The demand for affordable housing is large. According to a 2011 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) study, worst case housing needs – those low-income households spending which pay more than half of their monthly income for rent, lived in severely substandard housing or both – jumped to 7.10 million cases in 2009. While this number alone demands attention, it should be noted that the number of worst case needs reported in 2009 grew 42% since 2001. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the need for safe, decent, and affordable housing has skyrocketed over the past decade. HUD reported that this need was met with limited demand across the country; a scarcity of affordable rental units persists.
As the demand for affordable housing has grown, so too has the popularity of green building practices. In the face of global climate change, public and private entities have increasingly adopted green building practices in the new building and rehabilitation of homes, commercial buildings, and civic facilities. Often they’ve done this to reduce energy and water consumption, improve indoor air quality, increase durability and longevity, and strengthen community. Despite these benefits and the mainstream green building trend, affordable housing developers “have been uncertain as to whether incorporating greening in their mission is appropriate and effective,” according to a New Ecology Inc. report. Specifically citing costs and development process complexities as major concerns, these developers have been slow to adopt green building practices.
Still, they believe that “green affordable housing is better affordable housing.” Why? Green affordable housing tackles the triple bottom line of sustainability: it promotes social equity, encourages environmental stewardship, and stimulates economic growth among individual residents and the greater community which they call home. The key to successful green affordable housing projects is not only building with sustainable building materials, but also addressing individual residential and community needs.
While not all green affordable developments are built the same way, there are some commonalities that set these developments apart from traditional affordable housing design. Green affordable housing units are healthier and less costly places for residents to live. Low-fume paint and carpeting, as well as improved ventilation systems keep air clean for inhabitants. These durable materials do not need to be replaced as often, saving money over the long term. Structural features including the use of recycled materials, installation of thick insulation, and incorporation of southern-facing windows, lower the carbon footprint of the building process and lower residents’ heating and cooling costs. Energy efficient appliances and water-conserving features (including front load washing machines, low-flow toilets, and aerated faucets) further reducing residents’ environmental impact and utility bills. The New Ecology Inc. report details that for up to 5% more in development costs, green buildings save up to 50% on energy costs, up to 20% on water costs, and also save 20% on electricity costs.
Good green affordable housing design focuses not only on the housing units themselves, but also on the surrounding community. The planting of rooftop gardens, rain gardens, and urban produce gardens is aesthetically pleasing and environmentally beneficial for residents. Increased access to green space provides nearby recreational opportunities and community gathering spaces for households. More and more, green affordable housing units are adopting the transit-oriented development model. Transit-oriented development provides close access to public transportation stations, retail amenities, and community facilities which makes it easier and more convenient for those low-income residents who rely on public transit to get to work, the grocery store, and school. Finally, green affordable housing projects can override the stigma of living in low-income housing and can even become a point of pride for the neighborhood, spurring additional development.
Moving forward, there are numerous programs supporting the incorporation of green design in affordable housing development with the hope of proving sustainable living alternatives for those households with the worst case need. Established in 2004, LISC’s Green Development Center provides “financial resources, technical information, partnership opportunities, education, and policy support to… accelerate the integration of sustainability principles in the development of low-income neighborhoods.” Since 2004, LISC has invested over $665 million to build over 20,000 green affordable housing units in addition to commercial and community facilities, including Silver City Townhomes in Milwuakee. Enterprise launched the Green Communities Initiative in 2004 to sustainably transform the siting, building, and rehabilitation of affordable housing. The organization worked with leading national environmental, health, smart growth, and green building organizations to develop the Green Communities Criteria which detail “more than 60 measures that promote environmentally sustainable materials, resource efficiency, healthy indoor living environments, and locations that provide easy access to community amenities and public transportation.” You can take a virtual tour of Trolley Square – an Enterprise Green Communities in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Guest Contributor: Emily Bacha
(Emily discusses environmental issues biweekly at http://thecoolship.com/author/ebacha1/.)