In the United States, the COVID-19 pandemic has raised awareness of the need to act to eliminate racial and housing injustice. It has also brought public attention to the urgent necessity to curb carbon emissions and to prepare to deal with the effects of climate change. Our national policies are not delivering the safe and healthy housing we need. Far more people need an affordable unit than there are units in the market, and as a result many poor Americans live in housing that is inefficient, expensive to operate and maintain, and is potentially unhealthy, and far too many people experience homelessness. Of the 44 million renter households in the U.S., 20.8 million are paying more than 30% of their income for rent and utilities, 10.9 million are paying more than 50% of their income for housing costs, and on any given night 560,000 people are homeless. The mental and physical consequences for renters seeking solutions to this crisis are significant because they may be forced to double-up with other families for shelter, face long commutes to work just so they can afford their housing, or move into housing which is substandard with concerns such as chipping and peeling paint, pests in the home, or other safety issues. The 2016 American Community Survey indicated that 50% of all existing homes are more than 40 years old, meaning that they are likely out of compliance with today’s building codes, may be structurally unsafe, and likely in need of repair, and often burden the tenants with high bills for their utilities.
Dana Bourland, the author of Gray to Green Communities, was vice president of Green Initiatives for Enterprise Community Partners, a national affordable housing intermediary, where she developed and oversaw all aspects of the Enterprise Green Communities Criteria (EGCC). Since this book reports on the implementation of the EGCC, I approached it with a bit of skepticism, fearing that the author might have some bias. But the book has won me over, because Bourland’s experience as a practitioner who struggled to implement revolutionary ideas shines through, and she presents compelling data about the improvement to housing efficiency and affordability. She highlights links between these multiple crises: the pandemic, climate change, housing insecurity, racism, and injustice. Bourland dares to suggest that the creation of new sustainable affordable housing and the retrofitting of old, gray housing to make it safe would address all these problems, and that safe, affordable, sustainable housing should be a human right.
The book begins with a chapter outlining all the problems with “gray” housing including high housing costs, unaffordable utility bills, and undesirable locations. Harvard University released research in April 2020 which provided evidence that a large increase in the death rate from COVID-19 was attributable to long-term exposure to particulate matter, while in 2009 the Environmental Protection Agency reported that coal power plants are located disproportionately in low-income communities and communities of color. Beyond the dangers of living with pollution are problems with landfill leakage, and toxic materials used in the construction of homes such as formaldehyde used in insulation or lead-based paint. Furthermore, buildings are responsible for 40% percent of the world’s carbon emissions and unless we can find more efficient ways to build and power them, they will continue to contribute to climate change.
The second chapter discusses the evolution of green building in the U.S. Green building prioritizes the health and well-being of the resident and his or her connection to the community, without sacrificing the health of the planet or other communities in the process. The United States Green Building Council created the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) system in 1998, and while LEED gave us a system and language for talking about green building, it was primarily applied in business and industry, and is quite technical. This led to the development of new “green rating systems” including the EGCC which specifically seeks to serve the affordable housing industry. EGCC differs from other systems by focusing on cost, health, and the requirement of an integrative process to involve the community in the building design. EGCC’s other components are site, location, water conservation, energy efficiency, environmentally beneficial materials, operations, maintenance, and resident engagement.
Since their release in 2005, the EGCC has been updated several times and Enterprise has conducted evaluations of developments created using the criteria in 2009 and 2012 and was able to show that properties meeting the criteria were saving more than 40% in energy costs over “gray” properties (Chapter 3). Through 2020, 127,000 homes have been newly constructed or renovated using the Enterprise Green Communities Criteria, a US$3.9 billion investment. Twenty-seven state housing finance agencies either require the use of EGCC in their Qualified Allocation Plan, or create incentives for developers to use the criteria; however, the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) is inadequate to address the current needs for affordable housing in the U.S., since from 1987 through 2018 only 3.23 million units have been created or preserved under LIHTC. Bourland calls for an expansion of the LIHTC to increase the production of affordable housing, but she might have added that the program requires greater federal oversight to require states to act against climate change through the adoption of green building requirements.
The challenges to implementing green affordable housing are the topic of Chapter 4. The rapid growth of the renewable energy industry means that it is very difficult to hire experienced workers. Housing production is challenged by a weak regulatory environment which allows toxic materials to slip into products in our homes such as carpet, paint, or tile, and the manufacturing community is not required to disclose the chemicals used in their products. There is a lack of national commitment to green housing, and the resources developers use to produce it, such as the LIHTC, are subject to uncertainty in times of financial crisis. Bourland calls for a consolidated effort to bring all the required capital for the development of affordable housing to a single point of access, so that we can have transparency and accountability around who has the right to use it.
Finally, we must acknowledge that the impacts of the housing and climate crises are disproportionately impacting Indigenous peoples, Black people, and other communities of color. Bourland concludes that community development can no longer take the paternalistic approach to developing communities by imposing the values that developers believe will be good for the community. Every day in America, we build and retrofit affordable housing without taking into account what residents want and need.
This book is important because it is so timely and because Bourland skillfully explains how the housing, climate, pandemic, and racial justice issues are inexorably linked. Considering the present circumstances, I would recommend this book be adopted for city planning courses which tackle topics of housing, environment, and social justice. The book is 172 pages and easy to read and could be used in both graduate and undergraduate courses.