5 Action Steps for the Department of Housing and Urban Development to Lead a National Mobilization to Defeat the Climate Crisis

The path to an all-out climate mobilization lies through the buildings sector–which accounts for one-third of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. The Department of Housing and Urban Development will be critical for decarbonizing the buildings sector. The agency should establish a Chief Climate Officer to effectively coordinate and implement these efforts.

HUD is also a powerful engine to address many of America’s most pressing problems at once. President-elect Biden ran on a bold plan to retrofit millions of homes and build millions of affordable, sustainable housing units in his first term. Scaling up that mobilization will pay massive dividends. HUD can stimulate and decarbonize our economy by putting millions of people to work solving the affordable housing crisis.

Every month, tens of millions Americans struggle to pay for housing and energy bills. This problem has only gotten worse during the COVID-19 pandemic. These impacts disproportionately impact African Americans, communities of color, and low-income families who are more likely to live in older, energy-inefficient homes. America’s carbon intensive landscape is intertwined with systems of racism and poverty. An all-of-government mobilization to defeat the climate crisis will require intentional approaches to address these issues. In Rep. Marcia Fudge, President-elect Biden has chosen the right woman to ensure that HUD becomes a climate agency.

Representative Fudge has a strong environmental and legislative record. Under her leadership, HUD will be well equipped to confront crucial issues at the intersection of racism, poverty, housing insecurity and the climate crisis. As Chair of the House Subcommittee on Nutrition, Oversight, and Department Operations, Rep. Fudge regularly advocated for justice in our food and agricultural systems. She also oversaw implementation of SNAP, which is one the government’s largest anti-poverty programs. And as a member of the House Subcommittee on Conservation, Energy and Forestry, she led efforts to protect water quality from agricultural runoff and improve soil health.

In order to realize Biden’s climate mandate, every federal agency must become a climate agency. The Department of Housing and Urban Development under Rep. Fudge will be critical in this effort. As President-elect Biden begins an all-out government mobilization to defeat the climate crisis, today, Evergreen Action is releasing 5 concrete actions for how the next Department of Housing and Urban Development must act:

The Department of Housing and Urban Development directly manages over a million units of public housing, and the agency oversees powerful funding authorities, subsidies, and program supports that touch many millions more homes and apartments for low income and working families in every state in the union. To ensure that all of this deployed capital is enhancing the sustainability, resilience, and decarbonization of the built environment and transforming local housing markets for public and environmental health, the incoming HUD Secretary should immediately establish a senior advisor, or Chief Climate Officer, to coordinate sustainability, renewable energy deployment, green building, and energy efficiency efforts across the full breadth of HUD programs and agency mandates with a focus on public housing, subsidized multifamily housing, and community development initiatives. In addition, to ensure coordination within HUD, the Chief Climate Officer can serve as a direct liaison and technical expert on housing and urban development for all White House interagency efforts on climate change. Further, this office should direct a new network of dedicated environmental experts stationed as Special Advisors for Climate to staff every HUD regional field office in the country, with a focus on clean energy deployment, energy efficiency, climate resilience, and local job creation within HUD assisted communities nationwide.

Existing HUD public housing stock must be preserved and enhanced, cutting operating costs, upgrading construction and maintenance budgets, and improving public health during this time of global pandemic. The next administration should prioritize fully fulling the National Housing Trust Fund (HTF) as outlined in congressional proposals for a Green New Deal for Public Housing, as well as the Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI) Fund, to support construction, preservation, and rehabilitation of affordable housing through grants to states and community based organizations, specifically dedicating support for local Public Housing Authorities to upgrade their properties to the highest standards of energy efficiency and climate resilience, with a focus on ensuring distributed renewable energy generation, zero-net energy construction, and green and healthy homes. To support clean energy upgrades to all existing and new public housing stock, HUD programs within the Office of Public and Indian Housing, the Office of Recapitalization’s Rental Assistance Demonstration Program, and the Choice Neighborhoods grant program in the Office of Capital Improvements, should be tasked with meeting aggressive clean energy and zero carbon emissions targets. In order to make rapid progress toward President-elect Biden’s goal of upgrading 2 million residential retrofits, 4 million commercial retrofits, and 1.5 million new affordable housing units within his first term, the Biden administration should direct HUD to prioritize funding projects that focus on energy efficiency, electrification, and other low-carbon upgrades to make public housing both more sustainable and more livable.

In response to current economic and health crises, all tools of mixed use finance should be deployed to accelerate construction of affordable housing and to increase uptake of clean energy measures within existing building stock. The Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) should be expanded to establish new bonus incentives for affordability commitments that extend beyond the required 15-year LIHTC compliance period, for projects near employment and transit centers, and projects that adopt aggressive green building, zero-carbon, and climate resilience goals. Bonus incentives should also be established tied to communities of need identified through Equity Impact Mapping. Rehabilitation of existing building stock should be supported by expanding use of Medicaid funds for qualifying families, to create new streams of capital investment in green and affordable housing where positive health impacts can be quantified. Likewise, utility reimbursement formulas should be restructured to reward developers for energy efficiency investments and on site renewable energy generation, to overcome split incentives from federal recapture of locally achieved energy savings at the property level. This will rationalize incentives for building owners and property managers to invest in cost-saving building retrofits that improve living conditions, green energy use, the environmental impact of buildings, and permanently lower bills for residents.

HUD administers the CDBG program, which directs billions of dollars in grants to state and local governments directly for economic and community development work targeted to low-to-moderate-income (LMI) urban communities. HUD should set standards that help prioritize CDBG funding for low-carbon development projects that benefit LMI communities. Congress previously authorized $5 Billion for CDBG-Coronavirus (CDBG-CV) funding to assist states and cities in responding to this public health crisis, and provided additional flexibility for state and local governments to repurpose existing 2019 and 2020 CDBG allocations. CDBG Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) funds are routinely deployed to address recovery in the wake of hurricanes or other natural disasters. Additionally, the CDBG-Mitigation (CDBG-MIT) funding pathway supports long-term disaster mitigation projects that rebuild infrastructure, reduce risk to local economies, and improve resilience to future disasters. The agency should further raise community awareness of CDBG Section 108 loan guarantees, which can support financing for on-site renewable energy projects, with a focus on targeting frontline communities identified by federal equity mapping efforts. Broadly, CDBG and the direct provision of HUD resources to local community clean, renewable, and zero-net energy or resilience projects can be a powerful engine of new investment, job creation, and economic renewal for long term sustainability.

Under the Obama administration, HUD, in partnership with DOT and EPA, launched the Sustainable Communities Initiative, an interagency program to support locally driven, bottom up efforts to integrate affordable housing, transportation, and zoning decisions to achieve environmental sustainability in parallel with economic development goals. The Biden administration should direct the HUD Secretary to coordinate with EPA and DOT to restart and update the Sustainable Communities Initiative, a process that should include direct service provision in the field, as well as learning from the limitations of the past iteration of the program, in order to support investment in thriving, dense, and low-carbon urban communities. Further, a renewed Sustainable Communities initiative should include collaboration with the US Department of Agriculture to share best practices and develop joint programming that spans both urban and rural communities.

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