Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) unveiled sweeping legislation Thursday to invest up to $172 billion over the next decade to drastically upgrade the nation’s 1.2 million public housing units as part of a Green New Deal.
The bill, set to be introduced Thursday afternoon, calls for retrofitting the federally owned homes, improving energy efficiency, converting oil-burning furnaces and gas-fired stoves to renewable-energy electric alternatives, and replacing the lead-leaching pipes causing public health crises in cities across the country.
The so-called Green New Deal for Public Housing Act marks one of the boldest efforts yet to legislate the Green New Deal movement that, since its debut in mainstream politics with a series of protests a year ago, has reframed the global climate policy debate, providing a popular alternative to the market-friendly dogma that’s dominated Western politics for decades.
“Faced with the global crisis of climate change, the United States must lead the world in transforming our energy system away from fossil fuel to sustainable energy,” Sanders, a top-tier candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, said in a statement. “This bill shows that we can address our climate and affordable housing crises by making public housing a model of efficiency, sustainability and resiliency.”
The bill is unlikely to become law because it would face fierce opposition from mainstream Democrats and virtually all Republicans, whose party’s ideological project of the past half-century has focused on dismantling the public sector the New Deal expanded rapidly after the Great Depression. Just one other lawmaker, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), co-sponsored the Senate version of the bill.
But the legislation provides a tangible marker of what a Green New Deal would actually look like, and it offers a glimpse of how Sanders would govern if he were to defeat President Donald Trump next November.
In much the same way that Sanders’s steady drumbeat for “Medicare for All” energized the U.S. movement for the kind of single-payer health care system that exists in much of the developed world, the public housing proposal could build a political constituency to revitalize a crucial source of affordable homes for the American working class. The effort comes as public housing units are a shambles, real estate prices are rising faster than wages in 80% of U.S. housing markets and homelessness has climbed for the past two years.
The legislation also shows for the first time how national policy to slash climate-changing emissions can reduce poverty and racial inequity by targeting long-term investments at largely minority communities, cleaning up sickness-causing pollution and creating demand for jobs that would go to local communities.
Ocasio-Cortez endorsed Sanders’s bid for the presidency last month and held a rally in front of the Queensbridge Houses in the Long Island City neighborhood of Queens. The nation’s largest public housing development ― already suffering from mold and rat and roach infestations after decades of disinvestment and neglect ― neighbors New York City’s dirtiest power plant.
The benefits to the United States’ most populous city would be considerable. Eliminating climate pollution from New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) units would require $48 billion in investments by 2030 but would reduce utility costs by $200 million to $398 million per year and slash asthma rates by up to 30%, according to independent calculations by the left-leaning think tank Data for Progress.
The employment gains, however, would go overwhelmingly to states that voted for Trump.
The bill’s mandate to revamp the existing public housing structures would spur $119 billion to $172 billion in spending over a decade, Data for Progress found.
“Who knows what Americans will contribute by really taking public housing seriously, by investing in it seriously, and by making it green and healthy and safe.”
The legislation would help create nearly 241,000 good-paying jobs per year with provisions requiring union labor and U.S.-made materials for renovation projects. It would also create 22,300 to 36,000 career-track jobs in maintenance and construction, with average yearly incomes ranging from close to $70,000 in California to $61,600 in Georgia.
Of those jobs, states that went to the Republican presidential candidate in 2016 would receive on average 17,489 jobs compared with 9,428 in blue states, the Data for Progress study showed. Yet, on the congressional level, districts that voted for Democrats in the 2018 election would see a slightly higher influx of jobs, with 14,224 compared with 12,168 in red districts.
“You’re really mobilizing the public sector to deliver benefits to all Americans,” said Daniel Aldana Cohen, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Socio-Spatial Climate Collaborative and the author of Data for Progress’s report.
Public housing policy has encouraged market shifts that benefited the many before. In the early 1990s, the state-controlled utility New York Power Authority set about reducing the electricity that refrigerators in NYCHA units used. In 1995, following a competition between three top appliance makers, officials awarded a contract to Maytag to manufacture a small, super-efficient refrigerator. The final product used less than half the power of the older refrigerators, going from 1,110 kilowatt hours per year in 1991 to 437 kilowatt hours by 1997, according to a study by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.
And making a large-scale investment in public housing would make the United States competitive with other nations again, Aldana Cohen said.
In May, the European Union awarded a prestigious architectural prize to an upgraded public housing complex in Bordeaux, France. Last month, the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Stirling Prize went to a 105-home public housing development in the British city of Norwich.
Buildings accounted for about 12% of planet-heating emissions in the United States, federal figures show, but the number could be as high as 39% according to the U.S. Green Building Council. The sector worldwide amounts to 39% of energy-related carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, the United Nations estimates.
“In Europe, green public housing is one of the most exciting technological sectors of the building industry,” said Aldana Cohen. “Who knows what Americans will contribute by really taking public housing seriously, by investing in it seriously, and by making it green and healthy and safe.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that General Electric made the super-efficient refrigerator in the 1990s. It was Maytag.