s evidence that Americans are hungry for radical changes to housing policy. Last month, Data for Progress surveyed registered voters and found that major green housing reforms, including multibillion dollar investment plans to build and retrofit low-income housing, are popular among registered Democrats and independents.

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“I think this is just one of many, many issues where the political common sense and Washington D.C. is really disconnected from what actual Americans want,” said Aldana Cohen. Research supports that: Last year, researchers from Columbia and the University of Santa Barbara found that Congressional aides in both parties underestimate their constituents’ appetite for climate policy, particularly when they spend any time talking to fossil fuel lobbyists.

“When the safety net doesn’t exist, how can you expect someone to lift themselves up by the bootstraps if they have no boots?” said Duverge. “It’s very clear to our most vulnerable communities where the disinvestment is hurting them.”

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