On urban sprawl, affordable housing and climate change

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A student holds up a placard as she demonstrates with others to draw more attention to fighting climate change, in Paris, France, Friday, Feb. 22, 2019. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

A student holds up a placard as she demonstrates with others to draw more attention to fighting climate change, in Paris, France, Friday, Feb. 22, 2019. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

Pause for a second and consider the absurdity of the suburban way of life. Buying groceries, getting a haircut, going to the movies — all of these activities, along with countless others, require a car. Most suburbs don’t even have sidewalks. Public transit? Not a chance.  

Suburbanites guzzle gas to go anywhere and everywhere. And really, it’s not their fault. Sure, some consumption is due to personal choice. But getting to work? Going to the doctors? Emmanuel Macron followed this logic — that personal choice is the main contributor to consumption — and the French rioted. No, consumption is not always equal to choice.  

Our gluttonous habits — and I’m talking energy, not milkshakes and fries — are largely a result of poor planning and design, design which has incentivized sprawling cities and endless suburbia.   

It’s completely unsustainable to keep living this way. If we want to have any chance of meeting even the most modest carbon emissions goals, cities must get denser, clean mass transit must be expanded and suburbs must be cleared to make way for parks, open space and carbon-sequestering forests. Density is proven to decrease emissions, from both transportation and from buildings. And dense cities aren’t just good for the environment — they are closely linked to decreased public spending, economic growth and innovation.  

In a related matter, post-2008 recession America is facing a severe housing crisis. From San Francisco to Miami to New York, low and middle-income households are facing higher rent and stagnating wages. According to a 2018 report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, in Connecticut, a minimum wage earner needs to work almost 80 hours a week to afford a modest one bedroom apartment.   

It gets worse. “Affordable” housing isn’t just unaffordable — there’s less of it than ever. According to a study conducted by Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, since 1990 more than 2.5 million low-income homes have been destroyed or converted to luxury apartments. Prices in poor urban neighborhoods have crept up 50 percent faster than prices in rich neighborhoods.  

This leads poor families to look elsewhere. Outward, sprawling growth, into low-density areas, is encouraged. Although suburbs are often conceptualized in the American popular imagination as as rich, white oases, they are increasingly becoming more racially and socioeconomically diverse. A lack of affordable housing isn’t the only factor contributing to these new demographics, but it’s an important one.  

Urban sprawl-related emissions and affordable housing are intrinsically linked. We cannot design dense, sustainable, mass-transit oriented cities if no one can afford to live in them. Finding a solution to our housing crisis is paramount to any holistic climate change strategy.  

Currently, the major policy tool to increase affordable housing stock, and thus decrease prices, is the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC), which embraces private sector, market-based ideas by rewarding developers who build affordable housing with tax credits. But this program is woefully inadequate in scale and has become less efficient over the years. Public housing also exists, but it is no longer the primary source of new affordable housing for most cities. In addition, political resistance and aversion to integration leads most housing developments to be built in clusters, leading to concentrated poverty and its associated effects, such as high crime, poor schools and racial segregation.   

There is no easy fix to this convergence of climate change and affordable housing. Building outward may be more affordable, but it’s patently unsustainable. Conversely, living in dense cities in more sustainable, but our current system of affordable housing is… not affordable.  

Quite honestly, I don’t know exactly what the solution is. Perhaps it’s the model which was proposed by the People’s Policy Project in 2017, in which they recommend that the US build one million municipal homes a year for the next ten years. Perhaps it just involves beefing up the LIHTC or loosening zoning laws.  

Whatever the solution is, it’s clear that addressing urban sprawl through the creation of a more equitable and affordable housing system is smart. Taking this knowledge — that the design of our world is the root cause of climate change — and using it to form holistic solutions; that’s even smarter.  


Harry Zehner is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at harry.zehner@uconn.edu.

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