Green New Deal for Public Housing

A Green New Deal for Public Housing -- rhinoUp for July 17, 2022 

Public housing was the Federal government's first effort to create a national housing policy. The FDR New Deal adapted public housing from Great Britain's Social Housing in the midst of the Depression when, as FDR proclaimed: "I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished."

In 2019, the Green New Deal for Public Housing (GND4PH) was proposed by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Bernie Sanders to address three goals: save FDR's social housing experiment, address the 21st century's climate crisis, and provide safe shelter and employment opportunities to the lowest income tenants in the US. Here's the concept. "Safe housing. Clean housing. Green housing. Homes without toxic mold that causes asthma, homes without lead paint, homes without broken appliances or uncontrollable heating. We envision public housing that’s good for tenants, sustainable for the planet, and creates quality jobs." The ten year estimated cost for the program would be a whopping $180B to modernize and decarbonize 1,000,000 of existing public housing. Funding for the GND4PH would have come from the Biden "Build Back Better" reconciliation bill.

Good idea, bad timing! Within six months of the introduction of GND4PH, the CoronaCrisis triggered a series of housing retrograde interventions (emergency rental assistance and eviction moratoriums) which were designed to stop an impending eviction crisis. Then the Sinemanchin caucus in the Senate broke the back of a massive Reconciliation bill that could finance the plan. Kriston Capps in CityLab provides a good analysis of the barriers facing GND4PH.

So where from here? 

1. Because Public housing is socialism, ie. government owned housing, when FDR created public housing, he set up a system of locally governed "housing authorities" to soften the image of a  "big government" takeover of the housing market. Now these entrenched PHAs (and their vendors and their unions) will need to be in the planning, not just think-tankers and the Sunrise Movement.

2. Public housing is socialism, so framing GND4PH as an "infrastructure investment" rather than a housing benefit could reduce the ideological lift for moderates of both parties. There will need to be elements of the plan that benefit the realtors, investors, and developers, which is currently the largest lobbying groups in the country.

3. GND4PH is too big. Outside of a national catastrophe, like the Great Depression, Congress works by what Charles Lindbloom called "muddling through." Every real innovation requires a generation to concoct, refine, and finally accept. However, HUD's Mark to Market (M2M) and Rental Assistance Demonstration programs stand out as exceptions. Each had the reputation for being "jetliners built in flight," ie. each deal was unique, but the lessons learned were looped back into the program to make each deal more successful.

4. GND4PH is too costly. Between now and 2025, it's unlikely that Congress will find the $180B-$1T estimated cost of a 10 year program. Shorter workarounds will be required, eg. capital investments that look like annual appropriations.

Enacting Universal Housing Vouchers (UHVs) can pave the way to GND4PH by encouraging PHAs to operate like private sector landlords. Before you scream, read on. The social mission of social housing will be preserved by capital improvements that improve safety, reduce operating expenses, and create jobs...rather than simply providing social-worky resident services. 

Then, HUD could redesign the existing capital grant program to incorporate GND4PH goals that will create the rental units and communities of the future. Slowly, stodgy "brick cities" could become the market standard for rental housing efficiency, resilience, and amenities. With the capital provided by HUD, PHAs could become a test bed for alternative energy generation, non-carbon HVAC systems, energy conservation, modular development, and microgrid technologies. 

Two synergies will ensue as public housing meets the GND4PH goals of "Safe housing. Clean housing. Green housing."

Private developers will benefit too. Using Federal funding as venture capital investors new technologies, for profit reduced the "risk" of private sector who don't want to be early adopters.