The latest staggering report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) makes it unmistakably clear that the window to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change on our planet is quickly closing. As governments scramble to react, people and industries need to be prepared for what’s to come.
Housing is in a unique position: Homes contribute to global warming but also protect us from the harms it causes. Residential energy use comprises 20% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. The call to build and retrofit using green practices will only grow stronger—the IPCC recommends we decarbonize half our building stock over the next eight years and reach full decarbonization in less than 25 years—but affordable housing owners, developers, and managers have largely been left out of conversations about how to actually implement these changes.
The challenges the affordable housing community face are acute. Electrification and energy-efficient upgrades can be expensive, even if they save money down the line. Affordable housing developers already operate on tight margins to keep rents down; passing the cost of upgrades on to residents with lower incomes is a non-starter. And owners may face pricey penalties if they fail to meet efficiency standards like some municipalities have already created. So how can our sector move forward?
Let’s start by clarifying how to reduce or eliminate buildings’ contributions to global warming. It starts with electrification, which is removing any non-electric source of power for a home and transitioning to electric heating and cooling, water heating, cooking, and clothes drying. Electrification, even without considering the source of the electric power, reduces emissions. A recent study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that electrification without a low-carbon electric grid could reduce emissions by roughly 40%.
Electrification will take years to complete across the affordable housing sector. To eliminate all emissions—and to make decarbonization financially viable—buildings must also reduce energy usage. Buildingwide energy-efficiency upgrades and the installation of highly efficient electric equipment will reduce emissions and improve health and comfort simultaneously. Together, these are the necessary first steps for decarbonization in the affordable housing sector.
Armed with this knowledge and the urgency of this new data and pending governmental regulation, affordable housing developers and owners must act.
First, it is time for our sector to come together to determine how to decarbonize, evaluate what resources we would need to make it possible, and advocate to ensure the needs and voices of impacted communities are prioritized in decisions about changes to public policy.
Second, developers should default to electric power for all new construction properties and follow guidelines such as Enterprise Green Communities Plus to implement efficiency and healthy housing strategies. Knowing that this will likely become a requirement down the road, it is much more cost-effective to implement at the design stage than to undergo an expensive retrofit in just a few years.
And third, the industry must pilot decarbonization projects to determine what this process looks like in practice, across all variables in housing deals, so we can advocate for the right supports and design policies that incentivize equitable decarbonization in a realistic way. We are likely to uncover entirely new roadblocks that must be addressed. For example, even when residents use the same amount of energy, a switch from gas to electric might cause energy bills to rise. Some residents in affordable or public housing have never paid heating bills before or are granted a specific allowance that covers utility costs. Owners and local governments need to determine how to solve these challenges—without passing the increased costs on to residents—before committing to electrification or decarbonization.
As a nation, we cannot debate eliminating carbon emissions—it’s a question of when, not if. But we need to ensure that the transition away from fossil fuels happens equitably, with the needs of lower-income communities at the center. It will take the very best our sector has to offer in collaboration, financing tools, innovations, and technological advances to make that happen.
Much is unknown at this point, but one thing is clear: There isn’t enough attention being paid to affordable housing and lower-income communities in the race to decarbonize our buildings. We as an industry need to come together to change that.