HUD Is a Hub of Obama’s Climate Agenda

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 31: HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan (R) speaks as U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki (L) listens during the orientation to a Point-in-Time (PIT) count walk with local homeless advocates to find and identify the number of homeless Americans on the street, including veterans, as part of an effort to end veterans homelessness by the end of 2015, at National City Christian Church in Washington D.C, January 31, 2013. The PIT count is an exercise that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has required of jurisdictions nationwide in order to receive federal grant money aimed at reducing homelessness. (Photo by Allison Shelley/Getty Images)
National Journal
Clare Foran
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Clare Foran
Dec. 12, 2013, 10:04 a.m.

While Environmental Protection Agency efforts to regulate carbon emissions from power plants have taken center stage in the debate over climate change, a host of other federal agencies are fervently working behind the scenes to carry out the president’s climate action plan.

One of those agencies is the Department for Housing and Urban Development, which has a key role to play in both long-term disaster recovery and shoring up infrastructure to protect against damage from extreme weather events.

“If you look at the president’s climate action plan … we’ve got to reduce climate change and lower carbon emissions but we also have to protect our cities [and] our communities from the effects of climate change that are already here, and we are, along with FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency], the biggest player in long-term recovery,” HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan said at The Atlantic‘s Energy and Infrastructure Super Summit on Thursday.

According to Donovan, the department is mapping out mitigation strategies for future natural disasters and working to facilitate state and local initiatives to increase infrastructure resilience.

Some of these initiatives include discussions with leaders of the two states hit hardest by Hurricane Sandy last year — New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie and New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo — about developing micro-grids to reduce the scope of power outages and providing federal loans to support a state infrastructure bank.

Donovan conceded, however, that forward thinking has not always been the agency’s strong suit.

“One of the fundamental problems we have in the U.S. is we’re probably one of the best at immediate response,” he said. “But we are nowhere near the best at long-term resilience planning.”

To fix this, Donovan said, there must be increased collaboration between the federal government and state and local players. Government agencies should also continue to look for infrastructure planning practices used in other countries and evaluate whether they would work here, he said.

In addition to improving resilience to extreme weather, the president’s climate plan seeks to bolster energy efficiency. There too, HUD has something to contribute.

The department is partnering with EPA to develop home-labeling standards that would quantify or rank energy efficiency for residential properties. The technology is in testing now but Donovan hopes it will eventually help lenders and appraisers factor energy-efficiency into property values and inform prospective buyers about energy savings that could be achieved.

“Part of what we have to do is not only get it into the lending system but also to get it into the appraisal system to get lenders excited about it, selling homes based on that [energy-efficiency labeling],” Donovan said

The secretary voiced his support for congressional action to incentivize energy-efficiency, citing legislation introduced by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, as an example of a promising first step.

He was quick to note, however, that the department would not wait around for lawmakers to act. “We’re not going to wait for Congress,” Donovan said. “We just launched in the last couple weeks a better-buildings challenge for multifamily. This is something that the president took on for industrial and commercial buildings and it’s worked very well…. We’ve challenged private owners … to make their entire portfolio 20 percent more energy-efficient by 2020. That’s an area that we think there’s a lot of potential.”

Donovan added: “We have an enormous opportunity to do renewables as well in federally assisted housing, and that we can do without waiting for Congress.”

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