How to address climate justice & health through quality housing

By LeAnne Harvey

Posted September 23, 2020

Housing is critical to the health, resilience, and overall vitality of our communities.

Our homes protect us from longer, hotter summers and more frequent and intense storms, the main consequences of a changing climate for the mid-Atlantic. And the condition of our homes and where they are located can determine whether or not we develop asthma or other chronic health conditions. Today, our homes also serve as schools, rec centers, offices, and safe havens, further highlighting their importance as we navigate a post-pandemic world. 

While the importance of housing access cannot be overstated, many of Philadelphia’s single-family homes are in a state of disrepair. Findings from the American Housing Survey estimate that over 120,000 homes in Philadelphia are considered inadequate due to electrical, plumbing, and heating issues. 

The deterioration of Philadelphia’s rowhomes is, in part, a result of redlining and other racist policies that discouraged investments in communities of color, inhibiting residents from building or maintaining safe and functional housing and financial security. Many of Philadelphia’s Black, Brown, and poor families face the greatest risk for health concerns, job losses, displacement, and utility shut-offs. 

One fourth of all Philadelphia residents struggle to pay their energy bills, on top of worrying about groceries, medical bills, or other living expenses. According to a recent report from ACEEE looking at the energy burden faced by low-income communities, nearly 332,000 Philadelphia households are spending more than 10% of their monthly income on utility bills. What’s more, the median energy burden of Black households in Philadelphia is 53% higher than that of non-Hispanic white households. 

Many Philadelphia residents struggle with the cost of energy, even as their homes are not adequately heated in the winter or cooled in the summer to provide a safe, healthy, and comfortable environment. Climate change has increased the number of cases of extreme heat in the Mid-Atlantic. According to NOAA data, Philadelphia now sees nearly 12 more days above 95 degrees than it did 40 years ago. The consequences of extreme heat can lead to cramps, exhaustion, and heat stroke, and under-resourced communities face the most risk. A recent article from WHYY covers the findings of a Beat the Heat Pilot in Hunting Park and states that, “providing energy-efficient air conditioning units and grants for residents to afford the bills is essential.”

The type of fuel used in our homes also has a direct impact on the health of families. According to a report from the Rocky Mountain Institute, homes using natural gas for cooking increase the risk of childhood asthma by 24–42 percent. And unlike electric heat pumps that provide both heating and cooling, gas heating systems do not solve the challenge faced by the many Philadelphia residents with no air conditioning.  

Moreover, these fossil fuels exacerbate climate change which compounds health and economic concerns. According to the IPCC, we must slash nearly half of all carbon emissions in just 10 years to keep the earth’s temperature within reasonable range of supporting human livelihood. To cut carbon emissions, it is clear that we need to transition our building sector off of fossil fuels and onto the grid, which can support clean and renewable energy.  

Investing in home repairs is an important way to create long-term solutions that can address the multitude of crises families are currently facing. Philly Climate Works and Green Building United are working together to convene the Housing Equity Repairs and Electrification for Climate Justice (HERE4CJ) working group to explore the opportunities and barriers for local solutions. 

The working group consists of a broad coalition of community members, environmental and climate justice leaders, housing rights advocates, building engineers, workforce development partners, CDC implementers, and finance experts. Together, these stakeholders will make a thorough case for why electrification and housing repairs are critical for the health, environment, and economy of Philadelphians and is an essential anti-displacement strategy. 

The working group will explore pilot projects as healthy and efficient home demonstrations, explore pathways for living-wage workforce development, and recommend policy and finance solutions to grow this work across Philadelphia. Our first meeting was held on September 23rd to kickstart this exploration. Meetings will occur monthly to dive into this challenge and provide scaleable solutions for our region. 

Stayed tuned for updates and outcomes of this working group by visiting our Climate Resilient Communities page. 

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