Bullitt Prize winner uses affordable housing to fight climate change

Patience Malaba works with advocates to develop affordable housing that also reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

Patience Malaba holds her Bullitt Environmental Prize

Winner of the 2020 Bullitt Environmental Prize from the Bullitt Foundation, Patience Malaba stands outside of her Seattle home on Sept. 28, 2020. She is the head of government relations at the Housing Development Consortium of Seattle-King County. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

The worst drought of Patience Malaba’s childhood occurred when she was 6 years old. That year, more than a million cattle died and millions of people were left in need of food assistance. Malaba, who was born in Lupane Village in rural Zimbabwe, remembers her parents caring for their neighbors, even as they themselves experienced hardship. 

Malaba says that those same values she learned from her parents still serve as the bedrock of her work today as the director of government relations and policy at the Housing Development Consortium of Seattle-King County. And today, the Bullitt Foundation*, a longtime philanthropic force behind the Northwest’s environmental movement, announced that it would award her the 2020 Bullitt Environmental Fellowship, a $100,000 prize dedicated to recognizing young people who have shown promise as environmental leaders. 

“The Bullitt Foundation is an environmental philanthropy, but we define the environment as something that acknowledges that people are part of it,” says Denis Hayes, CEO of the foundation. “The way that we deal with habitats for all other animals, we try to also provide for habitats that are healthy, resilient and sufficiently abundant for people.”

Although the Bullitt Foundation is planning to wind down most of its giving by 2024, it plans to award the annual Bullitt Prize indefinitely. Crosscut recently spoke with Malaba about her work on affordable housing and her plans for the future. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Can you start off by telling me how you came to this work? 

My coming to work on affordable housing really was from an environmental justice/activism background. I feel like I’ve lived through the brunt of climate change in the global south, but in all of that my family was able to instill in me the value of standing up for the most vulnerable. To me, affordable housing is a human right and a cornerstone of an equitable and sustainable city.

Housing is linked inextricably to our health, to the transportation that we’re able to access. The continued reality is that King County is facing a housing shortage. Our population has grown faster than the new homes have been built. We have been very behind in terms of adequately investing or funding affordable housing for our community to match the growing need that we’ve seen over the years. 

Across the globe, we’re faced with these two crises of an affordable housing shortage and climate change. This problem is going to be four or five times exacerbated with the massive wave of evictions that is coming up. For many people, driving becomes their default mode of transportation and they are faced with longer commutes. 

There’s a lot of our land that could help meet the high demand for housing but also reduce climate emissions. If these rules remain unchanged, we are not on a track to get to equity and affordability. 

There are ways in which that single, detached approach is inequitable and unsustainable. The zoning code lets only a small number of people have access to high opportunity neighborhoods. It prevents development where it will be most beneficial. We have 75% of our land zoned for single-family homes, and only 12% zoned for multifamily. If you care about the environment, housing density should be a priority for you.

What can be done about it right now?

I actually am working on an amendment that’s on the ballot for the November election particularly for King County to use their underutilized land for affordable housing and particularly for land to be used at lower price. 

The King County Affordable Housing Task Force told us we had to have 244,000 homes by 2040 to make sure people were not paying more than 30% of their income. This report was worked on in 2017, so there is a chance that even more housing is needed. 

We need to build 44,000 affordable homes every five years. That means we have to be using every tool in our toolbox to be increasing choices for people who have low or moderate incomes. We need to make sure those policies are bold, particularly in a time when we know that the crisis has been exacerbated by this pandemic, and we know that the same people who are impacted are the people who are impacted by the climate crisis.

How does your background inform your approach? 

I grew up in Zimbabwe, which experienced countless droughts when I was growing up. There was a particular one that I remember in 1992 that affected a lot of families. But my family was standing up for a lot of people in our community and just being there for everyone. It was hard for them during a drought because everyone is affected, but they were still instilling that value of caring for others and caring about your community. I think that’s where my value of wanting to do work that cares about others comes from, and that’s where my social justice values are grounded. 

After I was done with high school, I came together with other young people in Zimbabwe to start an organization that was working on empowering young people to know about their human rights, to be involved in decision-making processes, or run for office. That was the work that got me into the space around advocacy and calling for accountability and transparency around our governments. 

When I got here, within my fourth month of being in Seattle, I was serving on the Sierra Club Executive Committee, and we had just organized a People’s Climate March in 2015. That was a way of saying that I’m still in community and that I want to help those who do not have a voice or who are historically disenfranchised and are not at the table when decisions are being made. 

Patience Malaba sits in front of the Seattle skyline near her home. “From transportation and climate change to racial equity and community cohesion, affordable housing sits at the root of many challenges facing society,” says Denis Hayes, CEO of the Bullitt Foundation. “Patience has shown the grit, charisma and smarts needed to bring people together around a common vision.” (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

Are there other places that you’ve been inspired by lately?

What the city of Minneapolis did, through their 2040 Comprehensive Plan: They intentionally looked at their single-family zoning and tried to assess how they get to a point where they’re removing tainted history from that zoning code. Then you look at a city like Portland, where they recently passed landmark policy changes allowing duplexes and triplexes across the city in places that had been exclusively for single, detached homes, which is a very easy way of incorporating more housing choices for people. 

I have to underscore that zoning reform alone does not solve the housing crisis. But it is a major step towards a truly equitable city. It is a systemic reform that is necessary and also has to be coupled with massive funding to enable those people who have not been able to access those neighborhoods. 

That’s another thing: We know that an equitable recovery really has housing at the core of it. Not just from this COVID-19 pandemic, but also from this affordability crisis and the climate crisis. 

What are some exciting developments you’ve seen this year for Seattle? 

We’ve seen some bold investments that will help build resilience, particularly for residents who have been most directly impacted by the economic crisis created by COVID-19. We’ve seen more capital dollars coming from policies that have been passed. We’ve seen those same policies also include sustainability as a key component. So I think there’s a shift in how we are seeing the housing crisis, not just as a standalone but also as a cornerstone of how we get to an equitable and sustainable society and seeing how it overlaps with all of these other crises that we’re dealing with. 

The Seattle median household income is now more than $100,000 per year. As median incomes increase, how do you see that affecting people whose incomes aren’t increasing, or have gone away because of the COVID-19 crisis?  

Housing is inextricably linked to not just our health, but our financial security, our economic mobility, the type of transportation options that we have access to. As such, it’s incumbent on us to guarantee that as our region grows, that the growth doesn’t exacerbate social inequity. And that environmental benefits are equitably distributed throughout cities. We need to be reimagining our existing systems and looking at how they continue to impact people who are not enjoying access to the success that our region enjoys.

The housing crisis has been exacerbated by COVID-19. The challenge is intersected with climate change, and most recently with the fires that we’ve seen in our region. Climate change is not too far from all of us. I think we are way more conscious of the reality of climate change, so it’s important that we move forward in reimagining how we build our cities. 

I view affordable housing as being at the core of those issues. Your home, or the type of home that you have access to, is in most cases proxy to the opportunities that you have in your life. If people do not have access to homes that they can afford and they continue to be pushed out of their communities, we are undermining our efforts in all those other issues. 

Over the last 10 years, our region has lost 112,000 homes that were affordable to people at 80% of area median income and below. Those units were not lost from someone destroying the units, they were lost because rents went up. We continue to have this crisis where we have a shortage of housing, and rents continue to go up, and they become out of reach particularly for people with limited incomes.

What do you feel like you’ve taken away from the master’s of public administration program at Seattle University you’re in right now that has changed how you think about this work?

I've been able to focus on drawing from my lessons in the academic world in trying to look into how we promote cities or regions where a transportation system that is powered by electricity is commonplace. A place where you have open green space for people in all neighborhoods, where housing is affordable, the infrastructure is sustainable and resilient, and people have a sense of community. Our program is comprehensive, it’s about educating public service professionals who seek to advance their careers on social justice principles. 

What do you feel like are the biggest challenges right now in doing this kind of work? 

The now-combined crises of COVID-19, housing affordability and climate change really call on us to be bolder in terms of actions, because all of these issues are disproportionately affecting Black people, Indigenous people and people of color. If we don’t think of the most equitable ways that we can continue to look at affordable housing as a human right and as a cornerstone of an equitable and sustainable society, it’s going to continue to be harder to ensure that equitable recovery. 

Even though we’ve been in a pandemic, we have an opportunity in the 2024 Comprehensive Plan to look at our planning through that equity lens and say, “What is one tool that can get us on track to an equitable city?” And our single. detached homes zoning is one place where we can begin to be looking into that, and recognize that this will open up neighborhoods of high opportunity to other people, and maybe allow more people to have access to home ownership opportunities. How do we make sure that we have sufficient funding for them to be able to access those opportunities? Those are some of the major issues of our time, and another is to make sure we are reducing and preventing sprawl, which could happen at this point with the massive potential evictions that we may be faced with. 

What does the Bullitt Fellowship mean to you and the way that you move forward? 

It means so much. It is not only an immense honor for me, but it is a recognition of the affordable housing sector’s leadership and intentional work in building coalitions with climate and labor advocates in creating housing that aligns with getting us to a place where we are recognizing the climate goals that we have and the strategies of reducing energy and water use, utilizing renewable energy sources and minimizing greenhouse gas emissions. 

It’s a recognition of the work our sector has done, and how affordable housing is at the core of these issues, how it is that human right that is the cornerstone of an equitable and sustainable society. 

*The Bullitt Foundation was a former grant supporter of Crosscut from 2018-2019. Cascade Public Media remains committed to ensuring that no advertiser, donor or grant support influences coverage within the newsroom.



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About the Authors & Contributors

Mandy Godwin

Mandy Godwin

Mandy Godwin is formerly an emerging journalist fellow at Crosscut.