California is laying the groundwork to transition millions of homes and buildings from fossil fuel heat to clean energy in coming decades, but the policies guiding our state’s investment in affordable housing are pushing California in the exact opposite direction — by penalizing developers who want to build sustainably.
Gov. Gavin Newsom and state Treasurer Fiona Ma can begin to correct this costly misalignment between our state’s clean energy and affordable housing policies with adjustments to two key financing agencies to encourage climate-resilient affordable housing, and remove barriers to participation in state programs.
California should seize on this opportunity to build climate-resilient housing that will cut pollution and boost resilience in low-income communities.
These adjustments would be a key first step towards ensuring affordable housing is prioritized in the transition to clean energy — not left behind.
To tackle our state’s crippling housing crisis, California needs to build an estimated 1.2 million affordable housing units by 2030. If California builds even a sizable portion of these homes with fossil fuel appliances, it will further increase pollution from a sector that is already responsible for more than 25% of our state’s total greenhouse gas emissions.
Instead of digging ourselves deeper into this hole, the state of California should seize on this opportunity to build climate-resilient housing that will cut pollution and boost resilience in low-income communities that are burdened by decades of discriminatory policies and environmental injustice.
Gas appliances in homes are an underappreciated part of California’s air quality crisis — producing four times more smog-causing nitrogen-oxide pollution than all of our state’s power plants.
This pollution contributes to air quality that is especially toxic in low-income communities, which are more likely to be located near major sources of air pollution like freeways, oil wells, and factories.
Building affordable homes with zero-emission alternatives like heat pumps not only eliminates air pollution from gas appliances, it will also boost resilience in the face of extreme weather events like heat waves and wildfires.
Heat pumps provide affordable cooling during the summer months, and their air filtration systems can help filter out smoke during wildfire season.
Incentivizing climate-resilient housing also delivers major economic benefits.
The vast majority of residents in newly built, all-electric homes see lower monthly energy bills compared to homes that burn gas. When affordable housing developments pair electric appliances with rooftop solar, the savings are even more dramatic, with utility costs falling to as low as $6 a month.
Across state agencies, California is currently developing a suite of policies that will guide our state’s transition from fossil fuels to clean energy in homes and buildings — our state’s affordable housing policies should work with, not against these policies.
At the California Energy Commission, for example, regulators have recommended a state target of installing 6 million heat pumps statewide by 2030. Earlier this year, Gov. Newsom proposed investing nearly $1 billion in heat pumps and other home upgrades — the majority of which would be invested in low income communities. The newly-launched BUILD program also offers new incentives for affordable housing developers to build with all-electric appliances.
Perhaps most consequentially of all, the California Air Resources Board has proposed a zero-emissions sales standard for furnaces and water heaters starting in 2030. If adopted, this policy would mark the beginning of the end of burning gas in homes and buildings for heating statewide.
The fight for housing justice and the fight for healthy communities go hand and hand — state policies should reflect this reality, especially given the significant leadership affordable housing developers have demonstrated in the area of sustainability.
If we agree that devastating climate change is imminent, and that the built environment must be powered by clean energy as soon as possible, all California departments need to align around this vision for climate-resilient housing as soon as possible.
Editor’s Note: Tara Barauskas is the executive director at Community Corporation of Santa Monica, a nonprofit organization that restores, builds and manages affordable housing for people of modest means. Srinidhi Sampath Kumar is a program manager at RMI’s carbon-free buildings program.