The data at the heart of Green New Deal public housing legislation

Beyond improving living conditions, greening these spaces would reduce emissions and create 250,000 jobs annually, according to research from Penn and Data for Progress.

Two people installing solar panels on a chilly day, wearing gloves and snow hats.
Funding in the recently proposed Green New Deal for Public Housing legislation would go toward energy-retrofitting interventions such as installing solar panels. 

Recently, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders introduced their Green New Deal for Public Housing Act. The legislation seeks as much as $180 billion over 10 years to retrofit every public housing unit in the United States. Funding would go toward “weatherizing, electrifying, and modernizing” the housing units, through efforts like removing mold, lead, and other hazards and adding green tweaks like solar panels and other renewable energy sources, when possible. 

Research from Penn’s Socio-Spatial Climate Collaborative (SC)2 and McHarg Center, in partnership with Data for Progress (DFP), offered the data-driven foundation on which the legislation stands. 

Led by (SC)2 Director Daniel Aldana Cohen, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology, and Julian Brave NoiseCat, DFP’s vice president of policy and strategy, the team’s analysis found that beyond making conditions better for those who live in public housing, greening these spaces would equate to removing 1.2 million cars from the road each year—an important step in decarbonizing the U.S. economy—and would create about a quarter-million jobs annually across the country. 

A colored map of New York City.
To illustrate and analyze their framework of public housing communities, Cohen and colleagues mapped the relationship between public housing buildings and neighborhood social context in New York City. Here, black represents NYC Housing Authority buildings, dark red indicates high unemployment, and blue indicates projected sea-level rise. The map reveals that NYCHA complexes tend to coincide with higher levels of neighborhood unemployment. (Image: Nick Graetz, Alexandra Lillehei, Katherine Lample, Daniel Aldana Cohen)

This subject is one Cohen has been thinking about since at least 2016, when he first published research calling for a Green New Deal for New York’s public housing. 

These policies “would benefit public housing communities and their neighbors in the broadest sense,” he says. “If we build the skills and the technological capabilities to retrofit public housing units around the country, that will make it easier to retrofit every other kind of home, too. If we develop those skills through the public housing, it will become easier and more efficient to decarbonize the whole building stock.” 

Collaboration with members of Congress began earlier this year when Ocasio-Cortez’s office reached out to Cohen, seeking help with research that could support a public housing component of the Green New Deal. Then in August, Cohen became a senior fellow with Data for Progress, a multidisciplinary group that uses data science to support progressive causes. 

He and colleagues at DFP and the McHarg Center got to work trying to understand how a large, green investment in public housing might affect workers, residents, and the broader community. “At the end of the day, it’s about green improvements that will drastically improve residents’ living standards and also build the skills of those who live in the communities,” Cohen says. “We’re going to leverage public housing to provide resilience services for the whole community.”  

Because sweeping Green New Deal legislation is challenging to tackle all at once, lawmakers like Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders are chipping away at it piece by piece. Public housing is the first concrete target, and Cohen thinks it answers a long-held question about one of the Green New Deal’s tenets: Whether one policy can lead to both social and environmental change at once. 

The answer, it turns out, is yes. “Once you follow the carbon off the graph and into the real world, it’s most efficient and cost effective to tackle inequality and carbon at the same time, through literally concrete investments in the built environment,” Cohen says. “Taking 1.2 million cars off the road, creating more than 30,000 jobs a year in New York—these are concrete, targeted investments and their benefits are all interconnected.” 

Even if the legislation doesn’t pass at the federal level, cities and states can start making these changes in the short term, according to Cohen. Then, should a green stimulus come to pass during the next recession, localities won’t be starting from scratch. 

“There’s a ton we can do to make this a reality at the local level without having to wait for the federal government,” he says. “This is the first time in decades that public housing is a part of an optimistic conversation focused on lifting up disinvested communities through positive public action and restoring the best ideals of public housing in this country.”

Daniel Aldana Cohen runs the Socio-Spatial Climate Collaborative (SC)2 and is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania