On May 21st, Green Building United and the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations (PACDC) hosted a discussion with international and local leaders to closely examine the connections between the climate and housing crises, and how Philadelphia can address them in tandem. We heard from Philadelphia Councilmember Kathy Gilmore Richardson, Philadelphia Chief Resilience Officer Saleem Chapman, and NRDC Senior Policy Advisor Khalil Shahyd.

History & Legacy

It’s no secret that the house you grow up in can shape your future. And for millions of families who have experienced  structural racism via redlining, inequities continue to persist.

Starting in the 1930s, disinvestment of black and brown communities meant a lack of resources for housing repair, maintenance, and development. These conditions have not only upheld inequitable housing practices, but also increased vulnerabilities to climate, health, and financial risks.

In our current context of policy making around housing and climate, it is essential that this history and legacy be front and center to adequately redress harms done while we also prioritize and amplify the voices and desires of impacted communities.


Federal Investments

To give the federal context, Khalil Shahyd discussed how the Biden-Harris Administration is addressing climate change and housing policy. The housing crisis is inextricably linked to climate, as well as racial equity, the economy, labor, health and more. For this reason, Khalil Shahyd discussed how the Biden-Harris Administration is taking a whole government approach to policy and program making. We’re seeing more “braiding” of federal programs to create interagency partnerships.

In his first week in office, Biden signed a series of Executive Orders to begin the process of integrating climate into every corner of the government. Notably, he created the Justice40 Initiative, “with the goal of delivering 40 percent of the overall benefits of relevant federal investments to disadvantaged communities.” This is an exciting commitment paired with the American Jobs Plan, a two trillion dollar investment proposal to rebuild infrastructure, retrofit homes, improve schools, and create jobs.

NRDC is currently working with the Administration under the Equitable and Just National Climate Platform to develop the goals of the Justice40 Initiative and provide recommendations to ensure that, not only 40% of benefits are seen by underserved communities, but also that this program enables community ownership, is mapped and measured, and trust is built between government and communities.

In alignment with these goals, the Justice40 Accelerator was created to build connections and link local communities with federal funds. This presents an opportunity for members of PACDC and Green Building United to share their expertise on local climate and housing solutions to ensure that federal investments are sustainable.


Local Solutions

After hearing from some of the federal-level strategies, we heard from local leaders Saleem Chapman and Councilmember Katherine Gilmore Richardson about how community input is shaping local climate and housing policy. From Gilmore Richardson’s Civilian Environmental Advisory Committee, to the Environmental Justice Advisory Commission, to innovative community engagement opportunities through the Urban Agriculture Plan, Philadelphia is seeking to address cross-cutting issues with input from the residents who are most impacted.

As the City’s first Chief Resilience Officer, Chapman broke down climate and housing risks and solutions from a preparedness perspective and Gilmore Richardson highlighted many of the ways the City is working toward these solutions:


Known Knowns

In Philadelphia, we know that the majority of our housing sector is single family homes, while the median home age is 100 years old. These properties are in critical need of reinvestments and retrofits. We can make strategic investments in homes that can both reduce their carbon footprint and make them resilient to climate extremes. The Philadelphia Energy Authority’s Built to Last program looks for opportunities to not only bring homes to a state of good repair, but also address emissions and resilience through electric heat pumps and rooftop solar, where appropriate. While the City anticipates seeing significant savings through the Building Energy Performance Program, Councilmember Richardson is also planning a joint hearing on Building Decarbonization this fall to understand what the City can do to help buildings achieve net zero emissions while maximizing co-benefits.

Well maintained green spaces are one of the best ways to address a multitude of issues such as urban heat islands, air quality, flooding, quality of life (recreation and mental health), public safety, and economic issues through job creation. Similar to the federal approach, the City is also serious about addressing inequities by ensuring that the benefits of green spaces are seen by neighborhoods where they are hard to find. The Urban Agriculture Plan and the Philly Tree Plan are focused on equity. However, there is still a need for improved policies and guidelines for green space maintenance and investments.


Known Unknowns

While there is a lot that we already know about climate impacts and housing challenges, there are some things we don’t completely understand or need more transparency around. The COVID-19 pandemic is a great example. While loss of biodiversity and warming temperatures increase the risk of the spread of viruses and diseases, few people predicted the magnitude of COVID-19 crisis. Departments like the Office of Emergency Management, Public Health, and more have a huge role to play in preparing Philadelphia for future known unknowns. This year, the Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity created the Neighborhood Equitable Recovery Fund, a community-driven grantmaking process. And with the recent passing of the Neighborhood Preservation Initiative, City Council aims to make housing investments while leveraging federal funding through the already-passed American Rescue Plan.

Throughout the current budget hearings, Councilmember Richardson has asked every department what they’re doing to address climate and environmental justice. Through this intentional processes, the City has learned that many departments already have guidelines in place.


Unknown Unknowns

Finally, there are some impacts that can’t be anticipated, yet these disruption events can deepen the everyday inequities that burden communities. In Chapman’s role as the City’s first Chief Resilience Officer, he’s asking how the City can redress these inequities through partnerships to make sure we have the right folks at the table. Resilience building is an ongoing practice and the first Environmental Justice Advisory Commission was created to continue this work for years to come.


How to Get Involved

Advocate for City and State level change. Send solutions and ideas to your local councilmember, join Councilmember Richardson’s Committee on the Environment’s Civilian Advisory Committee if you’re a Philadelphia resident.

Invest in Frontline Communities. Be it financially or with time or expertise, support those most at risk to the climate and housing crises so that they can lead in these solutions. Directly engage with this work through the Environmental Justice Advisory Commission or the Climate Resilience Research Agenda.

Vote. If this work isn’t institutionalized, we can’t be sure that it will continue. When election day comes around, look for candidates who align with your values.

Get involved with Green Building United and PACDC. Through our various advocacy efforts, GBU’s New Gravity Housing Conference, the Housing Equity Repairs and Electrification for Climate Justice (HERE4CJ) Coalition, and an upcoming Climate Resilient Communities Workshop in August, there are plenty of ways to lend your expertise to solving climate and housing challenges in Philadelphia.


Missed the event? Check out the recording and slides.