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Housing, Climate & Disability: Transforming How We Live


Older apartment buildings, flooded streets up to the second story
Climate change damages homes, efficient homes can limit climate change, and accessible housing is connected to both adaptation and mitigation

Intro

Housing is one of the most under-discussed parts of the climate puzzle yet is one of its most important pieces. The nature and location of our housing stock impacts how climate change affects us and shapes our environmental footprint. Meanwhile, people with disabilities are faced with a shortage of housing that is accessible, affordable, climate safe, and sustainable. It doesn’t have to be like this. We can transform where and how we build housing to meet the needs of the disability community in the face of climate change.

Housing and the Environment

I’ve been interested in the connection between climate and development ever since my college days. Humans impact our environment and vice versa, and it happens in nearly every aspect of society. We build dams to control water and harness its power, but heavy rains can overtop them and drought can stop their turbines. Cars’ emissions heat our atmosphere, but the strongest heat waves can melt their tires. We raze forests to make room for industry, farming, grazing, and housing; then, forest fires can raze those developments in an instant. The list goes on – and housing issues are right near the top of it.

Where and how we build housing affects our environmental footprint in many ways. Building housing involves the use of resources (e.g. metals, concrete, plastics, and timber), each of which has its own environmental footprint. The home itself may use energy in the form of electricity, natural gas, or wood-fired heating and stoves; each of these has its own climate and environmental footprint, but some are smaller than others (e.g. electric appliances powered by renewables) and good insulation makes energy go farther. The location of homes affects how we navigate our cities: building denser communities with good transit allows people to get around without cars, whereas sprawling towns and suburbs practically require a car to get around. Finally, homes and communities that use fewer resources make it so more is left over for climate mitigation and adaptation, including for building housing and communities that are more sustainable and resilient. These are just a few connections between housing and sustainability – and we can transform society to be more sustainable through housing.

How and where we build our homes also affect our climate resilience, while housing will be a key part of climate adaptation. First off, certain homes are more resilient to climate dangers than others are. For example, homes with good insulation and heating, ventilation and cooling (HVAC) systems are better suited for heat waves and cold snaps than homes with bad insulation or HVAC; homes built on stilts or where apartments are on the second floor or higher are more resilient in floods than ground- or basement-level housing are; and having fire resistant homes (e.g., with non-flammable roofs) with defensible space reduces the chance they will get damaged or destroyed in a wildfire. Second, we can build housing in areas with fewer climate risks – and while no one place is safe from climate change, some of them will be safer than others while some will become uninhabitable in the coming decades. Just looking at the West Coast of the US: coastal California and Oregon will have fewer and less intense extreme heat events than will the Sacramento or Willamette Valleys, so it may be a better idea to build more homes on the coasts than inland. Of course, heat waves are not the only climate risk on the West Coast, so we should also consider other climate risks like wildfire or sea level rise when deciding where to build. The same applies in other areas and for other hazards, such as building homes away from floodplains, in areas with reliable water supplies, or in areas insulated from sea level rise.


House next to beach, eroded foundation, held up by metal rods
Coastal erosion is one climate consequence that can damage housing and lead to displacement

Additionally, infrastructure is key. A home built outside of floodplain, but where the local water treatment plant is vulnerable to flooding, is still in danger of losing clean water during a flood – though the home itself will be in far better shape than if it was flooded and damaged directly. (Jackson, Mississippi is still dealing with the fallout of this exact scenario, which was exacerbated by decades of disinvestment in the water treatment plant). And a home with electric appliances instead of gas-fired stoves and furnaces will still create carbon emissions if its electricity comes from fossil fuel plants. Therefore, we must take a comprehensive approach to updating both housing and infrastructure if we want effective adaptation and mitigation.

We must move quickly to build more resilient housing that reduces emissions, which should consider both the kind of housing we build and where we build it. First off, improving our housing stock is urgent given the rapid acceleration of climate change and our need to slow it down. And second, it must take climate migration into account: climate-safe places should accommodate traditional population growth plus any population growth from climate refugees. If we fall short, we risk worsening climate change and unnecessary damage to lives, well-being, and independence. So, let’s start today with speed and urgency.

Significance to the Disability Community

Now that the housing and climate piece is out of the way, we can ask: where does disability fit in?

In general, people with disabilities (PWDs) face massive inequities when it comes to housing. The four big barriers to housing equity are accessibility, affordability, location, and housing discrimination. Adding those barriers and inequities to the larger climate-and-housing crisis means that PWDs will face increasingly dangerous and problematic living situations.

For this section, I’ll focus on the United States – but these same issues could apply to any number of countries, even if the numbers and government programs are a bit different.

In 2015, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) published “Accessibility of America’s Housing Stock: Analysis of the 2011 American Housing Survey (AHS)” (HUD had a similar publication looking at 2019 data but its analysis was not as helpful). HUD developed an accessibility index, informed by other countries’ similar indices, and concluded that only 33.34% of homes are Level 1 (Potentially modifiable), where “[t]he home has some essential structure features for accessibility, but would not be accessible without further modifications;” 3.76% are Level 2 (Livable for individuals with moderate mobility difficulties), where “[t]he home has a minimum level of accessibility such that a person with moderate mobility difficulties can live in the home;” and a paltry 0.15% are Level 3 (Wheelchair accessible), where “[t]he home has a minimum level of accessibility so that a wheelchair user can live in the home and prepare his or her own meals.” There are roughly 3 million Americans who use wheelchairs, but not all have accessible housing: of US housing units with a resident wheelchair user in 2011, 44.2% were Level 1, 12.4% were Level 2, and 0.73% were level 3. The levels of accessibility also vary depending on building age, building type, number of units in a building, location (e.g., cities vs. suburbs), household demographics, and even census region (with the Northeast and Midwest being notably less accessible than the South and West). Of note is that newer homes are more accessible than older ones, mobile homes are less accessible than other housing options, and larger apartment complexes (50+ units) are more accessible than smaller apartments and single-family homes. So, new multifamily construction and targeted retrofits can be useful strategies to increase much-needed accessible housing.


Bathroom, tile floor with drain, wheelchair-accessible shower
Wheelchair-accessible showers and bathrooms are necessary for fully accessible housing

In addition, PWDs face significant barriers to housing affordability and security. By every reasonable metric, people with disabilities are economically disadvantaged compared to their able-bodied peers. This includes lower rates of employment, lower median income, and higher poverty rates – all of which impact one’s ability to afford rent or a mortgage. People with disabilities are also less likely to have access to formal banking and credit: in 2021, 14.8% of working-age households with a disability were “unbanked,” compared to only 3.7% of working-age households without a disability. Due to the nature of security deposits and background/credit checks for rental applicants, being unbanked hinders many PWDs’ ability to rent a home and essentially locks them out of owning a home. The cost burden of housing for PWDs is also disproportionately high. An SHADAC analysis of American Community Survey (ACS) data concludes that the rate of rent-burdened households (“percent of rental households that spend more than 30% of their households’ monthly income on rent”) is 53.9% for households with at least one member with a disability, compared to 45.2% of households without a member with a disability; this shows that households with a member with a disability are a full 19% more likely to be rent-burdened than households without a member with a disability. Financial oppression does more than impact housing choices: it also impacts one’s ability to move in response to climate pressures, whether proactively or reactively, thus increasing PWDs’ risk of living in climate danger zones. These problems must be addressed through economic and employment empowerment; broad-based financial support and modernized cash benefits; and targeted housing assistance. We must also recognize that increasing the accessibility and affordability of our housing stock can relieve some of the financial stresses and economic inequalities faced by PWDs.

Location is also key, as it impacts PWDs’ climate resilience and their climate emissions. Due to economic inequalities, PWDs are disproportionately priced out of more expensive, denser communities with amenities and into cheaper housing farther from density, transit, and amenities. In some cases, those homes may be in underserved areas of a city with less access to transit and green space; those homes may also have a stronger urban heat island effect or greater risk of flooding than found in other parts of the city. In other cases, PWDs are priced out to suburbs, exurbs, or rural areas – areas whose expansion is environmentally damaging, where living entails a higher carbon footprint than in an urban area, where not having a car is difficult and isolating, and where people may face extreme climate risks (for example, at the Wildland Urban Interface). Unfortunately, there is not enough literature on PWDs getting priced out into locations with higher emissions and climate dangers, but we know that there are higher rates of disability in other marginalized groups and that minority neighborhoods have increased climate burdens. Rates of disability are also higher among seniors and we have anecdotes of seniors living in areas with high climate risks – such as the California town of Paradise, which was described as “largely a retirement community” before it was destroyed in a fire, leaving 85 people dead (overwhelmingly seniors and people with disabilities).

Certain structural issues in society limit PWDs’ mobility as far as moving from one place to another goes, including their migrating in response to climate pressures (whether that’s proactive or reactive). Most importantly, asset limits tied to government benefits – how much money and tangible assets one is allowed to have to be eligible for benefits – exempt one home and one car. So, with the widely used $2000 asset limit (which is used for SSI, many Medicaid categories, and several other benefits), somebody could have $2000 in cash and a $500,000 home, but not $502,000 in cash. (There has been progress on this front, such as ABLE Accounts for some PWDs and California’s $130,000 Medicaid asset limit, but it is not enough). This means that homeowners on benefits have an especially difficult time relocating unless they immediately buy another home and have no cash left over. Another factor that limits PWDs’ mobility is our fractured social service system that operates largely at the state and county level, and which features notoriously slow and onerous application processes. So, it is incredibly difficult for someone receiving benefits to move from one state to another, especially if they have complex medical or personal care needs.

Finally, housing discrimination against PWDs is rampant worldwide, even in places with legal protections. Landlords discriminate in often illegal, but otherwise successful and almost never prosecuted, means – while other times they simply find loopholes in the law. This often pushes renters into lower-quality housing, prevents or postpones accessibility retrofits in ways that impact quality-of-life, or even leads to or perpetuates homelessness. While it doesn’t create climate risks in the ways the other housing issues do, it exacerbates those climate risks by limiting housing choices and increasing costs; and PWDs who are or become homeless are at higher risk of climate-related illness, injury and death.

Next Steps

We can create more accessible, climate-friendly and -resilient housing that improves quality-of-life for the disability community. The process of transformation won’t happen overnight, especially given the deficit we are starting from: the US housing shortage was approximately 3.8 million homes in 2019, even before the construction slowdown during the pandemic. And that figure doesn’t consider the location of housing nor likely losses of homes and land due to climate change. Clearly, this is a serious problem that must be tackled urgently.


Apartment buildings, construction cranes, green trees, and blue sky
Large-scale construction of efficient, accessible homes in more climate-safe areas is key to addressing concerns about climate, housing and disability

I recently came across the concept of “Targeted Universalism,” where we set goals for all of society and then use targeted policy actions for different populations and stakeholder groups to achieve those goals equitably. Using this framework, our climate-focused housing efforts should have the broad goal of rapidly developing and providing resilient and sustainable housing to all people, then develop targeted housing strategies for different populations and groups based on their needs. These recommendations recognize the need for climate-conscious housing for everyone – of all income levels, abilities, etc. – and put a special focus on meeting the equity needs of people with disabilities. After the first recommendation, I provide more climate-focused advice and then end with disability-focused recommendations.

  • ·Ensure that housing and climate decisions include disability stakeholders. The disability rights refrain of “nothing about us without us” must be applied to climate and housing efforts. Climate, housing, and urban/regional planning stakeholders should strive to employ people with disabilities to gain internal knowledge; stakeholders should also ensure that diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and human relations (HR) staff are well-trained in disability accommodations, disability rights and inclusive hiring. Stakeholders should likewise engage with the disability community in their community relations and information-sharing efforts. Government processes should actively include disability stakeholders including disability-focused agencies, non-governmental organizations, community advocates, and policy specialists. The disability community should also learn about housing and climate issues and seek out opportunities to be involved.

  • Rapidly add housing and prioritize more climate-resilient areas. Theoretically, this is straightforward: society should add housing to relieve the housing crisis and accommodate climate migrants, then prioritize adding housing in more climate-resilient areas and de-prioritize areas that are at greater risk of significant damage, destruction, or abandonment. But in practice, the process of deciding what housing gets built is complex and includes many government agencies, property owners, and individual stakeholders, plus a whole web of rules and regulations. There is also no one guide to identify what counts as a more “climate-resilient area,” especially considering the many climate risks and how they interact. Decision-makers should consult with scientists and other relevant experts, work collaboratively toward common goals, and change rules and regulations as needed to accelerate climate-smart development. This process should also include “managed retreat” – where communities proactively relocate before their home becomes uninhabitable or where communities destroyed by climate disasters are simply not rebuilt (often with government or insurance industry buyouts and supports).

  • Strive for density and transit-oriented development. Density in development entails concentrating housing and commerce in key locations, such as in cities and suburban downtowns; this dense development allows residents to access jobs, services, amenities, and communities closer to their home. Transit-oriented development entails building homes, jobs and amenities near major transit stops and along transit corridors. These two strategies empower people to have a good quality of life while reducing carbon emissions from transportation and household energy use. They also facilitate independence for people who cannot afford a vehicle, cannot drive, or prefer not to drive. This last point is especially important for people with disabilities, who have lower car ownership than able-bodied people and can be relatively isolated in places with diffuse, under-funded transit and paratransit.

  • Leverage multiple types of developers to rapidly build out climate-conscious housing. Producing enough resilient and climate-conscious housing will require massive investments that must include a wide array of developers. Government should significantly boost funding for affordable housing developments at all levels and establish social housing entities to support mixed-income housing construction. Government can also support the establishment and growth of nonprofit developers, while nonprofits can work to expand their own operations. Given the massive financing and construction capabilities of for-profit developers, they should be allowed to build housing without unreasonable barriers or hurdles.

  • Provide new resilient and efficient housing for all income levels. Housing is produced/operated as either market-rate, where landlords charge what people are willing to pay, or below-market-rate (BMR), where landlords provide subsidized units to people below certain income levels. (Subsidies may come from the government or from market-rate tenants in the same building). New market-rate housing helps meet the climate-conscious housing needs of higher-income homeowners and renters, while also taming overall housing costs and displacement through filtering (the phenomenon where higher-income people move into new housing, the next highest earners move into the depreciated homes that higher-income people vacated, and so on down the income scale). Meanwhile, new BMR housing meets the immediate needs of people who qualify and get a unit, while taming overall costs and displacement at roughly double the rate of market-rate housing (also through filtering). The potential for production of BMR housing is limited, though, as BMR units require subsidies and there is not unlimited money for those subsidies; therefore, building both types of housing is necessary to meet housing goals. Regarding implications for PWDs: the proportion of PWDs who qualify for BMR housing is higher than the proportion of able-bodied people who qualify, so BMR units will disproportionately benefit PWDs; meanwhile, there are many PWDs who will be able to afford new market-rate housing and will benefit from more accessible market-rate units. All PWDs seeking housing will benefit from filtering, including by filling vacancies in slightly older, but still relatively accessible homes.

  • Improve accessibility in housing, especially for new multifamily developments. This involves two main prongs: improving requirements for new construction and supporting accessibility retrofits. Governments should change housing laws to provide more universally accessible units in new housing, with features such as automatic door openers, wheelchair-accessible showers, accessible counters, no-step floor plans, and flashing doorbells. Rules for new buildings will need to address levels of accessibility, eligible units, and what percent of new units must be universally accessible, among other topics. Any program for widespread accessibility retrofits will need to address eligibility, how to prioritize units, funding, and governance. Stakeholders should put special focus on multifamily developments because: multifamily buildings are already more accessible than single-family homes; households with a member with a disability are disproportionately more likely to be renters (and multifamily buildings are overwhelmingly rentals); it’s easier to provide BMR homes in apartment buildings than single-family homes; and multifamily housing is a cornerstone of density and transit-oriented development.

  • Strengthen and enforce legal protections for renters with disabilities. Renter protections are vital for people with disabilities to be able to live in and enjoy accessible housing once it’s built. Among other goals, protections should ensure that housing providers do not discriminate based on disability or source-of-income (e.g., paying part of rent with housing vouchers), prevent eviction or retaliation in response to requests for reasonable accommodations, and increase tenants’ access to legal support. I’ll admit I’m not an expert on housing discrimination, but the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund (DREDF) has good housing policy and legal resources.

  • Create inclusive and accessible density. Climate-friendly density involves more than putting a bunch of apartments, jobs, and stores next to each other with good connections to transit. It also involves redesigning streets, sidewalks, bike lanes, public transit, and rights-of-way in dense areas to get people out of cars and onto trains, buses, bikes, scooters, and sidewalks (whether that’s walking or using a mobility device). We must make sure this transformation is fully accessible and provides the same opportunities for independence and mobility to people with disabilities as it does to our able-bodied peers. Advocates for density should consider a more inclusive term than “walkable communities,” since terminology influences design: Lloyd Alter at Treehugger likes “activemobility” or “activeability,” while I’m partial to “stRollability.”

  • Increase the overall economic situation for people with disabilities. PWDs are especially housing insecure largely because they have lower average employment, income, and savings than their able-bodied peers. Boosting each of these will improve housing security, allow PWDs to choose from a wider range of homes (including more accessible, newer units), and make it so PWDs will be better able to move in response to climate change.

Conclusion

This relatively brief overview shows how large and complex a problem we are up against and provides some suggestions to improve different parts of the climate-housing-disability conundrum. I also hope the blog’s layout can serve as a kind of blueprint for evaluating and addressing other issues related to climate and disability. First, it covered our existing knowledge about climate and housing as it relates to climate mitigation and adaptation – including different types of housing, development patterns, climate impacts and specific geographies. Then, it touched on existing housing concerns for the disability community from an intersectional lens – and explains how each one might affect the community’s climate risks, sustainability and quality of-life. And finally, recommendations included housing-specific actions (e.g., build more resilient and efficient housing), disability-specific actions (e.g., increase accessibility in new and existing homes), and intersectional actions (e.g., ensure that climate-friendly communities have accessible pathways, transit, and public spaces).

Importantly, this kind of analysis builds on existing knowledge about climate and housing on the one hand, and housing and disability on the other. There is limited research and literature on all sorts of climate-and-disability issues, so at some point piecing things together this way is the best we can do in the short term. It also highlights how different areas of work & research can tie into disability climate justice: every person working on climate-conscious housing patterns is furthering disability climate justice, while people fighting for renter protections for people with disabilities are doing the same. Ideally, stakeholders will start to address intersectional issues as well. We are facing massive challenges, and we are all in this together as we fight for solutions.

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