Affordable Housing and Sustainable Design: The Goals Are Aligned
Green building is not just for those with means.
by Nancy Eve Cohen
There is a vast, unmet need for affordable housing in the U.S.
More than eight million extremely low-income households pay more than half of their incomes to rent their homes. In addition, more than a half million people in the U.S. were homeless last year.
Andrew Spofford, chief of staff of the nonprofit Preservation of Affordable Housing (POAH), says that right now the U.S. is “serving something like one in four families that really need housing assistance.”
The National Low-Income Housing Coalition has identified a shortage of 7.4 million homes that are affordable and available.
While housing advocates are pushing to build more and more homes for low-income people, sustainable design advocates say the affordable housing that we do build should be energy efficient, healthy, and durable.
“People with low incomes are the ones who need it the most,” says Krista Egger, director of initiatives at Enterprise Community Partners. If your income is very low and you live in housing that has low utility bills and is healthier, “you are going to benefit at a greater incremental degree … than if you have a lot of disposable income,” says Egger.
But despite the desire to build green, the priority for state housing finance agencies is to build more affordable units.
Many designers and architects told BuildingGreen that it takes intent, hard work, and careful analysis to figure out what to change on a project in order to gain a more durable, healthier, and affordable building. Some scale back the size of units in order to find funds to increase energy efficiency and indoor air quality. Others cut the landscaping budget. Some invest time researching lower-cost materials that are still of good quality. These tradeoffs between cost and ‘green’ are made within the confines of a tight budget, and with the goal of providing housing for the most needy that will be healthy and affordable for decades.
Egger maintains there are many things that can be done to an affordable housing property to make it healthier for residents and perform better “that do not cost a cent.” She points to low-VOC paint, low-flush toilets, and the investments in energy efficiency that pay dividends in the long run. “I do not think it is a question of … should I build sustainable or should I build affordable. You can do both at the same time,” says Egger.
But for some developers, the bottom line is still the bottom line. There is only so much funding that is available to build affordable housing, and there is an enormous need. “For better or worse, my approach on a deal-by-deal basis is how can I green up my project enough to satisfy QAP requirements (state funding requirements) without killing the budget,” wrote Peter Serafino to BuildingGreen. He is a nonprofit developer with Way Finders in Springfield, Massachusetts. “Not an ideal strategy. It is reflective of financial reality.”