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The Green New Deal for Public Housing Has Arrived

New legislation from Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will fight climate change, transform the lives of public housing residents, and model the promise of the Green New Deal.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez hold a news conference to introduce legislation to transform public housing as part of their Green New Deal proposal outside the US Capitol November 14, 2019 in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

The Green New Deal proposes a national and international mobilization to stop climate change, undertaken with all the gravity and urgency that the crisis necessitates.

But what makes it different from many past environmental efforts — and more likely to develop and sustain mass popular support — is not just its scale. It’s that the Green New Deal refuses to counterpose economic and environmental well-being. In fact, it explicitly makes economic justice a focal point. And there can be no economic justice without good homes for all.

In this spirit, Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have just introduced the first infrastructure bill proposed under the Green New Deal umbrella. The Green New Deal for Public Housing Act invests in a green overhaul of the nation’s public housing stock. Its objective is to make all public housing in the United States both high quality and zero carbon.

“Our public housing stock has been neglected for far too long,” said Sanders. “In fact, unbelievably, in the midst of a national housing crisis, we are losing ten thousand units of public housing every year.”

“What we’re going to do in this legislation is nothing less than decarbonize the entire public housing stock in the United States of America, and in the process put hundreds of thousands of people to work in good-paying jobs,” said Ocasio-Cortez.

“This is a win-win-win piece of legislation,” added Sanders.

The passage and implementation of the Green New Deal for Public Housing Act would be transformational for public housing residents. For decades, public housing has been starved of resources by austerity-minded lawmakers who begrudgingly treat it as a burdensome necessity when they’re not outright slandering it. Many of the nation’s 2 million public housing residents live in subpar and often unsafe conditions. Yesterday, a broken boiler left nearly 2,500 New York City public housing residents without heat in frigid temperatures.

Public housing units across the country are already long overdue for major upgrades. The bill proposes to invest $180 billion over ten years to repair and retrofit units and complexes to make them comfortable, safe, beautiful, and sustainable. Energy-efficient developments — including the installation of on-site renewable energy sources — will cut energy costs in public housing by 70 percent and overall public housing costs by 30 percent. “This will pay for itself,” Sanders said.

Data for Progress estimates that the initiative would create nearly 250,000 jobs per year across multiple sectors. This would include tens of thousands of good-paying, unionized construction and maintenance jobs. Public housing residents themselves would be given priority for these jobs. The initiative would reduce underemployment and low pay among public housing residents, but that’s not all: the Green New Deal for Public Housing Act would also develop grocery stores and community gardens on premises to eliminate food deserts. The bill would invest in on-site childcare services that would improve safety, reduce financial burdens on public housing residents, and build a sense of community.

And, of course, the Green New Deal for Public Housing Act would represent a significant step in combating climate change. Data for Progress estimates that public housing is responsible for about 5.6 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually. The decarbonization efforts stipulated by the bill would be equivalent to taking more than a million cars off the road.

Earlier this year, Daniel Aldana Cohen, who contributed research to the new legislative effort, wrote in Jacobin about the need to merge the Green New Deal with a bold housing vision. “A huge build-out of high quality, beautifully designed, meticulously financed public housing,” he wrote, “would meet millions of people’s housing needs and create tens of thousands of skilled jobs in the no-carbon construction sector for decades.” Taking cues from the People’s Policy Project’s social housing plan, Cohen proposed that we aim to build 10 million new public, no-carbon homes in ten years, and then do it again over the next ten years, and so on, until we’ve effectively implemented “a low-carbon housing guarantee.”

If that’s the North Star, then Sanders’s and Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal for Public Housing Act is a step in that direction. The decarbonization and renovation of existing public housing will serve as a model for what safe, sustainable, and desirable public housing can look like. And by showing how we can fight climate change and economic hardship at the same time, it models the type of non-housing legislation we can expect to comprise a Green New Deal.