The United States is in the midst of a housing crisis, and the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic catastrophe are making it worse. Over 40 million people may soon be at risk of being thrown out of their homes at a time of great uncertainty. While the recent federal eviction moratorium keeps some people in their homes through the end of the year, a moratorium does not cancel their rent. That means tenants are still on the hook for back payment if they fall behind, as many already have, and no real tenant relief is in sight. The housing crisis has been exacerbated during the pandemic, but it isn’t unique to it. Insecure housing is a structural economic problem that has long plagued the United States.
In the years ahead, policymakers have a chance to attack this crisis at the root, with a massive new program of building green, sustainable homes, with access to walkable streets and public transit, through a model called “social housing.” The new housing would incorporate affordable community services like child care and dentistry (“mixed-use”); offer homes to the working and middle classes (“mixed-income”); be governed with more resident involvement than traditional public housing; and fight climate change by building the homes with sustainable materials and to carbon neutral energy efficiency standards—stimulating the country’s green buildings industries, and bringing down the costs of green techniques and materials for everyone. At the same time, a social housing program would create hundreds of thousands of skilled, living-wage jobs annually, creating new careers for young people countrywide.
This is a policy vision that, in fits and starts, is gaining momentum. Progressive think tanks and tenant movements have pushed for ambitious green social housing policies; more modestly, Joe Biden’s presidential campaign has called for an unprecedented build-out of green affordable housing. Affordable housing developers in New York and Pennsylvania are already shifting to green, energy efficient construction.