Feature Article

Build More or Build Green? Affordable Housing’s False Choice

The U.S. is grappling with a housing crisis, climate change, and a legacy of racism and segregation. But we can address these problems all at once by centering community.

a view down the wide, open corridor of the longhouse with apartments on either side, filled with greenery. large logs support a gabled roof.

Stillaguamish Elder’s Longhouse is part of the Stillaguamish Village in Arlington, Washington. 7 Directions Architects/Planners and the Stillaguamish Tribe Housing Department led a community-based design process to engage Tribal members in creating a new community that, Daniel Glenn explained, is recognizably distinct as a Stillaguamish Village, celebrates the culture of the people, and is made up of economical, sustainable, and durable buildings that respond to the climate and place.

Photo: Doug Walker/7 Directions Architects/Planners
Solving our global housing crisis could have severe environmental and social impacts.

We’ll have to produce 96,000 new homes per day to meet the world’s affordable housing needs by 2030, according to UN–Habitat. But this isn’t a future problem in a faraway land: right now in the U.S., we have fewer than 4 million affordable and available homes to house 11 million extremely low-income households—a devastating shortage. 

If we were to develop enough new affordable housing to shelter all those who need it by using conventional design, construction, and operational strategies, the built environment would be an even bigger contributor to the climate and biodiversity crises than it is now, potentially pushing past the planetary limits of Earth, the only true home we’ve got

There’s another option, though: “We can leverage the [built environment] to heal the planet,” said Gina Ciganik, CEO at Habitable (formerly the Healthy Building Network), in an email to BuildingGreen. To do that, she argued, we must engage the entire building sector to renovate and rehabilitate existing buildings, keeping them in service longer. And we must build with longer-lasting and reusable products to minimize extraction of raw materials.

Can we do that—and the many other things that are required to meet people’s economic and health needs—while addressing the nation’s and the world’s desperate, immediate need for affordable housing?

“Affordable housing,” stated Ciganik, “is one small but powerful force in this whole picture and often gets called out as needing to be ‘sustainable and equitable’ and advancing change”—a double-edged sword. On one hand, she explained, this can put additional burden on a sector that already has many extra pressures. It can also be used to let the rest of the building sector off the hook. On the other hand, she countered, the affordable housing sector can be viewed as a space for innovation, a leader the rest of the built environment could follow. 

But owners and developers of affordable housing operate and build with razor-thin margins, and many perceive sustainability features as costly add-ons. This has helped create what Katie Ackerly, principal at David Baker Architects, characterizes in a blog post as “a persistent—largely unspoken—tension between the development work of people who are driven to solve the housing crisis and the sustainability approach of those who are dedicated to arresting climate impacts.” 

Therefore, cost premiums—whether real or perceived—of sustainability measures can be a significant barrier to their adoption. And short-term thinking and business-as-usual processes can prevent practitioners from reframing these first costs in a way that considers long-term maintenance and replacement, or addresses the potential impacts of buildings and materials on human health, energy poverty, and social and environmental justice up and down product supply chains.

Increased public support is crucial to addressing these issues. Still, the tension to which Ackerly refers and the recurring “debate about whether sustainability is ‘essential’,” she points out, are “perhaps a red flag that we are not successfully communicating the essential concept of sustainable design.”

BuildingGreen spoke with affordable housing experts, developers, and designers about how the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) community can drive change in the affordable housing industry by:

  • Adopting systems thinking to address intersecting crises simultaneously 
  • Reframing the conventional wisdom that sustainability and affordability are at odds
  • Advocating for policies and regulations that build key sustainability needs into affordable housing requirements right at the funding source
  • Leveraging existing systems to implement sustainability strategies centered on quality of life and culturally responsive community design

In Part Two of this series, we’ll share guidance to help project teams deliver affordable, integrative solutions that support the health and well-being of people, communities, and ecosystems.

Published May 13, 2024

Waters, E. (2024, May 13). Build More or Build Green? Affordable Housing’s False Choice. Retrieved from https://www.buildinggreen.com/feature/build-more-or-build-green-affordable-housing-s-false-choice