close
Utah economy

Home improvement could be a first step towards climate justice

Workers stormed Flora Dillard’s home east of Cleveland. There is plastic on everything and no place to sit, but Dillard doesn’t seem to care. “A few days of inconvenience is nothing compared to the results you get,” she says.

It will benefit, and the climate too. Workers patched cracks around the foundation and diverted a vent to reduce the risk of mold growth. They isolate the upstairs bedroom where the drafts are so cold that Dillard used several electric heaters last winter. They also discovered and repaired a gas leak. “I could have exploded,” said Dillard. “Me and my grandchildren and my brother who is here visiting.”

She didn’t pay anything for it. She can’t afford it. But thanks to government and help with utilities, her house should soon be more comfortable, safer and cheaper to heat. It will burn less fuel, thus reducing the amount of greenhouse gases it releases into the air.

The repairs to Dillard’s house are an example of what is sometimes called “climate equity” – efforts to tackle climate change in a way that also attacks the country’s social and racial inequalities. Millions of homes in American cities are in urgent need of rehabilitation. These homes are often concentrated in predominantly African-American neighborhoods, which have suffered from discrimination and redlining. Many contain health threats like mold, lead contamination, and indoor air pollution.

The same homes are often the least energy efficient, requiring more fuel to cool and heat. Residential housing accounts for about one-fifth of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Loading…

Under his sweep infrastructure plan, the Biden administration wants to replicate Flora Dillard’s reparations in millions of homes across the country. The Biden plan would allocate $ 200 billion to renovate and build green homes, especially in what the White House calls “underserved communities.” The goal is to improve people’s homes and create jobs while fighting climate change.

The infrastructure plan, part of which the Biden administration included in its 2022 budget proposal, must be approved by Congress, which is uncertain. The Republican version of an infrastructure package does not include green housing initiatives.

“I feel like this is our lowest fruit and also the means to have the greatest impact, especially in disinvested communities, struggling communities,” said Tony reames, former director of the Urban Energy Justice Lab at the University of Michigan. Reames has just taken a new job as a Senior Advisor at the US Department of Energy.

Cleveland offers a case study on the need and opportunity for home renovation. According to Kevin Nowak, executive director of CHN housing partners, who organized the work at Dillard’s home, tens of thousands of homes have similar problems only in Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland. Most Cleveland homes are at least 40 years old. Almost a third of local households earn less than the poverty line, and many homeowners lack money for renovations.

Cleveland drafted its first climate action plan in 2013. But in 2018, the city tore it up and started again, this time with a new focus on fairness. City officials met with hundreds of people in Cleveland neighborhoods to hear their concerns, and in the end they were given the top spot on the city’s to-do list to make more homes “affordable,” comfortable, healthy and energy efficient ”.

Cleveland’s population has more than halved since 1950, decimating the tax base. It would take $ 781 million to fix every house in the Cleveland metro area that needs repairs, according to to researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. This is way beyond what the city government can afford. This is about double what the city pays each year to operate its public school system.

Some private funds for renovations have conditions attached. The local gas utility, Dominion Energy, helped pay for Flora Dillard’s new, more efficient gas-fired furnace. Under the Dominion program, funding must go for a new gas furnace, rather than an electric heat pump that could significantly reduce greenhouse gas pollution.

Nowak says he would rather maximize the number of homes his organization can reach, rather than using limited funds on more expensive equipment needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in a smaller number of homes.

The Biden administration’s plan to pump money into home improvement could dramatically change the situation. White House budget documents forecast a significant increase in funding for a program that pays for the weatherization of homes, from about $ 200 million and $ 300 million annually to $ 17 billion over the next five years. The administration also wants to pour $ 40 billion into the renovation of social housing and $ 27 billion into a “clean energy accelerator” that would act as a non-profit bank that can finance energy saving projects. all kinds.

Cecilia Martinez, senior director of environmental justice at the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality, says the administration’s plan must be ambitious as it tackles huge issues and rooted in a history of discrimination . “We have an opportunity now. This is our key opportunity to transform our economy as well as our infrastructure, ”she said.

Funding alone won’t do the job, even if Congress approves it. Renovating homes on such a large scale will require a rapid increase in hiring by private construction companies and new efforts to reach homeowners whose buildings are in need of work.

Reames, who was interviewed before taking on his new post at DOE, says it might require a new approach as well. Current government programs rely on homeowners to take the initiative and seek help. Flora Dillard, in Cleveland, was lucky: her niece told her about the programs, and when Dillard went to town offices to fill out the paperwork, a former classmate was working there and helped her do it right.

Reames would like cities to see housing as critical infrastructure that they assess regularly, rather than waiting for landlords to contact. “I used to work in local government,” Reames says, “and we would plan our waterline replacements, our streets, based on the age of that infrastructure. And the same goes for housing.

Houses in a particular neighborhood were often built around the same time and can have similar problems. He says cities could put entire neighborhoods on a schedule and go door-to-door, checking out what each needs.

Kimberly Foreman, Executive Director of Environmental health watch who has worked in Cleveland neighborhoods for decades, says these efforts require patience. “We always have to ask the community, what do they want? She said, “rather than saying, ‘We have the answer, you should do it.’ “

You can renovate homes and install new equipment, she says, but these upgrades will only work well if the people who live there understand the changes and actually see the value.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To learn more, visit https://www.npr.org.
Mary Cashion

The author Mary Cashion