Adapting to Climate Change: Affordable Housing must be Sustainable Housing
November 21, 2022
As President Biden recently shared at the COP27 United Nations Climate Conference in Egypt, the climate crisis is about “human security, economic security, environmental security, national security and the very life of the planet.”
Eden Housing continually strives to adopt climate conscious practices that benefit the planet, as well as the people it serves. Eden Housing recently signed the U.S. Department of Energy’s Better Climate Challenge, a national leadership initiative calling for reduced greenhouse gas emissions, job creation and partners in promoting healthy, safe and thriving communities.
Better Climate Challenge Partners commit to a 50% or more reduction in greenhouse gas emissions across their U.S. building portfolio over the next 10 years. Considering that current projections call for doubling Eden’s portfolio over the next decade, this action will undoubtedly create significant impact.
Tom White, Eden Housing’s associate director of building performance and sustainability, is tasked with leading this charge for the organization. “This is a huge undertaking but well worth the investment in the health of our planet and the communities Eden is touching,” said White.
He outlined a few of the ways in which Eden is tackling climate change.
At the top of the list is improving building resiliency. “Considering the record temperatures, we’ve experienced in the last five to 10 years, as well as flooding, sea level rise, wildfires, poor air quality, high heat events—it’s all affecting housing in California,” said White. “We must adapt our buildings to withstand the impacts of climate change.”
White said the goal is to develop high performing buildings that can withstand the impacts of climate change and also minimize the amount of energy and water being used to keep them comfortable and habitable.
As recently discussed at COP27, the construction industry is far from reaching its climate change goals, and White said Eden must do its part to develop new buildings that minimize their contribution to the growing problem. A recent United Nations report found that the construction industry’s CO2 emissions have rebounded from the pandemic to an all-time high, accounting for over a third of energy demand in 2021, despite an increase in efficiency investment and lower intensity.
In addition to minimizing its own usage, White said Eden is focused on restoring resources. “How can we actually give back—not just adapt to the damage being caused by climate change, but give back to the environment and restore resources?”
An important step is Eden’s recent commitment to the Better Climate Challenge and to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 50%. Better Climate Challenge Partners agree to develop an organization-wide plan with greenhouse gas emission reduction milestones, share information on the low greenhouse gas strategies implemented and participate in working groups to share best practices and solutions.
Reaching the 50% milestone will be tough, but White says Eden will tackle this challenge from all angles, and retrofitting existing buildings is an important piece of the puzzle. Eden has acquired properties that are 60, 70 or even 100 years old in some cases, so bringing them up to speed so that they can sustain additional electrical loads is no small task. One area of focus will be on replacing gas combustion appliances like water heating, space heating, dryers and furnaces that use a significant amount of natural gas that is being combusted and contributes to greenhouse emissions.
The solution isn’t as simple as adding high tech electric equipment to replace heating systems. If homes have low-quality windows and low insulation, for example, those systems won’t help much. “It’s important to consider how we lower the amount of energy our buildings are using right now before we start to think about adding high tech all-electric space heating, water heating and cooking systems,” said White. Thinking of the building as a whole system, and lowering the entire energy load is key.
Looking at the building holistically means considering everyone’s contribution to the solution. “We will also be relying on our maintenance and property operations staff to understand how to operate these buildings and maintain them,” said White, adding that energy and water saving equipment must be properly maintained, otherwise performance degrades and efficiency is lost. “It will truly require across the board collaboration with all teams working together, not just asset management or development, but also operations and maintenance.”
Another issue Eden plans to turn its attention to is ensuring climate equity and equitable access to energy conserving systems. Funding from initiatives like Justice40 will be instrumental in this effort. The Biden-Harris Administration created the Justice40 Initiative to confront and address decades of underinvestment in disadvantaged communities. The initiative will bring resources to communities most impacted by climate change, pollution, and environmental hazards.
“We have to prioritize the properties in greatest need to make sure we’re increasing building resilience and improving resident health and comfort where it’s most needed,” said White. Properties that are in urban heat islands where residents have a very low or fixed income, for example, result in a higher energy cost burden than a property in a mild climate where residents have multiple sources of income.
Other sources of funding, such as Governor Newsom’s Charging Reliability Transparency Act, will help cover the cost of installing electric vehicle supply equipment and charging stations in communities where they’re needed. “It shouldn’t just be the wealthy few Tesla owners who have access to superchargers. We need to improve the electric mobility options for residents,” said White. “The largest portion of greenhouse gas emissions in the state come from vehicle transportation.” White says Eden will play a role in increasing these mobility options.