Housing for a socio-ecological transformation

Published 18 januari, 2021

Riccardo Mastini

Policy Advisor for the international campaign Green New Deal for Europe

In his contribution to Urban Readings, Riccardo Mastini, PhD candidate at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, and policy advisor for the international campaign for the Green New Deal for Europe, discusses how issues around access to affordable healthcare and housing fit into visions for a Green New Deal.

The Green New Deal discourse 

One of the flagship proposals of the Green New Deal discourse—embraced over the last couple of years by climate justice movements and progressive politicians on both sides of the Atlantic—is to create green jobs by rolling out a massive program of public housing retrofit to slash carbon emissions from domestic heating systems. Just to put these claims into perspective, in the United States a ten-year mobilization of up to $172 billion would retrofit over 1 million public housing units, vastly improving the living conditions of nearly 2 million residents, and creating over 240,000 jobs per year. These green retrofits would cut 5.6 million tons of annual carbon emissions—the equivalent of taking 1.2 million cars off the road. This proposal—enshrined in the Green New Deal for Public Housing Act championed by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Bernie Sanders—is estimated to create the bulk of green jobs in Republican states, effectively creating an appeal for conservative voters to support a Green New Deal. 

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Such strategy—which we may define as ‘red-green populism’—sits well with the political discourse of the Green New Deal that aims to integrate working-class nostalgia with the urgency of remaking the economy to fight the climate crisis. The positive benefits for job creation arise from the fact that public housing retrofit—just like installing and maintaining renewable energy power plants, agroecology, land restoration, etc.—entails work that cannot be either automated or outsourced. After all, for the climate justice movement to expand the appeal of the green transition beyond the professional class and establish a working-class base for itself, it cannot place the emphasis only on knowledge of the science (polarizing between belief or denial). It has to mobilize around environmentally beneficial policies that appeal to the material interests of the vast majority of the working class mired in job insecurity. This is why the Green New Deal discourse is predicated upon three tenets: decarbonization shall be:

  1. planned (public ownership of essential infrastructures and public investments);
  2. fair (the rich in every society are the most responsible for unsustainable levels of personal carbon emissions and should slash them more drastically than the rest of the population while also paying for the green transition);
  3. inclusive (retraining workers away from carbon-intensive sectors and adopting a job guarantee to provide socially and ecologically useful work).

The relationship between affordable housing and a more sustainable world 

Let’s now look at the public housing part of the proposal. The Green New Deal, in its various iterations, has involved proposals for free public transport, affordable housing, renewable energy in the hands of municipalities, free healthcare, childcare, and social care, and much more. These promises may seem, at first glance, to have little to do with the word ‘green’. How do access to healthcare and affordable housing make our world more sustainable? The thing is that rolling out universal basic services to meet essential needs makes it easier for everyone to live sustainably. Universal basic services are more cost-effective and less ecologically intensive than their private counterparts (in other words, you get more provisioning for less impact). For instance, Spain’s public healthcare system generates significantly better outcomes than the US system (Spain’s life expectancy is a whole five years longer) with less than one-quarter of the cost and a fraction of the carbon emissions. Public transportation is less intensive than private cars, public water is less intensive than bottled water, public green spaces are less intensive than private gardens, etc.

At first glance, universal basic services, have little to do with the word ’green’

Decommodifying essential services is also a way for breaking the ‘productivist nexus’ (the twin societal goal of full-time employment and perpetual growth) and, therefore, beginning to downscale the metabolism of our economic system. Imagine if we were to even just partially decommodify the housing stock by expanding public housing and capping the price of private housing at half its present level. Citizens would suddenly be able to work and earn significantly less than they presently do without any loss to their quality of life. The economy would produce less as a result, but it would also need much less. In such an economy private wealth (or GDP) may shrink reducing the incomes of corporations and the very rich, but public wealth would increase, significantly improving the lives of everyone else. And given the overwhelming scientific evidence on the limits of decoupling GDP growth from environmental impacts, this is the only way to meet our climate commitments.

But beware of the idea of expanding public housing by increasing the housing stock. A recent study found that the quantity of human-made materials now exceeds the overall living biomass on Earth. And surely some more concrete, metal, and cement is not what we need. Especially in rich countries. What we need is actually to reverse the trend of soil consumption in order to reforest wide areas and reduce carbon concentration in the atmosphere. There is, after all, an abundance of vacant buildings in many countries. Just to take an example, Italy registers 7 million vacant houses out of the existing 31 million, 700,000 abandoned warehouses, and 500,000 closed shops. A system to rationalize home occupancy could, for instance, make use of ‘housing vouchers’. These vouchers could be distributed to every citizen, which they can use to pay part of the rent for a flat. Homeowners, on the other hand, would have to pay their property tax in ‘housing vouchers’. When they occupy their property themselves, they can use their own vouchers to pay the tax; when they rent their flat, one part of the rent can be the voucher. Thus, property owners would have a strong incentive to make sure their flats are not under-occupied because this would cause problems when paying the tax. As a consequence, the need for housing (expressed in vouchers)—rather than the demand (expressed in monetary ability to pay)—would receive more attention in housing allocation.

Transforming the way we consume

The socio-ecological transformation that we need to address the double crisis of increasing economic inequality and mounting ecological breakdown forces us to question overconsumption. People believe we need growth because they start from the assumption of scarcity. But there is no scarcity. There is inequality. And this is most clearly reflected in the way in which the built environment is distributed among social classes. If everyone consumed as much as the wealthy do, Bristol would be as big as London, London would cover most of England, England would cover the whole of Europe, and Europe would cover the entire world. If some want to have more, others need to have less. And land—you know—, they stopped making it a long time ago.

Riccardo Mastini
January 2021

About the author

Riccardo Mastini is a PhD candidate in ecological economics and political ecology at the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. He is also a policy advisor for the international campaign Green New Deal for Europe.

You can follow him on TwitterFacebook and visit his website.


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