Hot, Wet, and Racist: Why Decommodification of America’s Housing is Essential to an Equitable Climate Resilience Strategy

  • Cate Mingoya-LaFortune National Director of Climate Resilience and Land Use
    Groundwork USA

In 2009 I lived in West Harlem during Mayor Bloomberg’s Million Trees NYC campaign. Our block’s long, shadeless stretch of pre-war apartments fit the bill for improving the tree canopy cover: wide sidewalks, no low-hanging power lines, and a community vulnerable to and suffering from poor air quality. One autumn day, I returned home from work to find sweet, four-inch-wide saplings planted every 20 feet or so from Broadway to Amsterdam. By early the following morning, the crown of each tree outside our building had been snapped off and hurled into the street. When I asked what happened, our first-floor neighbor, a freckled octogenarian who could reliably be found perched in her window, simply shrugged and replied “they didn’t ask us.”

Communities are torn – they want and deeply need the publicly funded infrastructure and climate resilience tools that can protect their families from heat, flood, and poor air quality, but the threat of gentrification and displacement complicates the equation of how and what to advocate for. Is cultivating a lush tree canopy worth the risk of rising rents? Will fewer floods mean higher property taxes? What good are these resources if one can’t stick around long enough to benefit from them?

Climate resilience strategies cannot be considered equitable unless they include both resident-prioritized climate adaptation measures and serious provisions to alleviate the risk of displacement from historically blighted neighborhoods as conditions improve. Housing injustice – from racial covenants to redlining – is so deeply intertwined with environmental injustice, that both must be addressed simultaneously. Integrating resilience plans with active land decommodification strategies such as community land trusts, public housing expansion, and rental housing cooperatives will allow residents to stay in their neighborhoods, have greater control over the selection, installation, and maintenance of green infrastructure and other adaptation measures, and benefit from the repair of long standing, unaddressed historical harms.

Under the New Deal practice now known as redlining, communities were surveyed to assess their eligibility for newly available federally-backed mortgages. Those neighborhoods deemed “risky” were outlined in yellow and red- graded “C” and “D”- and denied equal access to the nation’s primary intergenerational wealth-building mechanism: home ownership. Those outlined in green and blue- graded “A” and “B”- received access to federally-backed home loans at favorable rates. By denying residents in low-graded neighborhoods, who were overwhelmingly Black, brown, low-income and in or adjacent to blighted or polluted areas, access to mortgage debt, property values in C and D-graded areas were kept low, making it difficult for residents to use home equity to make improvements, or to buy, sell, or leave to areas with better public infrastructure. The lack of political capital in those neighborhoods paired with relatively small property tax contributions to the city’s coffers booted redlined neighborhoods to the bottom of the list for the citing of parks, upgrading of stormwater infrastructure, and tree planting in the public right of way.

Over 50 years after The Fair Housing Act made redlining unlawful, more than 74 percent of formerly redlined areas are still low to moderate income, and 66% are majority minority. Mitchell, Bruce & Franco, Juan (2018) HOLC Redlining Maps: The persistent structure of Segregation and Economic Inequality. Research conducted by Jeremy Hoffman and Vivek Shandas in 2020 found that formerly redlined neighborhoods are on average 4.5°F hotter than their formerly greenlined counterparts, but that difference can be as extreme as 20°F on the same summer day. Hoffman, J. S., Shandas, V., & Pendleton, N.,”The Effects of Historical Housing Policies on Resident Exposure to Intra-Urban Heat: A Study of 108 US Urban Areas,” Climate, 8, no.1 (2020): 12, This variance can be ascribed to the relatively paltry tree-canopy cover and extensive impermeable pavement found in formerly redlined neighborhoods. It’s a gap that is sure to widen as the climate crisis advances, putting residents at disproportionate health, social, and economic risk. As municipalities try to make these underserved neighborhoods more livable as the planet becomes less so, they must be careful to not add the very real risk of displacement.

City planners and nonprofits are piloting strategies that both improve public infrastructure in these at-risk areas and prevent “green gentrification,” where public improvements lead to an increase in rents and property values. From “just green enough” where community infrastructure is improved, but not by “too much,” to home buyer programs that seek to transition a handful of long-term residents to owners before prices rise out of reach, incrementalist strategies are being tested from coast to coast. At best they are insufficient and at worst they reinforce the harmful values that support our cities’ long and painful histories of race and class-based injustice.

These well-meaning approaches implemented from Boston to San Diego rest on the assumption that rising rental and ownership prices are so inevitable, and the right for a select few to profit from those increases is so intractable, that at best, we can strive to make conditions marginally better for a select few and cross our fingers for the rest. These strategies explicitly tell communities that they deserve less because they are unable to personally mitigate the complex inequities caused by generations of race and class-based local and federal policies.

As property values in urban areas rise and the threat of displacement meets the threat of the climate crisis, we must invest in those residents whose risk is the greatest, even if it threatens to upend the pattern of who profits most from public investments. While wealthier and whiter residents have been positioned to take advantage of increases in property values and public investments in the health of neighborhoods, residents of historically marginalized neighborhoods have and continue to shoulder the disproportionate risks of the advancing climate crisis due to unjust barriers to housing and unequal investment in public infrastructure. If climate resilience plans are to embody equity, they need to acknowledge and seek to address in bold and restorative ways the reality that immigrants, people of color and low-income residents have long been forced to live in areas with greater risk of flood, extreme heat, pollution and poor air quality and denied access to stable, affordable housing.

Through meaningful and robust investment in community owned, operated, and decommodified housing such as rental cooperatives, community land trust housing, and well-funded state-aided public housing, residents unable to buy into the private market will be able to stay and benefit from changes to their communities. Housing justice advocates and residents at risk of displacement deserve and must have a leadership role in making decisions about climate adaptation planning and housing. For centuries we’ve failed to do the work of meeting residents where they are to ask for their meaningful participation and engage in good faith shared-leadership in making changes to the urban form and local policy. We’re out of excuses. We have a good understanding of the fact that our neighborhoods don’t look the way they do by accident, and they won’t change by accident; it’s up to us to fix the harm that was done and prevent that harm from happening again in the future.

With increasing urgency, attention to, and money for climate adaptation, we have an opportunity to make things right, to repair the harm of housing and environmental injustice, long-enforced by public policy, and upheld by private practice. We must admit that coincidence, chance, or the “invisible hand of the free market” are not responsible for the gross inequities and vulnerabilities low-income residents face from gentrification, displacement, and the climate crisis. We have the ability and the responsibility to make things right.