On Earth Day 2008, I propose a housing policy for the 21st century based on the triple principles of Fair, Green, and Smart. Fair refers to fair housing, and a pro-active enforcement of the principle of non-discrimination in housing markets, home mortgage lending markets, and home insurance markets. Green refers to deliberate efforts to protect the environment, to conserve resources, and use renewable resources. Smart refers to adopting principles of smart growth such as using space efficiently, creating affordable rental and ownership housing, and building livable communities that are conducive to healthy community interactions.
Several towns (large and small) and rural areas in the U.S. were deliberately made into all-white or predominantly white settlements from around 1890 to 1940 through the expulsion of non-whites. While American Jews, Mexican Americans, Chinese Americans, and Native Americans were also in the expelled and excluded categories in many places, by far, it was African Americans that were expelled in the largest numbers and in the most number of places. Sociologist James Loewen documents this in his book Sundown Towns. He has compiled a list of U.S. municipal jurisdictions that were or are possibly maintained as exclusive white settlements.
As we move to an era of greater tolerance and a general abhorrence of racial/ethnic discrimination in America, it is not enough for these towns to quietly decide to not discriminate and to abide by federal fair housing legislation. It is necessary for former Sundown Towns, and indeed all municipalities, to pro-actively eschew the artificial racial homogeneity of their communities and to invite households of all ethnicities to reside in these communities.
Even today, in the 21st century, there are places in the U.S. that some even well-educated and middle class American Jews do not wish to settle in because they expect they will face hate and hostility there. Similarly, certain ethnic minorities too have learned to stay away from places where they expect to face a severe degree of hate and hostility. The relatively recent history of the expulsions and exclusions makes such fears understandable. Therefore, it will take more than merely stating that a town now has a policy of non-discrimination.
There will have to be a more concrete expression of inclusivity and respect. Discrimination in housing markets (both sales and rentals) and in home mortgage lending persists till today, as is well-documented in several studies. It is important for cities, towns, and rural areas to be committed to fair housing and create diverse, integrated communities that look like America. Overcoming segregation will help fulfill our ideal of one nation under God, indivisible.
Global warming and climate change are facts of life that even avid non-interventionists in the world have now reluctantly accepted. All new housing developments, and remodeling of existing housing should implement green principles and technologies. These include the, by now, well-known energy-efficient home appliances, lighting, insulation materials, building materials, and improved building shells. The ENERGY STAR label today helps identify many of these green products.
A host of green building technologies are now available that homebuyers can demand and planning authorities should require. The U.S. Green Building Council has issued green technology guidelines and provides information to the public on which homes and buildings meet these guidelines. The LEED for Homes Pilot Program is being used to encourage the adoption of green technologies in housing. A LEED-rated home has 25% to 50% lower energy and water bills, reduced greenhouse gas emissions and fewer indoor toxins. What's not to like! Green housing uses water resources wisely, emphasizing conservation, reuse and recycling. Alternative fuels such as renewable energy sources are also emphasized in green housing.
Traditional landscaping that helps keep the air clean, regulates temperatures, and helps prevent soil erosion and flooding may also be used. All housing development plans should include a designated space that will serve as the "lungs" of the community. This might be a park, a forest, or significant plantings throughout the development. Green roofs are now being used on buildings of all heights. This involves growing vegetation on the roofs of buildings, and is a way of managing storm water, reducing urban heat island effect, and improving air quality.
Innovative housing designs can adapt to global warming and can also mitigate the severity of climate-change. Energy conservation and alternative energy use are not only ways of protecting the environment, but also of working towards energy independence and strengthening national security.
Smart growth subsumes the notions of housing affordability, inclusivity, mixed-use of space, mixed-income residents, livability and sustainability. Smart housing development uses land efficiently and emphasizes the connectivity of places and people. This is directly counter to the synthetic, disconnected spaces seen in urban sprawl models of development.
Unaffordable housing is a quiet crisis that has been plaguing our communities for more than a decade. It is a quiet crisis because the people bearing the heaviest burden of it are low-income families, and in alarming numbers, working families with low incomes. Among the lowest-income 20 percent of renters in the U.S., more than one in two renters pays greater than half of income for housing.
These severe problems of working families and renters have not merited newspaper headlines to the extent that the home foreclosure and subprime mortgage problems have. Nevertheless, the problem of unaffordable housing is widespread in the nation, and imposes costs on working families in the form of their greatly diminished ability to invest in the education and health of family members, consume adequate food, and save for their own retirement.
Affordable housing is an essential outcome of smart housing development. Lower average production costs are achieved by smart housing because more units are built on a given plot of land, units are smaller and sensibly-sized (rather than McMansions), units are designed to consume less energy, and housing is a part of mixed-use development. Mixed-use of land, such as when residences are built above retail stores, can help lower the cost of producing housing, and thereby create affordable housing.
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