What Would a Green New Deal for Public Housing Actually Do?

What Would a Green New Deal for Public Housing Actually Do?

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders’s plan would open the door to new construction, but its focus would be making existing buildings more sustainable.
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The Green New Deal was formally introduced to the American public as a congressional resolution by then-newly elected Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Edward J. Markey in 2019. Philosophically, it’s a beautiful strategy: Weatherize existing buildings, upgrade the U.S.’s failing power grid, prioritize communities most likely to be impacted by climate disasters, build lots of new housing, and do it all while creating new, unionized jobs. But since its unveiling, the Green New Deal has remained largely just an idea—and because it was just a resolution, even if it passed, it would carry little legislative actionability. But last week, Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders announced a new bill, A Green New Deal for Public Housing, that would begin to chip away at the original plan’s carbon and community goals by decarbonizing the more than 900,000 units of public housing in the country.

The new legislation would address deferred maintenance and outdated, inefficient heating and cooling systems that have resulted in housing with, in the words of Ocasio-Cortez, "mold growth, lead-based paint hazards, lack of central cooling and heating, failing water infrastructure, and numerous other safety concerns." In 2023, the New York Times reported that New York City’s public housing agency needs $78 billion to address its aging buildings. $60 billion of that total relates to boilers, heating systems, and other items that must be replaced over the next five years. The Green New Deal for Public Housing calls for $234 billion to be applied to similar needs across the United States, including tribal lands. 

If passed, the bill would infuse capital into public housing to do "deep energy retrofits" that include electrification and would create grants to support workforce development and employ public housing residents. Beyond this massive lift, which would also include new appliances and water infrastructure for existing public housing, grants would support the establishment and expansion of community energy generation—housing authorities would be able to keep up to 90 percent of profits from energy generated on-site, and residents of larger developments would choose how to spend these funds.

The proposed Green New Deal for Public Housing comes at a time when high-quality affordable housing is less attainable than ever. Though the bill would not create new public housing, it would repeal the 1999 Faircloth Amendment, which limits the number of new public housing units that can be built or operated in any U.S. city. Since 1994, when the number of public housing units in the country peaked at 1.4 million, these developments have not only been widely neglected, but many have been demolished or are now largely privatized—which has been linked to rent increases and displacement, contributing to the nation’s affordability crisis. Repealing the Faircloth Amendment would open the door for the construction of new, "zero-carbon" public units—making the bill not only an injection of funding but also, perhaps, an infusion of optimism in our current housing morale crisis

Related reading:

Naturally Occurring Affordable Housing Is Disappearing

Affording America: How to Solve a Housing Crisis

Top photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images


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