Publisher’s View: Affordability Trap

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My wife, Debbie, and I often marvel at the steady stream of airline mileage points we collect just because we purchase items through our credit cards.  The freebie enables us to periodically fly to Michigan to visit Debbie’s family at little or no cost. It’s a regular reminder of the adage “the rich get richer.”  We don’t “deserve” free flights to faraway places. The opposite could be argued, as the pennies from heaven are essentially a reward for what’s often environmentally damaging behavior:  consumption. 

Of course, the saying’s second half is “the poor get poorer.”  There are myriad ways the impoverished pay more just because their pockets are empty.  People who don’t have enough coin to open a bank account have to shell out check cashing fees, can’t afford to buy economy-sized products, and, without the funds to engage professional child care, may occasionally miss a paycheck, or even lose a job, to care for their sick baby.  This systematic inequity is made worse by less visible transfers from the poor to the rich. It’s likely that consumer prices are higher to compensate for those mileage freebies.  

The poverty tax squeezes access to innovative items that make all of us better off environmentally, and which lessen household transportation, energy and water bills.  Roughly fifteen years ago I spent time encouraging developers in San Francisco to include photovoltaics in their projects.  Doing so would reduce future residents’ utility bills as well as the need for polluting power plants, which are mostly located near lower-income neighborhoods.  The developers declined, insisting that they couldn’t recoup the capital costs of such systems in condominium prices. Starting just this year, the State requires that solar panels be installed on new homes, which’ll likely put upward pressure on housing prices even while saving occupants money over the long-term.

The rich-rich, poor-poor maxim isn’t limited to the United States.  I’m presently leading an effort to develop affordable housing in Rwanda on behalf of Agahozo Shalom Youth Village, which cares for more than 500 teenage orphans. Echoing San Francisco developers’ now ancient argument, we don’t have the capital to include solar PV in the complex. Even if we did, we couldn’t pass the associated costs onto future residents, since our home prices can’t exceed a targeted cap to be affordable.  

As a result, future inhabitants will need to rely on expensive, mostly fossil fueled, grid power.  Perhaps worse, we’ll likely have to install water-wasting toilets, as the efficient models are pricey, a cost that again can’t easily be recouped from modest-income buyers, thereby saddling them with higher water bills forever and wasting an increasingly precious resource.

Solving the rich-rich, poor-poor riddle isn’t easy, though it can be partially untangled by philanthropic and government subsidies. Using such funds, over the years I’ve managed programs to replace energy- or water-wasting cars, refrigerators, and toilets in San Francisco with efficient devices.  It’d be a relief to be able to access similar monies to avoid installing crappy toilets in Rwanda, really an unconscionable outcome.  Once this type of waste is seen, it can’t be unseen.

We need to find ways to systematically eliminate embedded imbalances that unfairly harm the poor and hurt the environment.  Given the climate crises, perhaps, like calls for universal health care, we humans should find a way to ensure that everyone has access to the most efficient water- and energy-using devices, in a kind of “universal resource care.”  The equipment exists, and is steadily getting better, to deliver the same service – transportation, lighting, refrigeration, waste removal – at a lower cost to people and the environment.  

California has demonstrated ways to implement efficiency-enhancing programs without unduly raising prices on the exact items we want people to acquire.  Offering rebates and free recycling for old refrigerators, providing complimentary water-saving toilets, and purchasing and scrapping polluting vehicles have saved families money and water, and reduced icky emissions.  These local programs need to become global, paid for, perhaps, by the rich so that the poor, and our environment, don’t continue to get poorer.