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Why Is a Housing Agency Focused on Climate Change?

July 1, 2022

Climate change is affecting communities across the United States, and HUD’s mission “to create strong, sustainable, inclusive communities and quality affordable homes for all” puts the agency on the front lines of the effort to increase resilience to climate change.

Extreme weather events—such as inland and coastal flooding, wildfires, and wind—can damage properties; affect public services, including electricity, water, and transportation; and cause health and safety risks to residents, including injury or death. In 2021, extreme weather affected more than 14.5 million homes in the United States and caused nearly $57 billion in property damage (CoreLogic, 2021). In addition to impacts from climate hazards and extreme events, climate change can also increase the total cost of housing. For example, energy costs increase during heat waves and insurance rates are increasing for homeowners who live in flood-prone or wildfire-prone areas.

Low- and moderate-income (LMI) communities, including communities of color, are at an increased risk because their homes are more likely to be in harm’s way (e.g., located in areas with high heat or flood risk) due to historic and current discriminatory housing policies. In addition, people living in these homes face increased burdens when responding to disasters because they may not speak the language used in emergency alerts, be fully insured, or have the financial resources to adapt to climate change through resilience upgrades. Increased costs associated with climate change adaptation also have a larger impact on LMI households. In fact, the Department of Energy (DOE) estimated that the energy burdenor the percentage of household income spent on energy costsis three times higher for low-income households than non-low-income households.

Smart Development Approaches to Climate Impacts

For these reasons and more, enhancing community resilience is critical in the housing sector. As outlined in the Community Resilience Toolkit we developed for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), climate actions can be taken at the policy or planning level; aimed at buildings, including homes and critical facilities; designed to help improve the natural environment to increase community resilience; and targeted to directly support individuals in the community. In addition to contributing to community-wide resilience, resilience actions that target LMI residents help increase adaptative capacity.

We are seeing communities create incentive programs for residents to retrofit their homes in preparation for extreme heat events. Suggested steps include installing cool roofs, energy efficiency upgrades, and renewable energy solutions to deliver more reliable and affordable energy for households.

More broadly, communities are protecting and restoring green spaces to reduce urban heat island effects and developing natural buffers to mitigate coastal and inland flood impacts. In addition, communities are raising awareness of both climate risks and the means of increasing resilience to these risks through hazard mapping and educational campaigns instructing residents on how to build defensible space around structures in fire-prone areas, or how to conserve water in drought-prone areas.

Exploring Nature-based Solutions to Climate Change

There is broad recognition that nature-based solutions are often the simplest and most cost-effective actions to improve resilience to climate change. A recent White House fact sheet on actions to combat climate change noted that “nature-based solutions will play a key role in achieving net-zero emissions and building resilience to climate impacts.” The White House has also called for a report from the National Climate Task Force on key opportunities for greater deployment of nature-based solutions—including everything from restoring marshes to planting shade trees to promoting drought-resistant crops.

The first of Abt’s guides to help HUD grantees implement resilience approaches focuses on nature-based solutions. These solutions use natural systems or processes to lessen impacts of natural hazards, such as relying on natural floodplains or engineered reservoirs to capture and infiltrate rainfall to prevent flooding. There is precedent for using HUD funding to implement nature-based solutions in the form of parks and recreation facilities. Since 2016, grantees have spent 3-4 percent of all Community Development Block Grant funding on parks and recreational facilities. The guide also provides other examples of nature-based actions that can be executed in LMI communities, including expanding the tree canopy in urban areas to reduce heat effects.

Most HUD program funding is intended to benefit LMI households, because it’s important to ensure that all community members—including those from historically and systematically marginalized communities—gain access to the same information and resources. This includes ensuring that all groups have meaningful input in the design and ultimate implementation of programs that affect them, and this inclusive approach is every bit as important to resilience efforts as it is to housing programs writ large. By taking a truly communal approach to addressing climate change mitigation and adaptation, we can make real progress.

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