In his State of the State speech last month, Gov. Jared Polis was clear: “Housing policy is climate policy.”
As the CEO of the largest environmental organization in Colorado, I couldn’t agree more.
We know Coloradans care about clean air, open space, and abundant water. After all, our natural environment is part of what makes this state a great place to live. And yet high housing prices mean that living here is increasingly out of reach. But in the next few months during this legislative session, we have an opportunity to recognize how connected housing affordability and our environment really are — and make changes that benefit our climate and housing future.
So, what are the connections between climate change and housing?
To start, transportation is the No. 1 source of climate pollution in Colorado and nationwide. And it’s the sector where Colorado has fallen furthest behind on its legislatively mandated climate goals.
Pollution from cars and trucks can have devastating health impacts like asthma, cancer, cardio and respiratory disease, low birth weights, and increased chance of death from COVID-19. These impacts are greatest near major highways, which were built closer to communities of color and low-income communities who already face higher levels of pollution from industry.
Yet reducing emissions from transportation is uniquely challenging, because many people simply have no option but to drive — sometimes very far — to get to their everyday destinations. Across the state, the rising cost of housing and sprawling development patterns are pushing people to live farther away from the places they need to go every day.
The resulting sprawl not only creates more traffic hassles but also increases households’ climate footprint, encroaches on open space and wildlife habitat, stretches our already scarce water resources, and pushes development closer to wildfire-prone areas.
To reduce transportation pollution and protect our environment, we need to give people more affordable housing options nearer to jobs, schools, grocery stores, parks, transit stations, and other places they need to go. Colorado won’t be able to reach its climate goals unless we start taking big steps in this direction.
The housing crisis — as well as climate change and air pollution — is impacting too many Coloradans in too many different communities to be solved town by town.
The good news is, there are many ways to bring climate-friendly housing planning into reality and help tackle the affordable housing crisis, all while bringing major benefits for our air, land, water, and communities.
For the past few decades, Colorado’s housing supply has not kept pace with demand. Yet most communities in Colorado have restrictions that prevent a range of housing options, like duplexes, townhomes, and backyard cottages, from being built. In fact, 70% of the housing that Colorado has permitted since 1980 were single-family units, which are more likely to be occupied by higher-income residents. Colorado doesn’t require cities and towns to plan for housing needs, we aren’t building enough housing, and the housing we are building is mainly expensive single-family homes and luxury apartments.
We must change this trend and support bold policies that increase housing choice and affordability. This includes lifting restrictions to allow more types of housing and building them in places that give residents options to walk, bike, and take public transportation. These policies will lead to diverse, thriving neighborhoods that are better not just for the environment but for our pocket books, our health, and our quality of life.
In these policies, it’s essential to incorporate provisions for affordability. We must ensure we’re creating housing options for people at all income levels and that we don’t make the problem worse by pushing existing residents out of their homes and neighborhoods, especially in low-income communities of color most vulnerable to displacement. We also need to make sure that the people most impacted by the housing and climate crises can have meaningful input into planning decisions.
Key to solving this problem is that action needs to be at the state level. The housing crisis — as well as climate change and air pollution — is impacting too many Coloradans in too many different communities to be solved town by town. It’s time for our state leaders to lead the way and give people transportation options, ease the crushing financial stress of high housing costs, and ensure people can remain stably housed in the communities they call home.
I’m excited that Conservation Colorado will be working with our state leaders on an issue that touches so many of Coloradans’ greatest concerns, from housing affordability and stability, to climate change and transportation, to racial justice and equity. Together, we can move Colorado toward a future with vibrant, affordable communities and a healthy environment.
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