Why A Housing Guarantee Should Be in the Green New Deal (2/2)

March 1, 2019

In part 2, Daniel Aldana Cohen, a sociologist and writer for Jacobin Magazine, explains why the Green New Deal must tackle the housing crisis with a plan to build 10 million zero-carbon homes

In part 2, Daniel Aldana Cohen, a sociologist and writer for Jacobin Magazine, explains why the Green New Deal must tackle the housing crisis with a plan to build 10 million zero-carbon homes


A Climate Sociologist Explains the Green New Deal (Pt 2/2)

Story Transcript

DHARNA NOOR: Welcome back to The Real News Network.

I’m Dharna Noor in Baltimore, continuing my conversation with Daniel Aldana Cohen, who’s a co-author and editor of a new series in Jacobin on the Green New Deal, which again, is a broad plan to reach net zero emissions in a decade and create social programs in the process. The Green New Deal was laid out in a resolution introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey earlier this month, and it includes proposals like a federal jobs guarantee and massive investments in new buildings. But in an article in Jacobin, Daniels says that it needs more focus on housing. Thank you so much for being here again.

DANIEL ALDANA COHAN: Thank you for having me.

DHARNA NOOR: So housing is mentioned in this Green New Deal resolution. Particularly, there’s a call for weatherizing housing, there’s a call for retrofitting buildings. But you argue that it actually should have more of a focus. Talk about why. What does housing have to do with climate justice?

DANIEL ALDANA COHAN: Great. So I argue in my piece in Jacobin, A Green New Deal for Housing, that we need a Green New Deal for housing, and that that fundamentally entails construction of ten million no carbon public homes in ten years. They should be beautiful, well-designed, mixed income homes that take up a huge amount of what would otherwise be built by the private sector. So right now, the private sector builds in the neighborhood of one and a half million homes a year. And I’m suggesting that something like one million of those homes a year should be ultimately publicly built. There are three big reasons, I think, why this kind of housing guarantee, the aggressive one that I’m proposing, belongs at the core of a Green New Deal.

First, housing inequality is just as important to inequality in general as inequality in terms of unemployment or underemployment or wage disparities. So the idea of a job guarantee clearly tackles this form of economic inequality, but housing inequality is just as important. And we can talk more about the details. Second, people need somewhere to live, and more people are going to need new places to live. Sea level rise alone will displace thirteen million Americans by the end of the century. Heat, drought will displace others. You’re going to see continuing immigration. You have a lot of homes that are simply not fit to live in. But simply to adapt to the extreme weather that’s coming, we are going to need significant new home construction.

Third, we need to decarbonize the building sector, which consumes 39 percent of energy in the United States, and we need to decarbonize urban space. And I would argue that the most efficient way to attack both of those is large-scale public housing construction for two reasons. One, it will create a ton of jobs and a ton of expertise in very low carbon building design, which will also be of use for things like retrofits and so on. And two, the way that we think about decarbonizing cities right now is all about density, but density plus land markets equals gentrification, exclusion, and ultimately expelling poor, working class, and racialized people from central urban areas into suburbs.

Really what you’re doing is you’re sloshing the carbon around. You’re exposing more vulnerable people to higher energy costs and you’re making the best amenities available only for those who can afford them, which is just wrong, and it actually doesn’t do as much to reduce carbon as people think. The best data shows that the lowest carbon neighborhoods are high quality neighborhoods anchored with affordable housing. So if you want to decarbonize urban space and have density, yes, but you can only achieve the real carbon goals there and social goals with a ton of new affordable housing.

DHARNA NOOR: Could you explain more how those sort of gentrification type models just spread around the use of carbon, and what ways the current housing market, or the market that creates housing, uses carbon? How are zero carbon homes different from what we have right now?

DANIEL ALDANA COHAN: Two questions, which are both really good. Why does gentrification increase carbon footprints? Well, for two reasons One is that when neighborhoods are taken over by the private market and you get a ton of new construction, you tend to get luxury buildings set up with luxury consumption options next to them. You shred a kind of urban fabric that was built up, typically by working class and community groups, that were about public “consumption,” but essentially playing, being together. With private consumption, higher income people spend a lot more money on stores, take private flights, and so on. And so, instead of changing the model of urban life, you essentially take the McMansion and then you pile them up. And yeah, the inside of the unit might be a bit smaller, but it’s essentially the same suburban lifestyle brought into the city.

That’s what people like Mike Bloomberg have brought to New York, is they’ve essentially taken the suburban form of affluence, and all of its problems, and just changed the nature of the house from the McMansion into a luxury condo. And then, on the flip, side you’re pushing all these other poor people out into homes that are poorly insulated, where they can’t take their kid on the subway to school anymore, and so on. And those people don’t have the political capital to get new, low carbon infrastructure built in suburbs, necessarily. So instead of a kind of rational, egalitarian, and kind of holistic transformation of the overall built environment, where you have affordable housing and public transit together increased all throughout, you essentially just are creating a new form of urban luxury consumption for the affluent. And again, the best carbon footprinting shows that this doesn’t really have much carbon benefit. And I could give you the details on that, but that would take years and I would have to get my charts, which I have.

So what is the relationship between buildings and carbon? So in a building that is already built, what does that mean for it to have a lot or a low carbon footprint? One, if it has gas for heating, for stoves, for water heating, that natural gas ultimately has to go. The second is that that building will use energy for a couple different kinds of things. Appliances, funnily enough in this country, if you’re wealthy, you can afford the upfront cost of an Energy Star air conditioner or other appliances that will have lower energy utility bills. Now, I like a lot of other people, have gone into Kmart and not been able to afford the Energy Star appliance. Maybe now that I’m not a grad student anymore, I eventually will, who knows? But that’s just ridiculous. The fact of the matter is that all appliances should be Energy Star appliances and nothing else should be should be allowed. And they should be affordable and people should have enough money to afford them.

But OK, so long story short, there are people who sometimes fetishize extremely low carbon building, what’s sometimes called the Passive House Standard, energy net zero buildings, buildings that don’t use any energy because they’re so efficient. And that’s not a sustainable model of mass construction. What I would argue is you need to have low carbon construction using public procurement, to experiment with materials like new forms of wood construction that are looking very exciting, rather than cement. You need to have low energy bills in those places, and you can use procurement contracts to ensure that your piping energy into those buildings only with renewable sources. So actually, when you have a public process instead of a private builder who’s catering to the market interests of random people, if instead of that you have a public policy approach to home construction, infill planning, materials, ultimate energies, then you can be extremely efficient. And we’re going to call that zero carbon, because ultimately, over the life course, these buildings are not going to be causing any fossil fuels to be combusted.

DHARNA NOOR: Could you talk more about why it’s not sustainable to have these sort of–I agree, this fetishized idea of no carbon buildings, and have that sort of zero footprint home?

DANIEL ALDANA COHAN: Sure, yeah. So there’s an idea called Passive House, which is a great idea, but then you have things like LEED and the certifications, silver, gold, platinum, blah blah blah. And so, sometimes people get confused. Net zero energy and net zero carbon are different. So the way that you–this is important, actually. The way that you decarbonize the economy is this. You bring down energy use quite a bit through efficiency, and then the energy use that you don’t reduce, that’s still there, you decarbonize that. Basically, the less energy you use, the faster we can get to zero carbon. And so, what I’m saying is that if you have sort of a fetish of a zero energy use building versus a low energy building, then you can spend a huge amount of money building by building by building by building. And it’s super inefficient.

But what is more efficient, and now I sound like a centrist policy wonk except that I actually care about the politics of this, you have low energy use, plus built out of clean energy, that’s how you’re actually going be able to do this like a mass program. And that’s how we’re going to achieve our goal. So take advantage of the public procurement, the public purchasing and all that, have a realistic concept of the amount of energy that you’re going to need, and then make sure that that is provided with renewables.

DHARNA NOOR: And you look specifically to some examples of public housing projects. In the Jacobin article, you talk about Red Vienna, of course, which has had counterparts in the United States that were inspired by that project. And then, more recently, you’ve looked to the New Jersey model, where there was massive investment in public housing. Could you talk a little bit about what this has looked like in the past and abroad, and also in the States?

DANIEL ALDANA COHAN: Yeah, that’s a great question. So there are some really exciting models of public housing in the United States. I think we should always defend public housing, it’s been very unfairly stigmatized. But the best models of public housing in the United States, Public Works Administration in the 1930s, something called Section 236 of the tail end of the Great Society, never really scaled up. Where you had a real scale-up of really excellent social housing was in Vienna, and it’s a really good model to look at. The public sector in Vienna started massive home building sort of after the first World War, really getting going in the 1920s. They funded it with luxury taxes. One third of the public housing in Vienna was built with taxes on things like champagne, servants, resources. And they had contests.

They said, “We want the best architects to compete for every single public housing unit. It’s going to be a mixed income unit. The poorest people will get subsidized separately. We’re going to build these units all across the city so no one can tell from your zip code what your social class is.” And because you have the best designers, you end up with extremely livable, well-shaded, beautiful apartments such that now in Vienna, virtually nobody has air conditioning, even though it gets warm in the summer as a city like Philadelphia or probably not quite as warm as Baltimore, but close.

And in addition to this housing, you have this public spirit in Vienna where one third of the housing is public, one third is cooperative. You have very good public transportation. You have a real emphasis on social living in the city, this idea of public affluence, and so carbon emissions are minuscule. They’re basically like through the floor. And this results from this combination of really high quality public housing built with the very best designers. Each building is pretty different from the other one, to have good green space, and they’re really beautifully woven into the city, which has like a strong public planning process. And by the way, they were very aggressive in stamping out corruption. So this builds confidence in the public sector, and we should emulate that.

So then, this raises the question, which is a really important question the United States. If the public sector wants to build a ton of new public housing, how do we make sure it goes to the places where it needs to go? There’s a very long history in United States, especially suburban white communities which are racist, pushing back against public housing, even pushing back against rail transportation because they don’t want those people even able to get to their neighborhoods. So funnily enough, the state that has done the most to ensure that there’s public housing for all people, including of course, People of Color, is New Jersey. And this is not an accident.

There was a big legal fight in New Jersey in the 1970s, but it was a legal fight that combined leftist lawyers, the UAW, which had a bunch of Black workers commuting from the Bronx into New Jersey to work in auto plants. They couldn’t get housing in New Jersey. And Black and Latino, and I would say Latinx, but then they wouldn’t have said that, organizers in cities like Camden, and then in other places like Mount Laurel, which are these communities where essentially white homeowners came in and used zoning to basically get rid of apartments for People of Color. And to make a long story short, this coalition put a huge amount of pressure on the New Jersey Supreme Court, and then they won a court case. And then, the continuous pressure over the years, fighting, fighting, fighting, fighting, strengthening the legal doctrine so that towns are forced to affirmatively zone for affordable housing.

And so, the New Jersey model teaches us what it’s going to take all across the country. One, we can do it, we can get affordable housing built in communities all across the country. We have the legal tools and the organizing know how. And two, we recognize that those legal tools have to always come with a social movement, but those social movements can also learn from New Jersey. So I think there’s a cliche, an idea that there is just no way in this country to build affordable housing for People of Color in white suburban communities. And that’s wrong, we can. And nobody would ever think to look to New Jersey, and neither would I have. But it turns out that it’s the case and we can learn from it. And to me, that’s very exciting. We have a model already of how to do this. And a Green News Deal is going to involve millions and millions of people taking to the streets, building a more just and a more safe world. And part of that is, yeah, going to be safe, affordable, beautiful homes in communities all across the country.

DHARNA NOOR: So how does that kind of model translate to, for instance, a place like California? We do a lot of coverage on climate from California, and there, there’s tens of millions of people, there’s homes getting built on this preserved land, traffic is going up, resources are being used inefficiently. How do you translate something like the New Jersey model to such a huge geographic location with so many more people?

DANIEL ALDANA COHAN: California is awesome to talk about because it’s a great example of what happens when you have the best ideas and not enough money and not enough political mobilization. So in California, you have a thing called the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund. And what it essentially is, is that there’s a program called Cap and Trade that raises money from carbon. Not that much, it’s not that great, but whatever, they have this money and they spend it. And by law now, thanks to pressure from below, grassroots groups, climate justice, they have to spend about a third of that money in disadvantaged communities. Now, this is very similar to the basic Green New Deal idea nationally. It’s the precedent. The idea is that you have revenue, or simply investment, and you target it. The communities that are racialized, working class, have been hit hardest by the environmental harm so far, you go to them.

Of that money in California that gets spent in these communities, twenty percent has to go to affordable housing. Now, here’s the problem. Affordable housing in California, like around the country, is built with an exotic combination of inclusionary zoning, tax credits here, tax credits there, nonprofit developers, blah blah blah. It can take two years just to line up the financing for a housing project once it’s already been approved. So what you have in California is a really sophisticated way to get affordable housing built near new or existing mass transit, to make a really good public housing, actually. But the scale is nowhere near adequate and the sprawl is just drowning out this new construction. Why? Because the amount of money isn’t there, because the form of financing is tax credits instead of much more efficient and effective public construction, and the volume of that commitment isn’t there.

The governor of California, Gavin Newsom, wants to build three and a half million homes in four years. Well he said, that now he’s backtracking from the number. But how is he going to do it? Tax credits, tax credits to private builders. And so, what’s that mean? Actually, people say, “Oh, the government is so bureaucratic.” What’s bureaucratic are public-private partnerships. That’s endless meetings, endless forums. You talk to anybody who’s literally enmeshed in this world, and it’s a nightmare. It’s a nightmare.

DHARNA NOOR: I think you’re in good company saying that here in Baltimore, where we just, years ago, had that the largest corporate tax break in history or something like that.

DANIEL ALDANA COHAN: Yeah, and I’m sure that’s really panning out great. So again, yeah, we have models, we know that when the public sector is energized, when it’s being pushed very, very hard from below and that model, the public sector model, is not kind of set in stone, but has this experimental ethos, you can do a lot of stuff really fast. You can learn from mistakes, you can improve. And again, in California, actually, I would argue there’s a really good new story, which is that they’ve figured out a mindset and approach to channeling affordable housing to the communities that need it the most, connected to transit in a really smart way. But you need more. More money, more efficiency, more efficacy, more political pressure to do this.

If you combine the best insights from California and the best insights from New Jersey, then you have a model for a kind of racial democracy of affordable housing construction all over the country. And when I think about how close we are now to that, and I think that the formulators of the Green Deal would probably be on board with this vision, I’m super excited. When I think about the people whose job it is to say, “You can’t do anything,” I think, “Wow, I can’t believe that you’re on CNN every day.”

DHARNA NOOR: I guess my last question is, so you note in the piece that increasingly, housing movements are talking about climate change, talking about the need for better housing in the face of the climate crisis. But do those fights need to be coupled when, as you say, I think objectively, the demands of groups like that, better public transit, more efficient use of space, are low carbon? So why is it important to even say the words climate change when it seems like that’s still–for insane reasons, but is still so polarizing, especially for some on the right?

I think there are both like wonky and non-wonky reasons why movements on the left, community movements, labor movements, are really starting to talk about climate change. The wonky reason is this. The big thinkers and kind of global power networks have decided that the next big round of global investment is going to be climate-related. I mean, it has to be. So numbers coming out of places like Davos, five trillion a year in global infrastructure spending, climate friendly. There is simply a growing recognition, although you wouldn’t know it as much in the U.S. but it’s coming here too, that you have to do something about climate. And that being the case, why wouldn’t you fight on those terms? Because that’s where the big money is going to come. It’s going to come in terms of climate. So you want to be not only at the table, but ultimately you want to take over the table.

Second, you know, and I guess a subset of this wonk thing, is actually you could build a lot of public housing that would not be super energy efficient, why not? But you could make it really energy efficient if you’re paying attention to it. But the other thing is this. I think we have to think politically. Like who is most worried about climate change in the United States? If you didn’t look at the research, you would say, “Oh, it’s got to be rich white people.” It’s not. The most concerned demographic groups, if you’d look at ethno-racial breakdown; first, Latinx, then Black, then white Americans. Of white Americans, women and younger people are the most concerned about climate change. That is the coalition of the left. But that coalition is quite fractured, with various different class segments and so on.

The way you can now really bring people together in this country is to say, “Look, there’s this huge problem, everybody’s terrified of it.” And if we can find a way to solve that problem that also addresses socio-economic needs, then that gives you a very powerful reason to kind of tie this in a knot, in one big package. And I would caution anybody, I’d say even if your project of affordable housing downtown is objectively low carbon, why would you leave that out of the climate conversation where it’s just going to get forgotten, when in fact, it fits really right in the center of the climate conversation? So let’s do it. I think when big things happen, you have a big package of ideas that are all thought to stick very firmly together. In the New Deal, there was a political decision made to basically abandon Black Americans. That was an absolute disaster.

What we have to do now is take the social justice demands that exist, recognize that they objectively fit very well with a climate change agenda, and then push that connection. And that’s how we’re going to build a coalition big enough to smash the fossil fuel interests and the other interests that are trying to stop us.

DHARNA NOOR: OK. Daniel Aldana Cohen is a sociologist and co-author and editor of a new series in Jacobin on the Green New Deal, and the author of one of those pieces, A Green New Deal for Housing. We have to end it there, but thank you so much for being in the studio today.

DANIEL ALDANA COHAN: Thanks so much for having me. I love talking about the Green New Deal.

DHARNA NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.