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Climate and housing

Solar panels in the Mueller community in Texas, an example of a sustainable community

Arial view of the Mueller district in Austin, Texas, an example of a sustainable community.  Image credit: Getty Images. 

April 24, 2024

Housing policy already acts as climate policy

Housing regulations and investments influence what gets developed, where people live, and how cost-burdened they are. These are key factors that impact a community’s vulnerability to environmental hazards and an area’s contribution to climate change. This resource provides cities with a framework to understand how housing and climate policies share critical goals and ideas for taking action. 

Why is pursuing climate-conscious housing policy imperative for cities?

City governments – often the first to learn of the challenges faced by their citizens – are charged with providing and coordinating resources to address local concerns. While the widespread threats to health and safety posed by climate change will require broad investment from state and federal resources, cities can take an active role in securing improved living conditions for their residents by recognizing local policy’s role in addressing immediate and long-term climate concerns.

1. Cities need a coordinated strategy to address climate disasters. Many cities are already grappling with the effects of climate change, but they don’t have a plan to tackle it. Rather than proactively mitigating risk, most climate policy in the U.S. currently supports damaged housing and community infrastructure after disaster strikes. This is often costlier and leaves residents vulnerable to physical harm. Cities, therefore, stand to benefit from a coordinated approach that prevents damage from happening in the first place. 

2. Energy affordability is essential to housing affordability. Residential energy costs can be a major pressure point for cost-burdened households. Low-income households, in particular, stand to benefit from reduced energy costs but often have the fewest resources to access energy-efficient housing or pursue energy-efficiency upgrades. By promoting energy efficiency, cities can secure tangible benefits for residents by reducing energy cost burdens and positively contribute to broader societal needs for reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

3. Equitable housing outcomes depend on cross-sector analyses and action. The historical influence of race and income on residential patterns means that climate change’s costs and health impacts are not equitably distributed. Collaboration between housing and climate stakeholders is necessary to ensure that new city-level programs advance solutions to improve racially disparate patterns of investment, valuation, and neglect.

How can housing promote climate readiness?

A graphic illustrating the pathways to climate-ready housing

There are three pathways to think about how cities can use housing as a platform to ensure the safety and longevity of their communities in the face of increasing climate risks: 

Protect physical safety by reducing exposure to immediate climate risks.

Ensure long-term sustainability by reducing housing-related greenhouse gas emissions, electrifying housing, and generating renewable energy.

Enable equitable disaster response, recovery, and retrofits to help communities achieve greater resilience in the future

For each pathway, cities can understand the climate impact of housing and identify discrete opportunities for action through the three following considerations:

  • Housing location: The location of housing influences household exposure to the negative impacts of climate change. It can also dictate the amount of energy required to transport people, goods, and municipal services to individual households. The geographic spread of climate impacts interacts with pre-existing city residential patterns, historically influenced by race and class.

  • Housing design and construction: The construction type and infrastructure available to housing impact the resilience of structures to extreme weather events. Construction also contributes to housing’s indirect emissions, as producing, transporting, and assembling residential building materials often relies on heavy-duty diesel vehicles that account for roughly 10 percent of energy consumption worldwide. Lastly, construction methods and unit density have a direct bearing on housing affordability. Taken together, design and construction methods pose multiple interwoven considerations for climate-ready housing.

  • Housing operation: The ability of homes to provide adequate temperature regulation systems, insulation, air filtration, and other forms of environmental mediation impact household exposure to extreme weather events. At the same time, these amenities contribute to residential energy use, the production of which accounts for roughly 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. While energy-efficient appliances can lessen the tension between climate-ready residential amenities and greenhouse gas emissions, low-income households may not be able to bear the costs of efficiency upgrades in addition to their standard home maintenance. Cities should therefore carefully consider tradeoffs posed by housing operation as they promote climate-ready housing.

What actions can cities take?

1. Understand your city’s present and future climate risks, as these will define the purpose and methods of subsequent efforts. 

Resources that can help identify local climate risks include the National Environmental Modeling and Analysis Center’s Climate Explorer, FEMA’s National Risk Index, and the United States Global Change Research Program’s Climate Mapping For Resilience and Adaptation

2. Assess the context of your city’s residential patterns, past land use decisions, and climate risks to guide equitable policy processes and impacts. Climate change will impact different communities differently, and successful policy addresses these disparate starting points and impacts.

Resources that can help cities assess how climate risks intersect with residential patterns and social vulnerability include the Council on Environmental Quality’s Climate & Economic Justice Screening Tool, Rebuild by Design’s “Mapping the Impact” chapter in their Atlas of Disaster, and the Digital Scholarship Lab’s maps of family displacement due to urban renewal.

3. Convene housing and climate stakeholders. Comprehensive and effective housing policy depends on meaningful collaboration with stakeholders that address climate issues. This includes departments of public works, local non-profits, and others. Collaborative climate-housing planning should also address the past harms of inequitable community development by involving the community in meaningful engagement.

Resources that can help cities convene necessary stakeholders include: Rebuild by Design’s “Guide to Building a Collaborative Program” chapter in their Atlas of Disaster, and Urban Institute’s Preserving, Protecting, and Building Climate-Resilient Affordable Housing.

4. Build a suite of policies and programs that address current needs, future conditions, and past influences on the residential landscape of your city.

Cities can also seek support with housing planning needs through the Peer Cities Network, Housing Solutions Workshop, and Ask the Lab.

This table describes how cities can use the tools in the Housing Policy Library to promote climate-ready housing.

Table 1. Tools to Promote Climate-Ready Housing

I. Protect Physical Safety by Reducing Exposure to Immediate Climate Risks

Logic/Mechanism:Specific Policies:
Housing Location: Enabling the rehabilitation or relocation of housing in high-risk areas can decrease community vulnerability to climate disasters.Streamline permitting processes to remove barriers to rehabilitating existing structures in climate-vulnerable locations.

Develop proactive managed retreat strategies to help households move to areas with fewer climate risks.
Housing Design and Construction: Promoting the construction of housing that can withstand local climate risks can protect households from the immediate impacts of climate change.Revise the building code to require or encourage the construction of climate-resistant housing.
Housing Operation: Increasing the ability of homes to maintain healthy indoor conditions can help mediate the impact of climate change on household well-being.Adopt housing rehabilitation codes that require owners who rehabilitate their buildings to comply with climate-resistance standards and other major safety issues.

II. Ensure Long-Term Sustainability by Reducing Housing-Related Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Generating Renewable Energy

Housing Location: Planning that considers the geography of climate vulnerability and residential proximity to goods and services can reduce the energy associated with transportation needs.Update the zoning code to strategically increase housing density, encourage mixed-use development, and facilitate access to public transit.
Housing Design and Construction: Regulating and incentivizing sustainable building practices can decrease greenhouse gas emissions.Use low-income housing tax credits (LIHTC) to incentivize energy-efficient housing built with climate-friendly construction methods.

Adopt energy-efficiency standards for building systems and components that reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions in new homes.

Revise building codes to streamline the development process for buildings that include features intended to reduce energy use.
Housing Operation: Regulating and incentivizing homes that are energy efficient or do not rely on fossil fuels can decrease emissions from residential energy use.Adopt energy-efficiency standards and provide financial assistance to support energy-efficiency retrofits in existing homes.

Establish programs to support community solar projects or residence-specific energy generation.

III. Enable Equitable Disaster Response, Recovery, and Retrofits to Help Communities Achieve Greater Resilience in the Future

Housing Location: Establishing policies that consider the interaction of climate vulnerability and social vulnerability can address patterns of inequality.Pursue inclusionary zoning in resource-rich areas with lower levels of climate risk.

Develop post-disaster managed retreat strategies to support lowered climate risk and community cohesion, particularly among low-income communities.
Housing Design and Construction: Ensuring that diverse housing types are maintained, built, or rebuilt can support housing availability and affordability for low-income households.Conduct outreach to landlords of small, market-affordable properties to provide support with navigating sustainability and resilience requirements.

Expand access to capital for affordable rental properties to support climate-ready rehabilitation projects while maintaining affordability.
Housing Operation: Supporting weatherized, energy-efficient homes can help increase housing quality, resilience, and affordability in under-invested communities.Provide financial assistance for low-income households to support weatherization in existing homes.

Source: Housing Solutions Lab

Assemble funding and technical expertise to support chosen strategies

Resources to protect physical safety by reducing exposure to immediate climate risks:

Resources to ensure long-term sustainability by reducing housing-related greenhouse gas emissions and generating renewable energy: 

  • National Housing Trust’s Infobrief series details how housing finance agencies can use LIHTC to advance sustainable housing.
  • The City Energy Project, led by the Institute for Market Transformation and the Natural Resources Defense Council, showcases best practices for city-level energy efficiency policies. 
  • The Housing Solutions Lab federal funding directory lists additional resources to support energy efficiency.

Resources to enable equitable disaster response, recovery, and retrofits to help communities achieve greater resilience in the future: 


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