House under construction

Housing Perspectives

Research, trends, and perspective from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies

Winner of 2018 Best Paper on Housing Prize Focuses on Philadelphia’s Efforts to Address Climate Change and Affordable Housing

The Philadelphia Energy Campaign (PEC) is an unlikely success story of a municipal climate initiative prioritizing the needs of its marginalized residents by preserving affordable housing through energy policy, according to Caroline Lauer, a recent graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, whose thesis on PEC received the 2018 Joint Center for Housing Studies Best Paper on Housing Prize.

In “A Pathway to Preservation? Planning Processes at The Intersection of Climate Change and Affordable Housing in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania“, Lauer, who received a Master of Urban Planning, provides a detailed case study on PEC’s history and goals, and links that history to literature on both planning and public policymaking.

Credit: Philadelphia Energy Authority/Jordan Baumgarten

PEC has an ambitious set of goals, writes Lauer. It aims to create jobs, strengthen communities, cut energy bills, and reduce Philadelphia’s carbon footprint by leveraging $1 billion of public and private investment over ten years. This effort, she explains, is especially notable because, while cities across the United States have been actively planning for climate change for at least two decades, equity considerations, such as the impact of climate investments on disadvantaged communities, have often been overlooked or ignored when those plans have been prepared and implemented.

According to Lauer, the Philadelphia Energy Authority, which was created in 2010, became a notable exception largely because of the values and skills of Emily Schapira, who launched the PEC campaign not long after she became the authority’s executive director in 2016. Lauer observes that, while the typical focal point of an energy initiative is the fastest or most efficient way to reduce energy consumption, the focus of the PEC has been the residents who will benefit the most from the energy reduction today. She adds that by “inextricably linking equity and energy, the PEC prioritizes the needs and interests of the many low-income and minority residents” in Philadelphia, which not only has the highest poverty rate of the ten largest American cities but has relatively old, poorly-maintained, energy-inefficient housing stock. Moreover, she notes that Philadelphia, a Democratic stronghold, has had to do much of this work without significant support from the state legislature, which was overwhelmingly Republican when the campaign got underway.

Succeeding in this complex milieu, she notes, has required skilled and committed leadership that not only is attuned to equity and energy issues but also is cognizant of, and responsive to, political considerations. Combining these approaches can be difficult, writes Lauer, who observes that “community development efforts to preserve affordable housing through energy efficiency are rare.” However, she adds, “PEC demonstrates that merging both objectives into one program is a viable policy option.”