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A Green New Deal for Housing

A Green New Deal can’t deliver economic or environmental justice without tackling the housing crisis. We should go big and build 10 million beautiful, public, no-carbon homes over the next 10 years.

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Sen. Markey and Rep. Ocasio-Cortez held a news conference to unveil their Green New Deal resolution. , Alex Wong / Getty Images

When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ran in her primary against incumbent Democrat Joe Crowley, she had the Green New Deal on her website. But her big talking points were housing costs, gentrification, and Crowley’s links to real estate. Now she’s linked the two in this week’s Green New Deal resolution. So far so good. But the resolution only makes a passing mention of a housing guarantee. Its main economic focus is jobs. The crushing cost of housing is just as central — if not more so — to class struggle and workers’ economic pain than stagnating wages.

Median incomes have stagnated since 2000. But in that same period, a foreclosure boom has shredded millions of families’ savings, and average urban rental costs have increased by 50 percent.  

A Green New Deal can’t deliver economic justice or solidify mass support without tackling housing head-on.

The best way for a Green New Deal to expand, decarbonize, and guarantee housing is to build ten million new, public, no-carbon homes in ten years. And again. And again. And again.

And no, ten million isn’t a crazy number. The United States is already building well over one million housing units a year. And still the system is broken. A housing guarantee belongs at the core of a Green New Deal for three simple reasons. First, exploding costs have made the housing crisis as big a threat to basic well-being as low wages and under- and unemployment. Second, millions and millions of people will need new homes as extreme weather makes swathes of the country unlivable. And third, building a ton of new housing to low-carbon standards can be a massive lever for decarbonizing the building sector, which is responsible for 39 percent of US energy consumption.

Housing fits awkwardly into left climate debates. Housing doesn’t turn up in your average Green New Deal proposal; it was absent from Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything and from the demands in the People’s Climate March. Where climate does meet housing, it’s usually in the form of proposals from the likes of Elon Musk, to put a solar panel on every suburban home and a Tesla in every driveway. (Never mind that today, there are as many poor people in US suburbs as in cities and rural areas combined.) Green jobs proposals overlap with desperately needed building energy upgrade programs — like a huge scale-up of federally subsidized weatherization for poor and working-class households, municipal building upgrade mandates, and deep energy retrofits of public housing.

It’s astounding that the climate movement has failed to better connect the two existential threats of this century: homelessness and climate chaos. Maybe it felt too daunting to tackle it all at once. But we already have the tools to tackle this massive crisis—European and American precedents to draw on, and the fierce urgency of the moment to drive action.

A huge build-out of high quality, beautifully designed, meticulously financed public housing, with diversity of design and governance structure, would meet millions of people’s housing needs and create tens of thousands of skilled jobs in the no-carbon construction sector for decades. Done right, the new housing would yield lovely, walkable, mixed-used, diverse, and democratic communities across the country — in cities, suburbs, towns, and reservations.

Density alone isn’t a low-carbon solution good enough to prioritize yuppies on bike paths over ending poverty. Density does lower carbon emissions. But study after study also finds that when residents of dense neighborhoods are wealthy, the footprint of their luxury consumption — from iPads to plane trips — overwhelms the carbon savings that come from walking to brunch.

Per capita carbon footprints in the West Village are two to three times higher than those of many comparably dense neighborhoods in the Bronx. Dense, mixed-income and working-class neighborhoods near public transit, anchored by public housing, are good to live in and have small carbon footprints. Right now, in hot land markets, well-planned public transit hubs raise housing costs and displace low-income residents away. Public transit-plus-housing would be far fairer — and would suck carbon out of the streets.

Meanwhile, the working class women of color who populate the housing movements that fight against gentrification and demand more affordable housing might not always talk about climate change — although increasingly they do. But their demands are objectively low-carbon. Their movements and demands are essential to any coalition that would decarbonize urban life.

Cancelling Market Mechanisms

The need for a housing guarantee through a program of mass public homebuilding is overwhelming. In city after city, gentrification is unleashing cultural and economic traumas that evoke the memory of colonial displacement. A national eviction epidemic is deepening poverty, throwing families onto the street for making a little too much noise, or simply for committing the crime of being poor. Eviction threatens the 17 percent of US renter households that pay over half their income in rent, while another 21 percent are paying over a third. In sum, as David Madden and Peter Marcuse write, “According to the standard measures of affordability, there is no US state where a full-time minimum-wage worker can afford to rent or own a one-bedroom dwelling.”

Meanwhile, unequal home ownership makes housing the single most important factor in the appalling wealth disparity between whites and people of color, a structural divide whose foundation was laid by the New Deal’s racist mortgage policies. That divide has deepened further, since the collapse of the sub-prime mortgage boom and the 2008 financial crash.

The housing crisis also manifests in buildings’ damaged guts, where failing boilers and busted window frames leak carbon and break budgets. In the mid-Atlantic, over half of all black households have recently suffered utility shut-offs, cut back on food or medicine to pay utility bills, or kept homes dangerously hot or cold to stave off bankruptcy. A fifth of white households are just as fuel poor. In New York City after Hurricane Sandy, 45 percent of public housing apartments in affected areas had visible mold after the storm. But even before the storm, that number was 34 percent. The climate and housing crises are already converging, and will only do so more into the future.

Advocates have won mighty legal victories to finally enforce the 1968 Fair Housing Act, passed in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination, that should in theory ensure adequate, affordable housing for people of color. But the current market and affordable housing toolkits can’t build the needed new homes, especially as the climate and housing crises merge.

Sea level rise alone will displace some thirteen million Americans this century — in a good case scenario. That’s more than the twentieth century’s great migration, which New Deal redlining channeled into lasting segregation. Heat, fire, drought, and other impacts will likely displace millions more. Those same pressures worldwide will increase rates of immigration and refugee arrival.

A market approach to these housing pressures would be disastrous. Real estate and construction companies would be the real beneficiaries of a push to build more homes with private construction, a sub-prime building boom turbocharged with tax credits, and financing through “predatory home loans.” We saw how that story ends in 2008. Another private housing boom would repeat the pathologies of earlier ones, locking in decades of segregation, fuel poverty, eviction, and foreclosure.

The tangle of public-private partnerships and market tweaks that currently pass for affordable housing policy is almost as bad. At present, the main mechanism for federally financed affordable housing construction is the Low-Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) program, which subsidizes private developers. As money for real public housing dried up decades ago, LIHTC funds increased. A classic liberal compromise, this public-private partnership has become a bloated corporate giveaway that housing advocates miserably defend as the best there is. The Right savages its corruption and inefficiencies, while research shows a long-term decline in the program’s bang — actual low-income housing — for its buck.

Other remedies are just as weak, from federal to local levels. Section 8 housing vouchers improve individuals’ lives; they also concentrate poverty and leave the broken housing market intact. In cities, zoning debates are an intellectual and political black hole; in the end, all but a hardcore fringe of market fetishists recognize the need for tons of non-market housing alongside new private construction — back to square one.

Speaking of: In California, Gavin Newsom is proposing a “Marshall Plan” to create an astonishing 3.5 million new housing units in four years, increasing the state total by a quarter. Finally: a solution at scale! With proper public leadership, California could give the country a masterclass in lovingly contextual urban design. And yet, to make most new homes affordable, Newsom has suggested — wait for it — pouring hundreds of millions into tax credits for private builders.

It’s time to let go of tax credits and market nudges, and get real. Just as Medicare for all and a federal jobs guarantee would attack health and job needs at their roots, bypassing the money-suck of corrupt public-private partnerships, a housing guarantee must be built by the people, for the people.

Despite the propaganda of the real estate industry and a cowering class of policy wonks, European and American precedents show us exactly how the public can house millions of people affordably, safely, without carbon — and with style.

Toward Temples of Public Luxury

This past summer, standing in a grassy garden in Vienna, I had what felt like a religious awakening. I’d come to the city’s ostensible public housing temple, Karl Marx Hof, a giant leafy complex of 1200 apartments, with gently rounded arches and fine stonework, surrounding broad lawns, fountains, and gardens. But Vienna itself is the temple.

The city’s Social Democrats — whose radicals, in an exception for Europe, never defected to form a separate Communist Party — were first elected after World War I. They haven’t lost a free election since. (They were, it’s true, beaten by Nazis in a civil war.)

In 1919, they inaugurated what became known as Red Vienna, most famous for its massive public homebuilding program. They levied harsh real estate taxes that devastated the land market, making it cheap to buy land to build on. They raised a third of the needed housing funds from luxury taxes. A political poster from the period shows a muscular red fist swiping a bottle of champagne from an ice bucket, while horrified bourgeois in tuxedos and gowns back off. Taxing rich people’s spending on champagne, race horses, and servants redirected money into bricks, tile, and garden for the working class. And the Social Democrats built housing in every neighborhood: no one should be able to tell a person’s status from their postal code.

These weren’t just rooms in square boxes. The complexes integrated sophisticated services. Karl Marx Hof had cultural facilities and a dental clinic. The social fabric woven into the housing developments connected socialist and labor movement commitments to affordable housing with the best ideas of a feminist movement that was born on the barricades of 1848, and a public health movement that quickly followed.

Vienna held design contests for public housing and the best architects competed. As I toured projects across the city, I saw a wide range of gardens, courtyards, stairwells, cornices, archways, laundry facilities, and other common spaces. Almost uniformly five or six stories high, walkable, dense, green, shaded, and interwoven into a pleasantly dense, but not overwhelming urban fabric, Viennense housing is one giant joke at the housing market’s expense.

Today, roughly a third of the city’s housing is still public, city-owned. Another third is limited-equity cooperatives, the more recent trend, showing even more innovative designs. A final third is private, with good quality and low costs. Even in Europe’s racist, neoliberal rubble, Vienna can hold its head up. Its most immigrant-dense, working class, and public housing-rich neighborhoods vote in huge numbers against the arch-conservatives who draw support from beyond the city’s limits. Vienna has recently implemented free daycare for children aged zero to seven. Public transit costs a euro a day for a yearly pass. “People do get very angry if a bus takes longer than seven minutes,” one of my guides, the historian and neighborhood councilor Armin Puller sighed, with a grimace to show his dissatisfaction at the service’s disintegrating quality.

And carbon? Vienna’s summers are almost as hot as New York’s. But in most public and cooperative housing, air conditioning is banned. Some buildings from the postwar period are brutally hot — they could use the occasional A/C. But most housing benefits from the city’s quality of design and are comfortable year-round. Puller showed me one cooperative complex that surrounded flexible play spaces, their grounds creatively landscaped like a Star Trek caricature of utopia; the buildings’ balconies had sliding plastic doors that could instantly turn broad patios into cozy sun-rooms. I cried a little on the inside. When he next showed me an experimental public school where each classroom had a dedicated outdoor space, with wheeled chairs and tables so that groups could shuttle between micro-climates at will, a few tears leaked. All of us could have this.

Of course, Vienna is far from perfect. You can’t have eco-socialism in one capitalist, European city. But guess what: it really is true that when the working classes build lasting, creative institutions that raise and spend money well, life is a lot better. And with Vienna’s extraordinary transit and dense housing, per capita carbon emissions are miniscule.

10 Million No-Carbon Homes

Today, American housing projects are unjustly stigmatized; it’s also true that a lot of it was built on the cheap and badly maintained, leading to countless demolitions and turning the ideal of social housing into a symbol of urban decay.

Could the United States reverse that damage and achieve anything resembling Red Vienna’s achievements? A brilliant report by left policy think tank, the People’s Policy Project, “Social Housing in the United States,” shows how Vienna, Sweden, and Finland managed to produce such high quality housing — and how the United States could do the same. Two takeaways stand out.

First: quality and financing. With upfront investment and intelligent policy design, you get glorious housing by pricing generous maintenance costs into tenants’ monthly payments. Then, for the poorest tenants, you subsidize out of a separate anti-poverty fund. One column for quality public housing. A second column for abolishing poverty.

The other takeaway: Speed. In the 1960s, Sweden had about three million housing units. Many were crumbling; plus they needed more. With some admittedly rough edges, Sweden built one million public homes in ten years. They increased their housing stock by roughly a third in a decade. Half a century ago.

The PPP proposal is more modest: ten million public housing units in ten years (which I propose repeating decade after decade), federally financed and locally implemented with financial structures similar to Vienna’s and Sweden’s. The cost? Roughly the equivalent to the Trump tax cut.

Yes, there would be obstacles. The biggest is local resistance in many of the best places to build. Because much of this housing will help racialized people live in mostly white suburbs, locals will rebel. School districts will be battlegrounds. Indeed, white suburbs and leafy urban neighborhoods have long refused public housing developments, violating the Fair Housing Act.

But a Green New Deal government would enforce that law, wielding every legal and financial carrot and stick it can muster—and mass mobilization could be the most powerful. Another obstacle is land prices in desirable areas. Here, Vienna’s precedent of punishing real estate taxes is key: flatten speculation, build homes.

What’s more, the inevitable local battles that a huge infusion of federal money will bring are actually good — the result is more likely to reflect local groups’ particular needs. No one wants to live in a Powerpoint crudely blocked together in Washington, DC. At first, local battles over implementation will be frustrating. But for the most part, we’re talking about a political context in which millions have clogged the streets to overthrow the political establishment. And it will be easier to mobilize a public housing coalition of angry rent-burdened tenants, racial and housing justice groups, unionized construction workers (and prospective workers), allied white progressives, and local politicians who want to get re-elected, around massive public investment than rather than a measly LIHTC tax credit scheme.

There’s no substitute for mass mobilization, but there are many rewards. Funding should allow motivated groups to experiment with limited equity co-operatives and community land trusts, even if much of the new housing would probably be built and governed by local authorities, at least early on. Public homes should also be built in different shapes and sizes, with the program reaching beyond cities and suburban transit nodes into rural areas blighted by poor home quality — from Appalachian towns to indigenous reservations — where local control over design and other details will be essential. We will also need aggressive oversight by auditors, to stamp out opportunism and corruption. From Red Vienna to the New Deal infrastructure programs, keeping public projects clean was key to holding mass support.

As noted, democratic neighborhoods anchored by dense, well-connected, public housing are the gold standard of democratic, no-carbon urbanism. Public construction standards and smart localization will also make these bulwarks of ruggedness to withstand brutal weather. Their construction would also strengthen other Green New Deal staples.

A low-carbon housing guarantee is a great fit for a job guarantee. Decarbonizing the economy requires electrifying everything — replacing stoves and water heaters and mastering technologies like home heating pumps that both warm and cool. The best accelerator of buildings’ technological improvement? Smart public procurement. Weatherizing existing homes and swapping their appliances will be a necessary but tedious slog. A huge homebuilding program with a net-zero carbon mandate could train and equip tens of thousands of workers in the skills needed to strip carbon from each of the country’s houses, apartments and offices.

You could have a threadbare, patchwork quilt of training programs, jurisdiction by jurisdiction, with baby firms struggling to sell big ideas to luxury homebuilders. Or you could join up federal law, federal money, local social movements, and the world’s best science, engineering, and craft standards. Tough call.

Building the Dream

You make buildings no-carbon by slashing their energy use and powering what’s left with renewables. But there’s more than just wire linking the public housing ideal and the project of vast public, renewable power.

The two are linked by an irresistible dream: ordinary people seizing control of their place in the world. That’s no empty abstraction. Take New York state’s grassroots campaign for a just transition, New York Renews. The coalition was started by environmental justice, labor, and housing organizers after the 2014 People’s Climate March in New York. After focusing for years on environmental justice, these largely housing-oriented organizers knew they had to branch out, connecting to the state’s rural anti-fracking groups, labor unions, and community hubs. Four key leaders took road trips upstate to build the coalition that’s leading the charge for its Green New Deal-style Climate and Community Protection Act.

And there’s an obscure but surprisingly strong historical precedent linking social housing and public power. One of New York’s storied socialist co-operative housing complexes was actually designed in homage to Vienna’s Karl Marx Hof, echoing its elaborate masonry and round arches. The Amalgamated Dwellings in New York’s Lower East Side was built for a leftist Jewish textile workers’ union in 1931, to house 236 families. The co-op still stands. The building’s designer, Roland Wank, was inspired by Red Vienna. Remarkably for downtown Manhattan — now and then — the building proper only covers about half of its expensive lot space, devoting the rest to a large, garden-studded courtyard.

As I learned during a recent visit with William Rockwell, an architect, resident, and the building’s unofficial historian, even the rooftops were specially designed for dancing and parties. As we discussed the intricate Art Deco stonework, Rockwell insisted, “This is not cost effective. This is about love, making a statement.” From the start, the Dwellings included a library and an open cultural space with a cozy stage for performances, for making the good life together. The multi-functional, airy design links a radical New York tradition to Austria’s labor, socialist, feminist, and public health movements, themselves rooted in the Europe-wide revolt of 1848.

Wank was a Hungarian leftist who studied architecture in Budapest and briefly in Vienna, then immigrated to the United States in 1924 to chase new dreams. Shortly after designing the Amalgamated Dwellings, Wank took a job with the New Deal’s Tennessee Valley Authority, which was set up by Franklin Delano Roosevelt to break monopolistic and useless private electricity utilities. Wank became the authority’s chief architect. He built celebrated workers’ housing around the country, led the design of several hydroelectric dams, and helped steward the Rural Electrification Administration that brought electric power to tens of millions of Americans through democratic cooperatives (they still operate). Wank’s dams are known for their elegant, monumental, and public-oriented design. Critics were stunned by their beauty.

Wank also innovated by establishing visitors’ plazas and sculpting roads for ordinary people to absorb the infrastructure’s glory as they came in to visit. As one obituary put it, Wank “saw to it that [the dams] were approached as one would the Acropolis.” The towns Wank built for workers and people displaced by dams were innovative. One of them, Norris, featured the country’s first green belt. The town also excluded black residents and workers. Wank’s work crystallized all that was good in the New Deal — and all that was rotten. The New Deal didn’t just reproduce Jim Crow, it hardened it.

Yet we can reconstruct some of the New Deal’s, and Wank’s, best insights — namely, experimentation and equality had to run through infrastructure big and small. Abolition democracy, as first articulated by W.E.B DuBois in those years, will require even more public power: plentiful no-carbon energy and a truly democratic government, and democratic housing for working people.

From the Lower East Side to rural Tennessee, Wank built structures that made socialism’s grand promises monumental, intimate, and useful. Thinking about Wank’s work helps us focus on the ten million public, no-carbon homes’ core premise: climate justice will be visceral. It’s about more than solar-voltaic cells, healthy rainforests, and plant protein. It’s about how we work and live: the stone, glass and steel that we shape with our hands to protect us from the elements — and to bind us to their beauty. The politics of climate change and the transformation of the built environment are the same damn thing.

And they have a history. There was a bright red line between the street architects who built barricades across Europe in 1848, founding a continent’s socialist and feminist politics, and the arrival of no-carbon hydro-electricity, built by public institutions and delivered by cooperatives, in rural America’s poor heartland. That line curved through the greatest public homebuilding project of Europe, and the great socialist cooperative tradition of New York City, tracing brick-and-mortar homes and bright green gardens that made the abstract ideals of social equality literally tangible — justice you can run your fingers over. It was, to be sure, a crooked line, a line that divided. It needs to be redrawn with an ambition scarcely imaginable on the Left even a year ago.

Ocasio-Cortez’s pivot from housing to climate is coherent: the two challenges are one — and urgent. We can think huge and act fast, one Herculean decade at a time. In 1941, as Nazis threatened to swallow Europe for good, and the New Deal became a war economy, Roland Wank, the immigrant home and public power builder, published a moving essay on architecture as politics. Anticipating today’s mood, he urged his fellow builders to embrace the era’s radical uncertainty, to attack inequalities mercilessly, and to take pleasure “in struggle when the fight is hot and passion runs high.”

Seizing the political moment, Wank continued, “is one of the vital experiences that make life worth living.” His essay’s title is a rebuke to his failures, and to the failures of the New Deal, which a Green New Deal must correct. The simple title is also a slogan, a fierce clap-back to the critics who want to slow our pace and shrink our desires, who want to nudge the markets we plan to transcend, hoard the power we plan to share, and who scorn the public dream-homes that we’ll build for our resplendent survival: “Nowhere to go but forward.”

Daniel Aldana Cohen is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, where he directs the Socio-Spatial Climate Collaborative, or (SC)2.

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