Public housing rehab bill proposed by Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez - Affordable Housing Online

Public housing rehab bill proposed by Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez

By on December 3rd, 2019

Tagged As: Affordable Housing News, Editorials

Senator Bernie Sanders. Photo by

The Green New Deal for Public Housing Act was recently introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). The legislation proposes $180 billion over 10 years to rehabilitate the nation’s aging public housing, improve energy efficiency and provide good paying job opportunities for public housing residents.

The bill links critical health and safety improvements in public housing with the environmental justice principles of the Green New Deal. Most of the nation’s public housing properties are old and need serious upgrades, repairs and improvements. HUD estimates that $90 billion is needed through 2030 to cover the backlog of repairs. The Green New Deal for Public Housing provides new funding for energy retrofits as part of the overall rehab work.

The legislation’s goal is to reduce public housing carbon emissions to zero in 10 years. This reduction in greenhouse gases would be the equivalent of taking 1.2 million cars off the road. The public housing energy retrofits funded through the bill will not only address climate change, they will also provide good-paying jobs for low-income workers and public housing residents.

In introducing the bill, Senator Sanders pointed out how addressing climate change can provide opportunities for low-income residents:

“The Green New Deal is not just about climate change. It is an economic plan to create millions of good-paying jobs, strengthen our infrastructure, and invest in our country’s frontline and vulnerable communities. This bill shows that we can address our climate and affordable housing crises by making public housing a model of efficiency, sustainability and resiliency. Importantly, the working people who have been most impacted by decades of disinvestment in public housing will be empowered to lead this effort and share in the economic prosperity that it generates for our country.”

Representative Ocasio-Cortez echoed the connection between improving public housing and giving low-income renters new opportunities.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Photo by

She said, “Climate change represents both a grave threat and a tremendous opportunity. The Green New Deal for Public Housing Act will train and mobilize the workforce to decarbonize the public housing stock and improve the quality of life for all residents.”

The Green New Deal for Public Housing would create seven new grant programs. Grants for deep energy retrofits would make improvements to all of the nation’s 1.2 million public housing units. The measures would include insulation, window glazing, and upgrading to energy efficient appliances.  Community workforce development grants would support new training and job opportunities for public housing residents through the rehab process and beyond. Another grant would fund energy efficiency, building electrification and water quality upgrades. There is also a grant for community renewable energy generation. Solar arrays, wind farms and other renewable energy sources added to public housing properties not only reduce energy costs at properties, but they can also generate income. Public Housing Agencies can retain up to 90% of the profits generated. Public housing residents would have a say in how those funds are used.

There is a grant supporting recycling and zero-waste programs, as well as a grant for community resiliency and sustainability. This is for projects that enhance quality of life, like child care centers, community gardens or capital projects that ensure health and safety. A final grant program addresses climate adaptation and emergency disaster response. 

The Green New Deal for Public Housing empowers public housing residents in a number of ways. It proposes stricter standards for Section 3. Section 3 requires projects with federal funds to provide jobs for low-income people and contracting opportunities for women and minority-owned businesses. In addition to the overall Section 3 requirements, projects with Green New Deal funds would have to include work for public housing residents. 

The legislation also requires public housing authorities and contractors to follow rules benefiting low-income workers. It requires “Buy American” approaches with supplies, paying prevailing wages as required in the Davis-Bacon Act, and engage in collective bargaining. After three years, 90% of the jobs generated with these funds must be held by low-income workers and 50% of the contracting dollars must go to public housing resident-owned businesses. In addition, the legislation requires community input on project proposals. This can come through public hearing or resident councils.

An analysis by Data for Progress estimates that 240,000 jobs per year will be created by the Green New Deal for Public Housing. More of these jobs would be created in “Red” congressional districts that supported Republican candidates than in the “Blue” coastal cities that are more likely to vote for Democratic candidates.

The bill also helps public housing residents by expanding the Family Self-Sufficiency (FSS) program and making it easier to participate in resident councils. FSS provides public housing residents with training and educational opportunities to improve their employment and earnings. These programs typically include case management and a matched savings option. If participants complete the program, they can use the savings for things like a downpayment on a house, starting a small business or paying for higher education. Resident council participation is more inclusive by expanding eligibility to residents who are 16 years old and increasing the monthly stipend for resident council officers.

The legislation also looks ahead and removes a big obstacle to building more public housing in the future. It would repeal the Faircloth Amendment. This law limits the construction of any new public housing.

Critics may say that the proposal is very expensive. However, it costs about the same as the federal government spends on the mortgage interest tax deduction that helps homeowners. It will also create substantial energy savings, lowering the ongoing costs of operating public housing. The energy and water retrofits will bring down public housing water bills by 30%, or $97 million per year. The improvements will also bring down energy costs by $613 million per year, or a savings of 70% over current use.

Although the bill’s prospects for passage in this Congress are slim, it provides a dramatic new model for improving public housing. Making homes for low-income renters energy efficient can help the bottom line, help the planet and empower public housing residents.

Published by

Chris Holden

Chris Holden, Affordable Housing Online's Senior Housing Analyst, has been in the affordable housing field for 25 years. Originally from Keene, New Hampshire, he has worked as a researcher, policy analyst, lender, trainer and real estate developer. He also taught political science at Keene State College. He is focused on making housing policies more accessible for low-income renters.