Workmen have invaded Flora Dillard’s house on the east side of Cleveland. There’s plastic over everything and no place to sit, but Dillard doesn’t seem to mind. “A couple of days of inconvenience is nothing, compared to the results that you get,” she says.
She’ll benefit, and so might the climate. The workers have plugged cracks around the foundation and rerouted an air vent to reduce the risk that mold will form. They’re insulating the drafty upstairs bedroom, which was so cold that Dillard had resorted to multiple electric space heaters this past winter. They also discovered and fixed a gas leak. “I could have blew up,” Dillard says. “Me and my grandbabies and my brother who’s here visiting.”
She didn’t pay for any of this. She can’t afford to. But thanks to government and utility help, her house soon should be more comfortable, safer and cheaper to heat. She’ll burn less fuel, cutting down on the amount of greenhouse gases she sends into the air.
The repairs to Dillard’s home are an example of what’s sometimes called “climate equity” — efforts to fight climate change in ways that also attack the country’s social and racial inequities. Millions of homes in American cities are in dire need of rehabilitation. Those homes often are concentrated in predominantly African American neighborhoods, which have suffered from discrimination and redlining. Many contain health threats like mold, lead contamination and indoor air pollution.
The same homes frequently are the least energy-efficient, requiring more fuel to cool and heat. Residential housing accounts for about a fifth of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Under its sweeping infrastructure plan, the Biden administration wants to replicate Flora Dillard’s repairs in millions of homes across the country. The Biden plan would allocate $200 billion for renovation and construction of green homes, particularly in what the White House calls “underserved communities.” The goal is to improve people’s homes and provide jobs while also addressing climate change.
The infrastructure plan, part of which the Biden administration has included in its budget proposal for 2022, needs congressional approval, which is uncertain. The Republican version of an infrastructure package doesn’t include the green housing initiatives.
“I feel like it’s our lowest-hanging fruit and also the way to have the largest impact, particularly in disinvested communities, communities that are struggling,” says Tony Reames, formerly director of the Urban Energy Justice Lab at the University of Michigan. Reames just took a new job as senior advisor at the U.S. Department of Energy.
Cleveland provides a case study of the need, and the opportunity, of housing renovation. According to Kevin Nowak, executive director of CHN Housing Partners, which organized the work in Dillard’s house, tens of thousands of homes have similar problems just in Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland. Most Cleveland houses are at least 40 years old. Almost a third of local households earn less than the poverty level, and many homeowners lack the money for renovations.
Cleveland drafted its first climate action plan in 2013. But in 2018, the city tore it up and began again, this time with a new focus on equity. City officials met with hundreds of people in Cleveland’s neighborhoods to hear their concerns, and in the end, they gave the top spot on the city’s climate to-do list to making more homes “affordable, comfortable, healthy, and energy efficient.”
Cleveland’s population has shrunk by more than half since 1950, decimating the tax base. It would take $781 million to fix all the homes in the Cleveland metro area that need repairs, according to researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. That’s far beyond what the city government can afford. It’s roughly twice what the city pays annually to run its public school system.
Some private money for renovations comes with strings attached. The local gas utility, Dominion Energy, helped pay for the new, more efficient gas furnace in Flora Dillard’s house. Under the terms of Dominion’s program, funding must go for a new gas furnace, rather than an electric heat pump that could greatly reduce greenhouse gas pollution.
Nowak says that he would prefer to maximize the number of homes that his organization can reach, rather than using up limited funds on more expensive equipment required to cut greenhouse emissions in a smaller number of homes.
The Biden administration’s plan to pump money into home renovation could change the situation dramatically. White House budget documents foresee a vast increase in funding for a program that pays for home weatherization, from roughly $200 million and 300 million a year to $17 billion over the next five years. The administration also wants to pour $40 billion into renovations of public housing and $27 billion into a “clean energy accelerator” that would act as a nonprofit bank that could finance energy-saving projects of all sorts.
Cecilia Martinez, senior director of environmental justice at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, says the administration’s plan has to be big because it’s addressing problems that are huge and rooted in a history of discrimination. “We have an opportunity now. This is our key opportunity to transform our economy as well as our infrastructure,” she says.
Funding alone won’t get the job done, though, even if Congress approves it. Renovating homes on such a large scale will demand a rapid scale-up of hiring by private construction firms and new efforts to reach homeowners whose buildings need work.
Reames, who was interviewed before he took his new job at the DOE, says it also may require a new approach. The government’s current programs rely on homeowners to take the initiative and apply for aid. Flora Dillard, in Cleveland, was fortunate: Her niece told her about the programs, and when Dillard went to the municipal offices to fill out the paperwork, a former schoolmate was working there and helped her do it correctly.
Reames would like cities to approach housing as essential infrastructure that they regularly assess, rather than waiting for homeowners to reach out. “I used to work in local government,” Reames says, “and we planned out our water pipe replacements, street replacements, based on the age of that infrastructure. And it’s the same with housing.”
Houses in a particular neighborhood often were constructed at roughly the same time and may have similar problems. He says cities could put entire neighborhoods on a schedule and go door to door, checking to see what each one needs.
Kimberly Foreman, executive director of Environmental Health Watch who has worked in Cleveland’s neighborhoods for decades, says these efforts do require patience. “We always have got to ask the community, what do they want?” she says, “versus saying, ‘We have the answer; you should do this.’ “
You can renovate homes and install new equipment, she says, but those upgrades will only function well if people who live there understand the changes and actually see the value in them.