For reasons I can’t completely explain, even to myself, I like to read the opinion pages in local newspapers. Last week, a letter in our local paper called for regulations requiring all new residential development to have solar panels as a means of addressing climate change.
The author referred to recently completed teacher housing as an example of a missed opportunity to slap some solar onto a new residential project. They went on to suggest that concerns about cost implications of requiring solar on affordable housing were unfounded. To the writer, it boiled down to a basic tension between “a desire to add housing and a desire to be climate conscious.”
Ok, let’s take a look at this. Those issues—climate change and housing affordability—are connected. However, it’s not the case that solving one comes at the expense of the other. In fact, it’s just the opposite: addressing housing affordability is a critical—though generally overlooked—strategy for combatting climate change.
Before we dive into why, let me say this: I support solar. It’s important and we need more of it. Heck, I’ve got it on my own house. Solar, good. Also, it’s good to see citizens demand action on climate change. This is needed.
Ok, with that said, real progress combatting climate change relies on a clear-eyed view of the problem and potential solutions. Being a climate advocate is about more than just rooting for solar and EVs. We need systemic approaches that are mutually supportive. If a strategy helps in one arena (say, expanding renewables), but hurts in another (making people drive more), then we’re treading water.
Case in point: anything that makes it harder to build affordable workforce housing near jobs is likely a net negative when it comes to tackling climate change. Yeah, I know, most people don’t think of building affordable housing as a climate change strategy. It is. Here’s why.
When a community lacks housing that its workforce can afford, those folks move to places they can afford and they commute to work. This results in more and longer car trips, which means more climate changing emissions. Those emissions—often called greenhouse gasses or GHGs—are what we need to make less of.
This should be a red flag for anyone concerned with climate change. Nationally, the transportation sector accounts for around a third of climate changing GHG emissions and has overtaken power generation as the largest and fastest growing source of emissions.
While cleaner fuels and more efficient vehicles are helping, those gains are not keeping pace with growth in vehicle miles traveled (VMT), which is a wonky measure of how much and how far we drive. To tackle climate change, we have to bring down VMT. That’s hard to do in places where a lack of housing near job centers forces more and more people to drive farther and farther.
To get control of burgeoning emissions from the transportation sector, we need to drive less. That means designing neighborhoods and communities that make it easier for people to walk, bike, use transit, and drive less (fewer and shorter trips). To do that, we can do three things.
First, we can encourage more housing that is affordable to the local workforce within and around job centers. Yes, that means new workforce housing—and of a higher density—in areas that are likely to be more affluent. And yes, this is politically difficult. We’ll come back that.
Second, we need to make it easier to build walkable neighborhoods in centrally-located areas. In addition to offering convenience and sense of place, these neighborhoods make it easier to walk or bike, and car trips tend to be fewer and shorter, which means people who live in these areas drive less.
Third, we need to invest in great streets and quality transit systems that connect neighborhoods, communities and regions. These feed off each other: if we build walkable neighborhoods with diverse housing around transit hubs, both the transit system and the neighborhood work better.
The good news? When we do these things, we not only expand housing affordability, but we offer people more and easier ways to get around. We build healthy neighborhoods and authentic downtowns. We build stronger communities and economies. And yes, we meaningfully reduce climate emissions and also minimize impacts on our land and water.
Here’s more good news: the types of communities and neighborhoods we need to build are what more and more people want. Demand for living in centrally located, walkable neighborhoods—places that offer convenience, sense of community, and access to daily needs—has been on the rise for well over a decade. The problem is that most markets lack the housing needed to meet that demand.
So that’s the good news, now here’s the bad news.
The politics around this are intense. The reason we don’t build housing that working families need near their jobs is not because it’s technically or financially infeasible, or that those families don’t want to live there. It’s due to opposition from people who already live in those areas.
I get it. It’s hard to see our communities change. But here’s the reality—the American West is, and has been, one of the fastest growing parts of the nation for some time. That growth is going to continue. All of us who care about how our communities grow must get real about that. Pretending that not growing is an option encourages status-quo growth in bad locations and makes it harder to build good projects that make our communities more sustainable and affordable.
Let’s get back to the letter, which suggested that new teacher housing, sans solar, was part of the problem. In this valley, 26,000 people, or over half of the employed population (around 50,000 people), commute daily between the community they live in and the one where they work. And for many, it’s not a short trip. The lack of workforce housing creates an enormous commuter-shed extending from Aspen to Parachute, an 83-mile commute (one way).
That’s a lot of people driving a long way. Housing affordability—the lack of it—is the primary driver of these commuting patterns.
These numbers pale in comparison to larger metros that struggle with the same dynamics. In some of the higher cost markets, average commute times of an hour are normal, and hundreds of thousands commute well over two hours between work and places they can afford to live.
The impacts on carbon emissions can’t be overstated. Anyone who truly cares about addressing climate change needs to understand that we can’t tackle transportation—the largest and fastest growing source of emissions—without addressing housing affordability.
Solar and other green additions are important too, but if we’re just adding those things to otherwise unsustainable patterns of development, it’s not really “green.” Moreover, those types of additions really do impact the financial feasibility of building more affordable homes. We should encourage greener homes and buildings, but not at the expense of creating affordable housing in good locations.
It’s important to advocate for quality development in our communities. Sometimes that means opposing projects that are not a good fit (wrong place, poor design, inherently unaffordable), but it also means being in support of good projects. That type of support is pretty rare, while opposition—even to really good projects—is increasingly just a part of the process.
The power of that opposition is immense. In addition to quashing individual development proposals, it stifles the political will needed to create policies that encourage good projects in good places.
So, for anyone who is interested in the impacts of local development on the environment, it’s as simple as this: unchecked NIMBYISM is not only making our communities less affordable and less equitable, it’s driving up climate emissions and hurting the environment.
If we want to encourage environmentally sustainable development, we should advocate for affordable housing near job centers, creating walkable neighborhoods within our communities, and connecting those with modern multi-modal transportation systems. Write letters. Attend meetings. Advocate.
This Earth Day, if you want to take action on climate change, get YIMBY—"Yes, In My Back Yard”—for action on housing in your community, because solving the climate crisis relies on solving the affordability crisis.