It Doesn’t Matter if Cities Are Climate Change–Proof if No One Can Afford to Live in Them

It Doesn’t Matter if Cities Are Climate Change–Proof if No One Can Afford to Live in Them

It Doesn’t Matter if Cities Are Climate Change–Proof if No One Can Afford to Live in Them

In the wake of this year’s devastating hurricanes, cities need to focus on equity in all of their future climate-adaptation plans.


This hurricane season, people struggling to keep a roof over their heads are again dreading having their communities shaken by another political perfect storm. That’s because, from Puerto Rico to Texas to Florida and beyond, Trumpism is poised to hit public housing hard.

The Poverty Race Research and Action Council (PRRAC), a civil-rights coalition focused on urban policy, has chronicled the Trump administration’s steady degradation of environmental protections over the past year, starting with the dismantling of the basic core of Obama-era EPA regulations. More recently, President Trump announced, just weeks ahead of Hurricane Harvey, that his administration planned to upend Obama’s flood risk–mitigation standards for federal infrastructure projects. Now whatever rebuilding does take place in the wake of disasters like Harvey will likely rebuild communities unevenly, leaving poor neighborhoods and communities of color more exposed to climate catastrophe than ever before.

Trump and the head of Housing and Urban Development, Ben Carson, seem patently uninterested in shoring up the environmental defenses of vulnerable public-housing systems. Carson and Trump both seem committed to systematically defunding and deregulating housing programs, and outsourcing public infrastructure projects to private contractors. Peter Kye, author of PRRAC’s recent policy brief on public housing and climate adaptation, explains that “areas of Houston that had not previously flooded were devastated” by Hurricane Harvey, showing that “extreme weather can affect housing in areas not traditionally seen as vulnerable.” For areas facing unprecedented levels of disaster, preparedness has to go beyond the local level, Kye says, making it “more urgent than ever that HUD takes a more active role in assessing the vulnerability of housing that serves low- and moderate-income people, promotes climate-planning efforts that considers housing concerns, and takes concrete steps to protect HUD-assisted housing.”

But, according to Kye, “the Trump administration has not demonstrated that it is serious about taking on the challenge of adapting to climate change.” Carson, he adds, “has not fought to push back against massive proposed budget cuts that would devastate the department and would especially harm HUD’s ability to respond to disasters. HUD as a whole seems to be following the Trump administration’s general stance on climate change.”

Trump’s rollbacks on climate policy upend incremental progress that Obama’s federal housing reforms made in 2015. Then the Obama administration successfully turned its climate-policy focus to environmental justice, designating Super Fund sites, retrofitting housing stock to boost frontline defenses, and addressing housing segregation to mitigate heightened climate risk facing the urban poor.

As landlords in Houston fleeced renters who had been effectively evicted from their homes this September, it was clear that the White House was sending the city’s poor down the path to more calamity.

When questioned by Senator Elizabeth Warren on HUD’s climate change–related disaster-preparedness plans, Carson replied, tersely, “I am not an expert in this area,” but said he would consult “the latest scientific data.” When asked specifically about the human-induced causes of climate change, he simply asserted, “I do believe in energy efficiency and the responsibility we have to conserve our natural resources.” So far this year, according to PRRAC, key funds to protect low-income housing were inexplicably “delayed because of political concerns,” and it “seems unlikely that implementation of HUD’s adaptation plan will move forward quickly given the administration’s attempts to downplay climate change.”

Public housing in flood-prone areas can’t afford to wait for the next catastrophe. After Superstorm Sandy struck New York and exposed stark inequalities between richer and poorer neighborhoods, the city got serious about disaster preparedness by foregrounding environmental justice in its climate-adaptation planning. Housing authorities laid out a plan to build for equitable resilience: For example, housing authorities can ensure that seniors and people with disabilities living in public-housing projects are prioritized in evacuation plans when the next storm hits. Working-class neighborhoods should be guaranteed safe access to back-up public transit, so they’re not isolated when subway and bus lines are flooded. To prevent the next Sandy from pushing the city into the same backward slide that post-Katrina New Orleans has undergone, housing authorities in cities like New York should institute a democratic planning and risk-communication system, so that reconstruction projects do not become taxpayer-subsidized vehicles for gentrification.

Similarly, the rapidly gentrifying city of Portland, Oregon, is bracing itself for the next storm season by promising to build itself to a fairer and more affordable state. The climate-adaptation plan “explicitly recognizes that strategies to address climate change can exacerbate existing disparities unless there is a specific focus on equity, and notes that disparities are the legacy of past discriminatory practices and institutional biases.” The city and county governments addressed underlying structural inequities through what it called “a targeted universalism approach that prioritizes the specific needs of vulnerable communities in areas such as public health, economic development, infrastructure, and housing.” Considering racial and economic justice at every step—not as a mere footnote in a corporate-controlled redevelopment schemes—was needed to “prevent adaptation policies from exacerbating existing inequalities or creating new ones.”

The good news is that equitable adaptation pays off for everyone in the long run. As one recent World Bank analysis concluded:

Climate equity can also involve ways to leverage the opportunities from climate change planning. Indeed, increasing resilience and other climate measures may be a way to create jobs and increase investment in housing, transit, infrastructure, and neighborhood amenities that will improve opportunity for vulnerable populations.

But if poverty and climate risk are not tackled together, the World Bank argued, “poor people are exposed to hazards more often, lose more as a share of their wealth when hit, and receive less support from family and friends, financial systems, and governments.” The total economic costs of natural disasters calculated for 117 countries around the world—including floods and wind storms—could top $500 billion.

When this hurricane season has passed, the day of reckoning, unfortunately, won’t be determined solely by nature but also by a White House that seems less keen on rescuing the poor from the floodwaters than on salvaging the luxury real estate they’re floating on.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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