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Message from NHC and the Center on Earth Day: Change Can Start at Home

As the New York Times reports today, President Obama is marking the 40th annual Earth Day celebration by urging the passage of energy legislation to increase investments in renewable, clean energy, efforts critical to our national security and the health of our environment. While these issues can seem out of reach and global in nature, change can really start at home. Your home.

A report published by the White House in 2009 states that the residential sector emits more than twenty percent of the nation’s carbon emissions, the primary source of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. Improving the energy-efficiency of our housing stock helps to shrink this share, and can translate to lower utility bills, particularly for low- and moderate-income families that tend to live in older, less efficient homes.

Efforts to develop new, energy-efficient affordable homes are well underway, with groups like Enterprise Community Partners providing non-profit housing developers with financial support and technical expertise to build homes that are “healthier, more energy efficient and better for the environment on a cost-effective basis” through their Green Communities program.

Preserving and retrofiting the existing housing stock is also critical to reducing carbon emissions. The preservation of existing affordable housing is inherently “green” and environmentally responsible, since utilizing existing structures produce less waste and uses less new materials and energy than new construction.

A recent forum hosted by NHC entitled, Partners in Innovation: Preserving Affordable Rental Housing through Energy Conservation, highlighted the benefits of policies to develop and maintain rental homes that are both energy-efficient and affordable and shared best practices in green rental housing.

While the energy-efficiency of homes is linked to affordability through lowering utility costs, transportation is another critical factor that contributes to household expenditures, as well as carbon emissions. Housing that is built at sufficient densities to support public transit, or located in close proximity to existing transit service, job centers, and other amenities, gives residents the opportunity to choose transportation alternatives that are less costly, and more energy-efficient, than a personal vehicle – or which allow them reduce car usage substantially.

The Center for Housing Policy’s report, Boston Regional Challenge, illustrates this point, finding that the average working household in the Boston region spends over $34,000 a year—or 54 percent of their income—on the combined costs of housing and transportation. The report emphasizes that affordable housing by itself is not sufficient and needs to be linked to strategies to reduce transportation costs, such as building mixed-income housing near public transit and job centers and zoning for a mix of uses to reduce the need to drive long distances to meet basic needs. Such strategies help keep costs low for working families, strengthen the economy, and lower the carbon emissions of current and future generations.

The energy-efficiency of the homes we live in, as well as where we live, have significant environmental implications. By considering policies to preserve and expand the supply of energy-efficient affordable homes near amenity-rich locations, we can reduce the nation’s carbon emissions and the energy expenditures that households make on utilities and transportation costs.

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