05/05/2017 03:40 EDT | Updated 05/05/2017 03:44 EDT

Why Affordable Housing Is An Environmental Issue

Hot-button issues such as jobs, education, health, and housing get a lot of attention during elections. But treating them as disconnected fails to recognize that action or inaction on one can have serious consequences for another.

For example, during this B.C. election, decision-makers say they're acting on climate change and conserving the environment without acknowledging that out-of-control housing costs work in direct opposition to those goals.

Every day during rush hour, hundreds of thousands of people commute into and out of cities they cannot afford to live in, on roads and transit systems that can't handle burgeoning numbers of users. Imagine the tonnes of carbon emissions we would save if teachers, nurses and police officers could afford to live near schools, hospitals and police stations! Setting aside the benefits of reduced personal stress, the payoffs for air quality and health-care cost savings would be significant.


Photo credit: Michael Chu via Flickr

As a "millennial" working for the David Suzuki Foundation, I'm confronted by these issues daily. Like many people in the Lower Mainland, I've had to choose between reasonable rent and a reasonable commute. Time and financial pressures force many in our region to leave family and friends behind for more affordable housing.

According to the U.S.-based Natural Resources Defence Council, including just five affordable housing units in new, 41-unit Los Angeles developments close to fast, reliable public transit reduces vehicle distance travelled by 36,419 kilometres each year and greenhouse gas emissions by over 12 tonnes. These are just the figures for each new development.

Developments near public transit are good for the environment, yet that proximity can erode affordability. These developments often displace lower-income transit-dependent residents in favour of higher-income residents more likely to drive. Research shows that when such developments fail to incorporate affordable housing units, transit ridership also suffers. To help improve public transportation, we could charge a fee to developers who build near transit. But that doesn't solve the affordability issue. We still create sprawl and end up with people pushed farther and farther away from where they work.

Consider energy efficiency. One of the cheapest, easiest ways to address climate change is to make better use of energy that heats and powers buildings. But rising housing prices and shrinking supply gives landlords little incentive to improve efficiency. Renters will still line up! And tenants have little reason to improve the energy efficiency of homes they don't own. Unless government steps in to provide incentives, people continue to produce needless carbon emissions.

When the environment is framed as something that only matters to some, we stop recognizing its important role in addressing other issues we all care about. Ignoring connections between issues leaves us spinning our wheels.

Let's move forward on housing affordability -- and put the environment at the heart of this election.

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