On Environmental Impact of Urban Policy

Daniel Kay Hertz over at City Notes had two great articles about the abysmal state of urban policy in Chicago. The first, “This is a Joke, Right?,” is about Mayor Emmanual’s and Alderman Suarez’s (31st Ward) plan to add a mere 1,000 affordable housing units over the next 5 years, or 200 units per year. By Daniel’s reckoning, there are over 500,000 households in Chicago in need of affordability relief (they currently pay more than 30% of income for housing). That’s about 2½ orders of magnitude difference. While great for those 200 households, it won’t make a dent in the problem.

Second is “I wonder why we have an Affordable Housing Shortage” where he provides several recent examples of NIMBY activity (supported by the alderman and city zoning policies) that force developers not to build affordable rental units near mass transit hubs.

I don’t think that the government can or should solve Chicago’s affordable housing on their own. Anyone who’s even remotely familiar with Robert Taylor Homes or Cabrini Green would know how well that turned out. But, actively impeding private development that is trying to solve that very concern will mean that the problems will continue to fester and grow. Steven Covey was fond of saying, “You can’t talk your way out of what you behaved yourself into.” (My loose paraphrase.) Holding a press conference announcing new housing is fine (even commendable for trying), but it has to be supported by day-to-day actions.

What is the environmental impact here? The short-term result is to get greater energy efficiency out of new construction. Even the cheapest refrigerator or water heater is going to be vastly more efficient and waste less energy than something 5-, 10-, 20-, or more years old. Longer term improvements come from improved urban living where walking, biking, or mass transit provide residents the viable option of lower-carbon alternatives. Real improvements to carbon emissions will only come when the choice is invisible or simply more convenient. Invisible like not having to think about heating the apartment without gale-force drafts coming through that crappy old window. Or convenient like walking a few blocks to the grocery store instead of worrying about finding parking or dealing with traffic. Baring reasonable and affordable urban housing simply eliminates the potential for people to make energy-efficient choices.

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