Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders introduce Green New Deal for affordable housing

The legislation aims to zero out carbon in affordable housing and reduce the energy burden for low-income households.
By Emma Foehringer Merchant

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As the Biden administration and Congress continue to outline their vision for a large infrastructure package, lawmakers are throwing their own priorities into the mix.

Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, two high-profile progressive members of Congress, introduced the Green New Deal for Public Housing Act on Monday. The bill would invest $172 billion over a decade in building electrification, energy efficiency and water retrofits for public housing in an effort to zero out carbon in those buildings.

Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez say the bill would cut carbon emissions by 5.6 million metric tons per year — the equivalent of taking 1.2 million passenger vehicles off the road (200 million such vehicles are now registered in the U.S.). It would also reduce energy and water costs for the 2 million Americans who live in public housing. Employment spurred by the bill would also create 240,000 union jobs per year, the two legislators claim, aligning with the Biden administration’s job-creation agenda.

With America facing an affordable housing crisis and the perils of climate change, we must invest in our housing infrastructure now. We also must be honest about the scale of the problem,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who in 2019 introduced the Green New Deal resolution alongside Senator Ed Markey.

The new bill goes above and beyond the $40 billion investment that President Joe Biden hopes to direct toward updating public housing via the recently unveiled American Jobs Plan, the administration’s infrastructure proposal.

There are around 1 million U.S. households currently residing in public housing units, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez say the legislation will target the government neglect, racial injustice and chronic disrepair” that haunts such units.

It could also take a modest bite out of emissions. Though building electrification generally garners less attention than electricity decarbonization, building emissions accounted for 13 percent of total U.S. emissions in 2019, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Nearly 30 percent of U.S. end-use energy consumption can also be traced back to commercial and residential building stock, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data.

The offices of Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez said that updates funded by the investment would cut energy bills for public housing residents by 70 percent per year and slash water bills by 30 percent annually. Low-income families spend a disproportionate amount of their income on utility bills: an average of 8.6 percent of total income compared to 3 percent for non-low-income households, according to the Department of Energy.

More than 760,000 households have also faced utility disconnection during the coronavirus pandemic, based on a Center for Biological Diversity analysis of the 10 states where such data is disclosed.

It is unacceptable that our nation’s public housing is in a state of chronic disrepair and energy inefficiency after generations of government neglect,” said Sen. Sanders in a release. This legislation addresses our climate and affordable housing crises together.”

The bill also repeals the Faircloth Amendment, which restricts the construction of new public housing units. It promotes community engagement via mandatory resident councils and includes Buy America” requirements for project materials to encourage job creation in the U.S.

The legislation won plaudits from groups such as Mothers on the Move, a group that focuses in part on organizing tenants in New York, as well as the National Low Income Housing Coalition. But ultimately, it faces a tough path in a polarized Congress. Republicans are pushing back against Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan, which includes $40 billion for investments such as public housing retrofits. The GOP is reportedly in favor of a plan that would cost less than $800 billion, and lawmakers in that party oppose the corporate tax increases the Biden administration would use to fund its package.

(Article image courtesy of Marian Kroell) 

Emma Foehringer Merchant is a former staff writer for Canary Media. She has covered clean energy and climate change at publications including Greentech Media, Grist and The New Republic.