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It is time for everyone to have a healthier home

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The news that the Supreme Court has overturned the national eviction moratorium is tragic. There are 1.5 million people who have filed for federal rental assistance who don’t even know if they’re approved, while only 11 percent of the funds allocated from Congress have been spent. We must do better for affordable housing in the midst of a public health crisis.

This decision comes against the continually worsening backdrop not just of the pandemic, but also of the climate crisis. As Americans from coast to coast swelter in extreme heat, choke on the smoke from Western wildfires and face increased flooding, the marks of climate change are everywhere. The recently released IPCC report makes clear those impacts are here to stay and will only worsen. But hope is not lost. We must preserve a livable climate by slashing fossil fuel use across every sector as quickly as possible while improving the lives of people around the country — which starts with ensuring that everyone has a safe, healthy home.  

Nearly 40 percent of our nation’s energy use is connected to buildings. But we don’t have to keep constructing and operating buildings the same way we always have — we have better technology at our fingertips that can help reduce energy burdens and ensure that everyone can live in a healthy home. We can power our buildings with renewable energy, improve efficiency, and reduce the embodied carbon of building materials. We must pair that with investments to increase access to affordable housing. As Washington turns its attention to the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation, lawmakers have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rise to the challenge and deliver the kind of bold action this crisis demands.  

Needs outstrip funding levels 

Roughly one-third of households in the United States are eligible for federal weatherization assistance. On average those households pay more than four times as much of their income on energy, as compared with the rest of the country. More than half of those homes burn fossil fuels in their space heaters, hot water heaters, dryers and/or stoves.  

As documented in a recent study by Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, exposure to air pollution from burning fuels in buildings is a major contributor to premature deaths. The organization that I lead, RMI, commissioned the Harvard study. Other studies have found that children and people of color are disproportionately affected. 

Reducing these energy and health burdens can help people both stay healthy and stay in their homes. Unfortunately, current federal assistance reaches less than 0.1 percent of those households a year and often leaves those fossil-fueled appliances in place.  

The bipartisan infrastructure bill would provide an additional $3.5 billion to support such homes, but this also falls far short. According to a recent white paper from the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative, we need around 100 times this much investment to make health and safety repairs, improve efficiency, and electrify with clean renewable energy. 

Targeted investments in the future 

The budget resolution includes more funding for much-needed rebates for home electrification and weatherization, likely modeled from the Zero-Emission Homes and HOPE for HOMES Acts. It also includes language to do more to support affordable housing and healthy homes, which could include the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Green and Resilient Retrofit program and the Housing Is Infrastructure Act’s proposal. While these policies are crucial and should be properly funded, Congress and the administration must do more to ensure everyone can afford a home free of fossil fuels. 

Congress can kick-start whole building decarbonization for those most energy-burdened with robust tax credits that will transform the building industry and improve the places where we live. Congress can start by improving the existing Energy Efficient Home Credit (45L) — a tax credit of up to $2,000 for energy efficiency in new and existing housing — by offering multiple tiers of incentives for zero-carbon performance.  

To further ensure disadvantaged communities are not left behind, the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program can be improved by establishing a “Deep Energy Basis Adjustment.” This would provide additional tax credits for low-income properties that drop their energy usage by at least 50 percent, rather than traditional weatherization that results in only 15 to 20 percent energy savings. As the market scales, innovations like off-site manufacturing that are being supported by the Department of Energy’s Advanced Building Construction Collaborative can also bring down the cost for every corner of the country.  

The benefits of these programs would be immense, offering the creation of large numbers of high-quality jobs, billions in savings on energy bills, and healthier homes — not to mention a stable climate. Enabling those homes to better manage energy demand can also help keep the lights on as the electric grid gets cleaner. 

The Supreme Court’s decision on the eviction moratorium, along with the latest IPCC report, shows that there is no time to waste. For our health, for our economy, and for our children’s future, it’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work on our nation’s buildings. 

Jules Kortenhorst is the CEO of RMI, an independent nonprofit founded in 1982 that transforms global energy systems through market-driven solutions to secure a clean, prosperous, zero-carbon future for all.  Follow us on Twitter @RockyMtnInst.

Tags decarbonization Energy energy efficient homes Fossil fuels Infrastructure IPCC report renewables Weatherization
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