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A Green New Deal for Public Housing Is Key to a Carbon-Free Future

November 21, 2019

One of the architects of GND for Housing and an organizer from US Gulf communities talk about the politically transformative movement that could unite the working class and help build the Green New Deal.

One of the architects of GND for Housing and an organizer from US Gulf communities talk about the politically transformative movement that could unite the working class and help build the Green New Deal.


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Story Transcript

MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you all with us once again.

So what is it going to take to prevent a climate catastrophe? Nothing short of a radical restructuring of society, say supporters of the Green New Deal. One of the disconnects with the Green New Deal for some in our country is about the effects it has on poverty and unemployment; creating jobs that pay a wage you can live on, not just a living wage, how we transfer from fossil fuels to a clean economy, and how that works. How does that get there? What is that ambitious plan? What does that translate to that place? And one of those unifying factors seems to be the development of new housing, public housing at the core of creating a new green economy. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez raised it during her campaign and is the leading light in pursuing that in our Congress.

One of the people who created the idea of a Green New Deal for public housing is Daniel Aldana Cohen, who is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, where he directs the Socio-Spatial Climate Collaborative and also works as a fellow for the group Data for Progress. Our other guest today who joins us is Emma Collin. Emma Collin is a director of programs for Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy in New Orleans. And thank you both for joining us. Good to have you with us.

EMMA COLLIN: Thank you, Marc.

DANIEL ALDANA COHEN: Thanks for having us.

MARC STEINER: I’m glad you could both make it today. And the last time we talked to you, Daniel, was when you wrote the piece Green New Deal for Housing in Jacobin Magazine, which was a really phenomenal article. But I want to jump off of this to talk about how you take the Green New Deal idea that climate change is upon us. And begin, both of you, to talk a bit about how you turn that into a popular understanding of how public housing and developing housing is at the center of that; to make it real for people. I mean, that’s still a disconnect, I think. And I’ll start with you, Daniel, and then we’ll go over to Emma.

DANIEL ALDANA COHEN: Great. Thanks so much. That’s a really great question. I think that when the Green New Deal first came out, it had really three big ideas, a rapid reduction in carbon pollution, which is what’s causing the climate emergency, tons and tons of green jobs, jobs for everybody, and also, reductions in inequality of race and class. And I think that third idea is what really trips people up. People were asking, “Oh, well, is it really wise or even feasible to connect social policy around inequality with climate policy?” And what’s so great about the Green New Deal for Public Housing Act is it explains, very clearly actually, how you do those things at the same time. Once you follow the carbon off of the graph and into the actual physical objects that we live with and live through, then you find that housing consumes about 40% of energy in the United States.

The government owns about a million units of public housing. That would be the fourth largest city in the country. And I think anybody can really understand how green retrofits to that housing that takes all the carbon out of the buildings, makes those homes safe and clean and comfortable, and homes in public housing or are often not, and adds resiliency centers, sort of safety centers for communities during storms, and creates hundreds of thousands of jobs, I think that story resonates. I think people will understand what it means. The polling that we did at Data for Progress finds that this is a very popular idea, a majority support. So I’m really excited. I think that the Green New Deal for Public Housing Act is the first of many policies that shows that when you actually dispense with the abstractions and look concretely at an aspect of everyday life, then it’s very easy to identify interventions that will attack carbon pollution and inequality at the same time.

MARC STEINER: So Emma, let’s talk a bit about the work that you all do at the Gulf South Green New Deal. I mean, so you’re at the epicenter, in some ways, because you’re at a place where climate change has really affected the coastal areas of the Gulf in our country, devastated it. You’re also in an area that employs a lot of people in the fossil fuel industry.

EMMA COLLIN: That’s right.

MARC STEINER: Whether it’s Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, all through there. So this is a really interesting juxtaposition of forces going on, and you’re pushing for a Green New Deal. So just describe a bit about that struggle and how that all fits in.

EMMA COLLIN: Sure. Thank you for that, Marc. It’s an interesting point because I think, in the same way that there are a lot of political tensions, as you pointed out, I also think the Gulf South is a prime opportunity zone for a Green New Deal. And if we can figure out how to make a Green New Deal work in the Gulf South, we can figure out how to make it work nationally, because exactly like you said, this region of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, where we’re working, is an epicenter not only for industry, for military, for oil and gas, in a way where a transition here would change the entire national economy, it’s also a frontline of climate disaster, of rising seas, of storms. And in a way that I think people are more receptive… People here know what’s happening in a way that I don’t always think is reflected in the national narrative.

MARC STEINER: What do you mean by that?

EMMA COLLIN: Nobody’s unaware of climate change.

MARC STEINER: I guess not, given what happens.

EMMA COLLIN: And I think folks are a little too quick to count out the South. I think we live in a purple region. Without so much voter suppression and gerrymandering, the South will go blue. I think if we saw more national investment into voting rights here, we could really flip the South and the country. That’s a different conversation. And I do really appreciate your question about how we achieve a popular understanding to make the Green New Deal real for people, because it is this maybe abstract thing.

But to Daniel’s point about these three prongs of the Green New Deal, we’re talking about addressing climate change, creating jobs, and rooting that whole transition in equity. We were really clear that work that happens from the top down, doesn’t work in the Gulf South. So there’s no national piece of policy–I say this with a lot of love and respect for Representative Ocasio-Cortez and the other folks who’ve worked on this resolution. We knew that national policy often misses the mark on the unique and complex realities of the Gulf South, and that we needed to assert for ourselves, through collective process across the region, what a Green New Deal would have to look like to succeed in our region and succeed nationally. And that’s the work of Gulf South for a Green New Deal is to assert our own values, our own needs, our own priorities.

MARC STEINER: So I do want to talk about three things if we have time here. Let’s start… I do want to talk about the politics of this for a moment, how that happens in this country and how you both think that you begin to build a popular support for this idea. I said before we went on the air, I ran a public meeting not long ago where some of the workers literally were saying, “Look, I make $25 an hour in a dirty industry, and you want me to install solar for $15 an hour?” And that’s a real question for people because people are talking about a living wage. But people are talking about you cannot live on just a living wage. So let’s look at this from both perspectives. And Daniel, I’ll start again with you. Its national perspective, you’ve written about this because this has to be the unions. And organizing and how you do this in a different way. If it’s public money to build something in this country and so let’s start with that Daniel I want to hear what happens on the ground in the South. Go ahead, Daniel.

DANIEL ALDANA COHEN: Sure. Thanks. That’s a really great question. This has to be a transition that works for everybody and we can’t leave workers behind. That’s just essential. In our report where we talk about is strong apprenticeship programs, which by the way are extremely popular pool above 60% and are pooling strong apprenticeship programs to move public housing residents and other low income workers into the union pipeline. And we estimate that we’re looking at tens of thousands of construction and maintenance jobs, good union, right paying jobs for a year. And so this was a huge benefit and I think you’re absolutely right. We need to not think just about how do we hold on to the jobs that we have and the levels of compensation, we have to do that.

We actually have to grow the economy of taking physical care of our built environment, of our bridges, of our roads, of our rails and so on. Making sure that those are good union jobs. But I think we also have to make sure that we are lifting up entire communities. And this built to me is very exciting because it’s not just going to uplift the physical structures of public housing, which it will absolutely do. It will also lift up whole communities by bringing wealth and opportunity and skill building and capability building in the 21st century green economy. So to me, the Green New Deal is a huge run for workers. We do have to talk with folks, we have to build trust, we have to build momentum. But I think that with every win that we get, we’re actually going to build more support for more wins as we go along.

MARC STEINER: Emma, let me just let you jump in on that as well. I’m also curious to explore just for a minute here. I mean, one of the things that has destroyed most movement and labor in the South is race and racism. We have people divide unions and destroy them apart and tear them apart, I should say. So to talk about that in the context of how that fits into this, the organizing you’re seeing and how that could change the dynamic politically.

EMMA COLLIN: Yeah. Thank you so much for this question. I really appreciate that that direct ask. I just want to uplift what Daniel said as well, that workers can’t be left behind. And Gulf South for a Green New Deal is very explicitly including workers from the beginning too, in conversation and deep conversation about what a Green New Deal would need to look like to advance their needs and their family’s needs. And yes, race; the way that white supremacy gets leveraged to divide movements in the South. It was a clear historical precedent. And Gulf South for a Green New Deal is an initiative I’m extremely proud to be a part of. And I think it really calls for the value and the worth of all people. And I think all people have a part to play in this movement. And also, it’s very unapologetic about following and centering and prioritizing the lack and indigenous leadership.

And I think that’s really beautiful for a lot of reasons and not just this historical need for reparation of relationships and harm done. I actually think there’s a strategy there because it is primarily black and indigenous communities in the Gulf South who’ve overcome these like insane obstacles of racist from colonization to even Hurricane Katrina. And I think communities that have survived these disasters and figured out how to overcome disaster. I have learned a lot of lessons about how our entire society will need to confront the climate crisis. And so I think that following black and indigenous leadership is not only important and tying that to poor white working people in the South, like all of these movements are connected. But I think that decision to follow black and indigenous leadership is not just important. I also think it’s highly strategic.

MARC STEINER: And I just want to get before we run out of time let’s talk a bit about the symbols here for a moment. Daniel, again, I’ll start with you. And Emma, please jump right in. I think it’s still public confusion and public mind about how a Green New Deal for public housing really fits into the scheme A) of building a green economy, what that really means, and B) for many people in United States, it’s still a battle for people’s consciousness about the government being an anathema: “What do you mean government is going to build this? Private industry needs to build this. That’s what we’re built upon.” So let’s talking about those two things real quickly. And then, Emma, I want to have you jump in about what you feel on the ground from that, where you are in the Gulf South.

EMMA COLLIN: Thank you so much. Yep.

DANIEL ALDANA COHEN: That’s a great question. Briefly, if you had traffic congestion in New York in the 1930s, you wouldn’t solve it by adding an extra lane for horse-drawn carriages any more than in the 1990s you would solve a heating crisis by adding coal-burning stoves. So what it means in the 21st century to bring a building up to code–to global standard, and in particular global affordable housing standard–is all electric systems; heating, cooling, heat pump systems that allow you to dehumidify air in the summer… That’s important in Philadelphia where I live, and I’m sure it’s important in New Orleans as well. And we could go through the list from windows to energy recovery ventilators and so on.

So what we’re talking about is leveraging the public power, public ownership of this housing to accelerate the adoption of 21st century green technologies throughout the building sector. And the skills and the capabilities we build for public housing are absolutely going to spill over into private housing and commercial things. And just one quick note: The public sector is very unfairly maligned. NYCHA, which is New York Housing Authority, has had a lot of problems. That’s true. But in the 1990s NYCHA teamed up with the New York power authority, which is a public utility to run a contest to see who could build the first energy efficient apartment size a fridge. NYCHA won the contest.

They built tens of thousands of fridges in Iowa. Actually, the old fridges were all recycled and upstate New York ultimately, public housing authorities all over the region got free fridges and the utilities were paid off with the savings and all Americans ended up benefiting from the invention of this energy star fridge that could fit into an apartment. So we actually have really good examples are already of public institutions, specifically public housing and public utilities leading on green innovation that benefits the entire country and we want to do that again, but more faster and at an even greater scale. You know we can do it. And I think that people will be really surprised at how well this is like a two and…

MARC STEINER: Emma, bring it home for us to the Gulf South and New Orleans.

EMMA COLLIN: Sure. Yeah. Thank you, Marc. I just want to shout out with the Gulf South for Green New Deal policy platform, which we just launched after six months of collective work calls for an end discriminatory housing policies and also to provide pathways for high quality affordable housing and I got to shout out some really incredible housing work happening in mobile with the center program housing, the greater New Orleans fair housing action center, the greater New Orleans housing Alliance and really folks all over the region who kept bringing housing to this climate conversation. And I know that, like you said, that’s not always intuitive for folks, but I think people living on the front lines of climate and housing crisis can see the connection.

We’re being really clear in our work that the win for us is not any specific… Us inserting this Gulf South for we need to do a policy platform into the world is a huge step for us. That’s not quite the win. Even policy getting past is not quite the win for us. How we’re framing our win is when there’s material improvement in our own communities and in people’s lives. And every community in the Gulf South, every time we have these conversations, housing is a huge issue. And that’s true in climate disaster and hurricanes. And that’s also true in the case of gentrification and just rising cost of living and stagnant wages. And from all of these kinds of conflating directions, affordable housing and high quality affordable housing is a need. So it’s intuitive, we know it’s a need for our communities. And in this economic transformation of the Green New Deal, we know that to be well equipped for a changing climate, we need all of our people to be housed.

MARC STEINER: And just to conclude this: I’m curious what you all think. How important is it that national legislation, whether it comes from Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez, and others, to be pushed in this political debate in the coming year before the election? Clearly even if it does pass, it’s not going anywhere given the political climate on Capitol Hill at the moment. But how important is that as a political battle to push this forward at this moment Daniel, you’ve written about that?

DANIEL ALDANA COHEN: Well, let me start quickly. I’ve just written a book called the planet to it and why we need a Green New Deal with three fantastic coauthors. And the argument that we make is that there’s basically no doubt there were facing a big recession that’s coming. It’s going to coincide with climate emergencies because they’re coming at us all the time. And that’s likely to coincide, we hope, with a progressive electoral wave. And so I think our view is that the Green New Deal movement is standing on the shoulders of giants. And those giants are the environmental justice, racial justice, labor justice groups that have been fighting for a just transition and for climate justice for decades. And we’re putting together policies that, as we just heard, are intuitive; that combine a tax on inequality, needs in communities, a tax on carbon pollution.

And I think what we need to do right now is get very concrete and specific ideas, just like the Green New Deal Public Housing Act, so that when the moment for the next green stimulus comes, we don’t really waste it like we did during the Obama years. But this time we’ve really come forward with specific plans and we can hit the ground running. I think we’re in a really good position right now to make sure that the next round of green investment is truly oriented towards lifting up communities, towards lifting up labor, to talking carbon pollution and showing everyday people how beneficial the Green New Deal will be in their life right away. Not in 10 years, not in 30 years, not in 2050, but right now.

MARC STEINER: Right now. Emma Collin, close it off for us with a closing thought here.

EMMA COLLIN: I echo what Daniel said. We know in the Gulf South, in our region, that national policy often misses the ground a little bit. So I’m extremely excited that this national policy conversation is happening. We’re excited to engage. I think I’m really trying to get our people, community leaders from region, to these congressional hearings and really be able… That’s what we’re doing, is elevating a Gulf South perspective to this national conversation. And I think it’s important; the federal legislation will be extremely important. And we also need to keep our eyes open for the opportunities, whether or not it’ll include the language of the Green New Deal, to really materialize this transition that we’re all working for on the local level; on the state level. But I think we’re in a political moment where something is happening, and I’m really excited to see what’s next.

MARC STEINER: We can only hope so and fight for it. Emma Collin and Daniel Aldana Cohen, thank you both so much for joining us tonight. I look forward to other conversations as we really kind of go into this in depth as we approach this election year. Thank you both so much for your work and for joining us today.

EMMA COLLIN: Thank you Marc. I’m so glad to be here. Thank you.

DANIEL ALDANA COHEN: Thank you, Marc.

MARC STEINER: Take care. And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Take care.