What's The Best Way To Help The Climate And People, Too? Home Improvement
President Biden wants to spend $200 billion renovating old homes or building affordable new ones. It's a move that would fight climate change in a way that makes people's lives better.
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A signature of the Biden administration so far is a policy with more than one goal. Early on, the president signed a COVID relief bill that was also designed to fight poverty. Provisions of an infrastructure bill are also promoted as ways to oppose climate change and support racial justice, and it's the same when the administration talks of spending money to renovate homes. The plan here is meant to cut greenhouse gas emissions in a way that also attacks economic and racial disparities. NPR's Dan Charles reports from Cleveland, Ohio.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Workmen have invaded Flora Dillard's house on the east side of Cleveland.
(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We're coming up, guys.
CHARLES: There's plastic over everything and no place to sit, but Dillard does not seem to mind.
FLORA DILLARD: A couple of days of inconvenience is nothing compared to the results that you get.
CHARLES: On cold winter nights, she's been freezing in her drafty upstairs bedroom, plugging in electric space heaters.
DILLARD: Of course, the heaters help, but they're also - it messes with my breathing 'cause it gets stuffy.
CHARLES: Dillard's niece told her she could get help from the city. So she filled out some paperwork, and an inspector from a nonprofit group, CHN Housing Partners, came to check out her house.
DILLARD: I actually had a gas leak, and she shut my gas off. I could have blew up (laughter), me and my grandbabies and my brother, who was here visiting.
CHARLES: Now she has a new furnace. The workers have plugged some cracks around the foundation, rerouted a vent to the outside to keep mold from forming. They're insulating the upstairs bedroom. It should make the house more comfortable, safer and healthier. Also, it'll burn less fuel, slowing down climate change. And this is just one house. There are tens of thousands in the city with similar problems. Shirley Bell-Wheeler applied for help but didn't get it yet.
SHIRLEY BELL-WHEELER: In the wintertime, especially like this - that month or two? My heat is on high the whole entire time.
CHARLES: There are problems like this in neighborhoods across the country, where houses are old and people don't have much money for new equipment. In addition to high energy use, there's often lead contamination, mold, indoor air pollutants that can trigger asthma, which is why Tony Reames says a nationwide program to renovate homes is so important. He's a professor at the University of Michigan, recently named a senior adviser at the U.S. Department of Energy. Residential homes account for about a fifth of the country's greenhouse emissions, and Reames says there's a big opportunity to cut that in housing that's been neglected.
TONY REAMES: I feel like that's our lowest-hanging fruit and also the way to have the largest impact, particularly in disinvested communities, communities that are struggling.
CHARLES: So when the city of Cleveland came up with its to-do list a few years ago to fight climate change and also economic and racial disparities, it put housing renovation right at the top. But the city doesn't have much money to do this. Now the Biden administration wants to step in with a massive infusion of cash - $17 billion to make homes more efficient, $40 billion for upgrades in public housing, even more money to build new affordable homes. Cecilia Martinez from the White House Council on Environmental Quality says the plan is big because the problem is big.
CECILIA MARTINEZ: We have an opportunity now. This is our key opportunity to transform our economy, as well as our infrastructure.
CHARLES: Republicans in Congress, though, have not included most of this funding in their infrastructure counterproposals. And even if the money does come through, Tony Reames at the University of Michigan says the government does not have a good system for reaching all the homes that need work.
REAMES: 'Cause one of the challenges with so many of our programs is that it is very individualistic.
CHARLES: They usually rely on homeowners applying for help. Reames would like cities to think of housing more like essential infrastructure that requires regular maintenance.
REAMES: I used to work in local government. And we planned out our sewer pipe replacements. We planned out our water pipe replacements, street replacements, based on the age of that infrastructure. And it's the same with housing, right?
CHARLES: Cities could put entire neighborhoods on a schedule, he says - go door to door, checking to see what they need. Kimberly Foreman, executive director of Environmental Health Watch, who's worked in Cleveland's neighborhoods for decades, says you do have to be careful, though.
KIMBERLY FOREMAN: We always got to ask the community what do they want versus saying, we had an answer; you should do this.
CHARLES: You can renovate homes and install new equipment, she says, but it'll only work well if the people who live there understand those changes and want them.
Dan Charles, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.