HUD needs a Chief Climate Officer.
- Jan 19, 2021 5:17 pm GMT
President-elect Biden has put forward the most aggressive housing plan in several generations, and an expansive climate plan that includes “direct[ing] the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to make housing for low-income communities more efficient.” The designation of a Chief Climate Officer in the HUD Secretary’s office should be among the very first steps the Biden administration takes to make sure that HUD’s formidable nationwide influence is activated in the service of its climate mitigation, climate adaptation, and climate justice goals.
An explicit shift in HUD’s mission that embeds climate mitigation and adaptation is a necessary evolution of its core housing mandates. Homes that do not protect seniors from the adverse health impacts of high-heat events, that do not ensure high indoor environmental quality (thermal comfort, air quality, pests, etc.), or that don’t enable residents to shelter safely in their homes during extreme weather can no longer be called “quality homes.” Equally, creating “strong, inclusive communities” entails taking steps to ensure that the economic opportunities catalyzed by federal climate action benefit workers of low-income and marginalized communities, through, for example, an improved Section 3 mandate.
Integrating a climate mission into HUD’s core business requires leadership from the top. By designating a Chief Climate Officer in the Office of the Secretary, the HUD Secretary will strongly signal her commitment to the necessary culture, policy, process, and resource changes necessary to reorient HUD as a driver of climate solutions and climate justice. The Chief Climate Officer would:
- Develop a strong climate mission. HUD’s climate mission should seek to drive the housing industry nationally to aggressively mitigate and adapt to climate change; strengthen its policy-setting role and enforcement ability; and incorporate a strong commitment to climate justice. Access to secure tenure in safe and healthy housing is a foundational element in supporting Americans moving up and out of poverty in historically marginalized communities. In light of HUD’s fair housing mission and critical financial and policy-setting role in housing, developing a coherent, actionable approach to climate justice is overdue.
- Steward the organizational commitment for climate action within the HUD leadership team. The HUD CCO should reconvene the HUD Climate Council to formulate and oversee a specific, actionable plan for culture change. Changing a culture that has viewed climate action as a trade-off against “housing units” will take relentless, consistent, and meaningful communication. HUD’s senior leadership (the deputy and assistant secretaries, and regional administrators) will need to be well-supported as they lead their teams in incorporating the climate mission into their day-to-day work.
- Facilitate creative, problem-solving conversations across programs and regions. The HUD portfolio is large and diverse. Each program and each place will face both common and unique challenges. Successes should be celebrated and replicated; failures should be analyzed and their lessons disseminated.
- Lead HUD’s interagency and external partnerships on energy and climate. HUD should adopt a radically open stance to interagency and external partnerships by being ready to say “yes.” HUD’s programs are numerous and often hard to understand by both those inside and outside the housing sector. On climate, HUD must work closely with FEMA, DOE, EPA, DOT, HHS, DOL, and Commerce, as well as with State and local agencies and utilities. The HUD CCO should also serve as a direct link between the Office of the Secretary and the White House (CEQ, NEC, Domestic Policy Council, etc.) on climate policy. In all collaborations — interagency, philanthropic , or in the community — HUD should champion climate justice.
- Lead the transition from thinking in terms of utility cost savings to thinking in terms of GHG reduction. HUD has used utility cost savings as the primary justification for energy efficiency programs. This approach does not always align with GHG-reduction goals; for example, states like West Virginia and Wyoming depend almost exclusively on coal for electricity, and have the some of the lowest electric rates. Because of these low rates, aggressive carbon-reducing retrofits aren’t considered worth it in terms of “payback-years,” but should be prioritized when GHG emissions and air pollution are considered.
HUD should begin immediately to:
- Use formula programs, alongside competitive grants, to normalize the application of climate mitigation and adaptation goals in every project. Energy and sustainability programs have tended to come out as limited pots of “special” money, which states and localities compete for; however, the vast majority of HUD funding is disbursed in formula grants. Scaling up climate action should be focused on transforming the formula grants to emphasize “no regrets” strategies (those that are beneficial regardless of the pace of grid decarbonization) for climate mitigation and adaptation.
- Provide dedicated climate-action staff to HUD’s regional offices, which are its policy implementation engines. Each regional office should be supported by a Special Advisor for Climate, who helps regional staff resolve project-specific challenges, reports directly to the regional administrator, and participates in a cross-agency community of practice led by the chief climate officer. The Special Advisors should be given flexible consulting resources with transactional and technical expertise.
- Make all capital programs flexible enough to take full advantage of all available funds, regardless of the source, to accelerate climate-related capital improvements. Across the board, public and affordable housing is suffering from a crisis of under-investment in capital improvements. HUD should remove barriers to coordinated funding across programs and provide the resources necessary to transform existing multifamily buildings into high-performing, climate-adaptive buildings as soon as possible.
As the federal agency responsible for setting national housing policy and providing housing capital to both local governments and private owners, HUD has the power to make climate action a priority and effect a nationwide transformation in residential buildings. HUD has a respectable history of energy-efficiency programs, which the Trump administration has at best allowed to continue without new support (e.g. public housing energy performance contracting), or at worst dismantled (Obama-era Office of Sustainability). Even under the Obama administration, climate change-related programs and projects were ancillary to the core mission. The incoming Biden administration has the chance to explicitly integrate the climate mission into every aspect of HUD’s core business for the first time. It is high time to do so.
I would like to thank everyone whose conversations and comments improved this story, including those who preferred to remain anonymous. Pre-publication peer reviewers included: Rory Christian, Tanuj Deora, Yianice Hernandez, Charlotte Matthews, Steve Morgan, Alison Novak, Laura Popa, Tom Sahagian, and Arah Schuur.
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