Greening Affordable Housing

Photo: Convenient Location, key to success; Courtesy: Victoria Transit Policy Institute

In the past, the environmental community has sometimes been criticized for not paying enough attention to the problems of the underprivileged,” says Kaid Benfield, senior attorney and director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Smart Growth Initiative. At the same time, “the housing community has been criticized for ignoring the environmental impacts of its projects.” But now, Benfield and others see an opportunity to address both concerns at once—with green affordable housing.

Megan Sandel, a pediatrician at Boston University Medical Center who studies the connections between housing and health, believes the goals are inseparable. “We have to work harder at not viewing housing as a one-dimensional issue… as only green, or healthy, or affordable. We must look at green affordable housing as something possible and necessary.”  

After all, the goals of green building and affordable housing overlap to a large degree, making the latter well suited to green strategies

The Green Communities Initiative

In September 2004, the Enterprise Foundation and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), along with the American Institute of Architects, the American Planning Association, and several other corporate, financial, and nonprofit partners, launched the Green Communities Initiative, a $550 million fund to build more than 8,500 environmentally friendly affordable housing units over the next five years. The aim of the program, however, extends beyond this, explains Greg Kats of Capital E, who has been involved in the program’s development. “The intent is really to transform low-income housing so that [energy] efficient and healthy housing becomes the norm.”
Through this Initiative, the Enterprise Foundation and NRDC will work with community development corporations and homebuilders to provide grants, loans, equity, training, and technical assistance to encourage housing developers to incorporate green design into their work. The Initiative will also target federal, state, and local government agencies, and encourage states to dedicate some of their federal housing tax credits to green projects.

Current projects include:


Azotea Senior Apartments is a new construction of 60 units in Alamogordo, New Mexico. The development features 14 one- and two- story buildings containing 24 one bedroom and 36 two-bedroom apartments.  Azotea Senior Apartments will incorporate various green elements into the design and construction of the development including: passive solar gain to maximize energy efficiency; "green" non-toxic building materials such as locally produced recycled finger-jointed framing studs, recycled carpet and  tile, water-based natural paints, non-formaldehyde wheat-based plywood, and recycled cotton insulation. The site's landscape design will utilize native or drought resistant plants, shrubs, ground cover and trees.  The buildings are designed in conjunction with the landscape design to harvest rainwater from the roofs and provide irrigation to the native plantings.


New Shiloh Village is the new construction of 80 units of quality aff%altordable rental housing for very-low, low and moderate-income seniors. The location of the project, formerly a church parking lot, is in West Baltimore. The four story building will consist of 65 one-bedroom and 15 two bedroom units. The project is part of a much larger redevelopment undertaken by New Shiloh Baptist Church and will include a child care facility and the renovation of a warehouse into multi-purpose retail and office space. New Shiloh Village is designed with: energy efficient windows, water conserving plumbing fixtures, energy-saving appliances, recycling of drywall scraps, highly efficient split-system heating and air conditioning system, energy saving light fixtures, re-use of perimeter fencing, and water permeable walkways and parking areas. For more information, visit

Green Affordable Housing: The Main Considerations

Although the unique conditions of each situation determine which strategies are most appropriate, the broad considerations outlined here apply to all affordable housing: a convenient location, low initial costs, affordable operations and maintenance costs, a healthy and safe environment, and, last but not the least, the comfort and pride of the occupants.

Convenient location: If a house is not located within walking distance of amenities, including public transportation, it’s neither green nor affordable, says Jim Hackler, of the U.S. Green Building Council. “The goal is to have a home in a place that allows the family to move forward. You want it to have easy access to jobs, daycare, and continuing education—to have easy access to opportunity.”  

Finding housing and work near one another is often a challenge, and, for too many Americans, simply impossible. Commuting by automobile is expensive, what with the cost of gas, insurance, and auto maintenance. Daycare costs also go up when parents spend more time away from home. Plus, time away from home means less time with family, less time to prepare healthy meals, and less time for rest and relaxation. Long commutes also mean less time for exercise and more stress, both of which can have serious health implications.

Some mortgages are now enabling and encouraging low- and middle-income Americans to move to more convenient neighborhoods. Two such examples are Fannie Mae’s Smart Commute Initiative and the Institute for Location Efficiency. Fannie Mae—a federally funded mortgage company—reports that reducing transportation costs by half saves the average family $2,200 each year. Treating these savings as additional income enables more people to become homeowners while qualifying others for larger mortgages. The benefits of these mortgages extend beyond their recipients and encourage mixed-income neighborhoods, support local businesses, and reduce automobile use, thereby reducing energy consumption and improving air quality.

Certain communities now require new housing developments to include some affordable housing, subsidized by the developer. But such policies remain exceptions to the rule, and working class Americans are frequently priced out of the very communities they serve.

Low initial costs: Keeping construction and renovation costs low should be an imperative for any affordable housing project. In cases where government entities or nonprofit organizations subsidize construction, the occupants may not be directly affected by the initial construction cost, but higher first costs reduce the number of affordable housing units completed.

Affordable maintenance costs:
For most residents of affordable housing, purchasing a home is just the beginning. After the rent or mortgage, utility bills represent the largest housing-related expense. The inability to pay utility bills is often the reason why low-income people lose their homes and why renters are evicted.

All for Green, and Green for All
According to the Enterprise Foundation, a quarter of the people in this country face housing problems ranging from unaffordable utility bills to overcrowding to homelessness. As we try to devise solutions to this crisis, we have a great opportunity to set the standard for affordable housing in the future. By making smart green choices now, we can not only reduce costs but also achieve significant environmental benefits within typical budget constraints.

Energy efficiency: The most efficient way to lower operating costs is to reduce energy costs, which is done in part by insulating well and installing energy-efficient lighting and appliances. “We believe that one should push [for] the lowering of operating costs,” says Betsy Pettit, president of Building Science Corporation (BSC) in Westford, Massachusetts. She supports any improvement that will pay for itself through lower operating costs over five to 10 years.

Recognizing the importance of energy efficiency in affordable housing, Fannie Mae offers Energy Efficient Mortgages (EEMs), which allow homeowners to finance 100 percent of approved, cost-effective energy efficiency strategies—up to five percent of the total value of the home for new construction and 15 percent for renovations or upgrades. With EEMs, the projected monthly energy savings are treated as additional income, allowing borrowers to qualify for larger mortgages.

Water efficiency: Water bills can also be expensive, especially in the drier parts of the country. But for a small upfront cost, in fact sometimes for no additional cost, installing water-saving faucet aerators, showerheads, and toilets can save a tremendous volume of water. Fixing leaks also can save a lot of money. In addition, landscaping with native, drought-tolerant species and irrigating with rainwater can often eliminate the use of expensive potable water. Finally, reducing the amount of hot water used saves both water and energy.

Looking at the history of green building so far, there appears to be a tendency for it to become a rich person’s game.

But in principle, focusing on the affordability of green building can give us our best chance of creating truly sustainable living spaces for all. In fact, green design promises a spectrum of benefits to affordable housing that may prove the critical testing ground for its applicability everywhere.  ?

Jessica Boehland is the managing editor of Environmental Building News at
This article is adapted from an article first published in Environmental Building News, Volume 14, Number 3, March 2005.  Reprinted with permission.


Download or view a pdf of this article (158 KB).


 Getting Ready for Change: Green Economics and Climate Justice      |      Vol. 13 No. 1    |       Summer 2006      |      Credits

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A Blueprint for Greener Buildings

"Green building" movement to construct offices and homes that use less energy, less water, and more environmentally-friendly materials

 Ask a group of friends to name top sources of energy waste and pollution, and odds are good that no one would answer "my house" or "the place where I work." Yet the fact is that the nation's 5 million commercial facilities and 76 million residential buildings consume more than two-fifths of all our energy. They also account for just over one-third of the nation's carbon dioxide emissions (a chief culprit in climate change), about one-half of sulfur dioxide emissions, one-quarter of nitrous oxide emissions, and one-tenth of particulate emissions (all major contributors to smog and acid rain). The current construction boom is expected to add 38 million new buildings by the end of the decade, compounding the nation's air, waste, and water quality problems. Construction and demolition already generates 136 million tons of waste annually.

Clearly, architects, builders, and their customers can play a huge role in overcoming some of our biggest environmental challenges. In the past, many have shunned environmentally conscious design and construction on the assumption that "green" buildings cost a lot more greenbacks. But in a positive development, a growing number of Americans are discovering that green buildings can yield significant cost savings over the long haul even as they help protect the environment.

As the name implies, green buildings use power and other natural resources far more efficiently and generate less pollution than buildings simply constructed to code. They also create a safer indoor environment by harnessing more natural lighting and using materials that make indoor air healthier to breathe.

"If all commercial buildings in the U.S. were as efficient as our Southern California office, the country would achieve 70 percent of its Kyoto Protocol obligation."

-- NRDC senior scientist Rob Watson

A cutting-edge example of environmentally friendly industrial design is now taking shape just west of Detroit in Dearborn, Mich., the world headquarters of Ford Motor Co. Under the leadership of its chairman, Bill Ford, the company has hired world renowned environmental architect William A. McDonough to redesign Ford's historic 600-acre Rouge complex.

The 84-year-old collection of foundries, factories, and mills was considered the epitome of world industry in the early 20th century (and inspired Mexican muralist Diego Rivera's 1932 masterpiece, "Detroit Industry"). But the Rouge's then-innovative industrial model of unloading raw materials at one end of the site, processing them in the middle, and driving new cars out the other wreaked major environmental harm over the years. The adjacent Rouge River that gave the complex its name essentially died. The soil became contaminated and the air grew fetid.

The centerpiece of the $2 billion redesign project is a new, 750,000-square-foot assembly plant -- constructed not on a sylvan "greenfield" but on one of the bleakest urban "brownfields" imaginable. In June 2003, workers completed the installation of a 10.4-acre "living roof" on the $1 billion building. Composed of drought-resistant sedum, it is the largest such roof in the world. Virtually maintenance-free, it can absorb up to 4 million gallons of rainwater annually and is part of a broader storm-water runoff management system. In addition to absorbing water and the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, the sedum roof produces oxygen and provides natural overhead insulation for the building, thereby reducing its energy costs. It is also expected to last twice as long as a traditional roof.

In addition to the living roof, the broader redesign effort features sunflowers and other plants throughout the grounds to rid soil of contaminants, vines to shade buildings, porous paving that filters water through underground beds of crushed stone, plant-lined "swales" to further improve stormwater management, and the planting of more than 1,000 trees. A new paint shop on the Rouge site that opened in September 2000 generates one-third less emissions from paint than the one it replaced. In the future, renewable energy sources such as fuel cells and solar arrays will augment the complex's power grid.

A $222 million package of tax breaks and incentives from local, county, and state government is helping fund the transformation. "Ford has taken a progressive stance on environmental issues and with our redevelopment of the Rouge Center we are putting our words into action," says company vice president Tim O'Brien, who is leading the project. "The roof and other environmental initiatives we're implementing are cost effective. Year after year they will save us money as well as conserve resources."

"As you look into the future, the trend will be to ask industrial sites to be cleaner and cleaner," lead architect McDonough noted in a November 2000 interview with The Detroit News. "If we meet or exceed the standards, there's less need for regulatory oversight. What we're essentially doing is converting buildings built for machines and now designing them to produce oxygen and offer a habitat for hummingbirds."

Elsewhere, environmental organizations including the National Audubon Society, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and World Resources Institute have commissioned many such green structures. For instance, in January 2004 actor Leonardo DiCaprio and Hollywood environmental activist Laurie David unveiled NRDC's new regional headquarters in Santa Monica, Calif., a facility called the Redford Building, which they helped finance.

Located in a building that once housed an acupuncture school, the Redford Building uses 60 percent to 75 percent less electricity by maximizing natural light and using photo sensors to dim lamps when sunlight is bright enough to read by. It also uses 60 percent less water by filtering and disinfecting water reclaimed from rain gutters, sinks, and showers to flush toilets. Based on these and other attributes, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) awarded the building its highest possible "platinum" rating, making it the "greenest building" in America.

Meanwhile, the newly-constructed Audubon Center near downtown Los Angeles (also platinum-rated by USGBC) is the first in the city to be entirely powered by on-site solar systems -- functioning completely "off the grid." According to the Los Angeles Times, the facility also is "off the sewer system" -- using live cultures in sophisticated membranes to sanitize bathroom waste to a point of such purity that filtered water is able to percolate back into the ground.

As the Ford example shows, the green building movement is also gaining momentum beyond the nonprofit sector. Companies including Toyota, Steelcase, Herman Miller, and IBM have recently broken ground or completed construction on green buildings. For instance, Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A. recently completed a 624,000-square foot headquarters expansion that costs less than the average rental space Toyota previously paid to house its 2,500 sales-division employees.

The USGBC recently gave the new facility its second-highest "gold" rating for features, such as one of the largest commercial solar rooftop electric systems in North America, which is expected to provide up to 20 percent of the building's energy requirements. The building uses wood harvested from sustainable forests for construction and interior finishes as well as steel recycled from automobiles to form the building's structural beams and columns. More than 90 percent of the waste from construction and demolition is being recycled, some of it onsite as pavers in the facility's state-of-the art Xeriscape garden (see the "PPI Xeriscape Play"). Toyota's South Campus facility is furnished with recycled and recyclable carpets and work stations. Even the products used by janitors to clean the facility are non-toxic -- a benefit to the environment and for people who use them.

In addition to the private sector, states including Pennsylvania, California, Oregon, New York, and Maryland have adopted green building policies. At the federal level, the U.S. Department of Energy's Federal Energy Management Program provides resources on best building practices.

To promote a common set of green building standards and spur their construction, USGBC created the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System. Established in 1993, the USGBC is comprised of 3000 organizations, including architectural and engineering firms, product developers, financial institutions, and representatives from state and local government.

The nonprofit organization established the LEED rating system in 1994 and updated its standard in 2000 and 2002 to reflect refinements in green building construction and materials. The rating system may be applied to new and existing commercial, institutional, and high-rise residential buildings based on their environmental attributes. The system is comprised of 34 criteria, or "credits," as well as seven prerequisites across six broad categories: site selection, water efficiency, energy use, materials selection, indoor air quality, and design. Building scores determine LEED's four rating levels: platinum, gold, silver, and certified.

As of 2003, approximately 100 million square feet of buildings were undergoing LEED certification, according to a recent study commissioned by California's Sustainable Building Task Force. The Golden State leads the country in the number of LEED certified buildings (140). On a project per-capita basis and project per-state domestic product basis, however, California is rivaled by states including Pennsylvania, Oregon, and Washington, each of which have well-established programs to encourage green construction.

Although the green building movement clearly is gaining momentum, the perception that such structures are too costly and unproven persists, according to the California task force study. To help dispel such notions, the group set out to quantify the costs and benefits of green buildings. Estimation is complicated by the fact that most green buildings are too new to deliver cost-savings data, which typically are realized over a building's 20-year average life. Another problem is that green buildings lack "controls" or non-green counterparts simply built to code, which would permit accurate cost comparison.

Such measurement challenges notwithstanding, the task force studied 33 LEED-registered projects to develop data on the costs and benefits of green construction. It concluded that while upfront green building construction costs are about 2 percent higher than buildings simply constructed to code, green buildings generate about 20 percent in savings of initial construction costs over their lifetimes. In other words, an upfront investment of $100,000 in green-building features into a $5 million dollar project would result in about $1 million worth of savings in today's dollars over the average 20-year life of the building. Most of the higher upfront cost is for the additional time architects and engineers need to design cleaner, greener building features.

Much of the savings come in the form of lower energy and water bills. But features such as improved natural lighting and cleaner indoor air also improve productivity and result in fewer lost workdays and worker's compensation claims. More important, environmentalists say, green buildings have the potential to improve the nation's energy independence.

"Operating commercial and residential buildings consumes over 40 percent of the country's energy -- twice as much as passenger cars and trucks," says NRDC senior scientist Rob Watson, a driving force behind NRDC's new Santa Monica facility.

Even more promising, perhaps, is the fact that such savings are possible today without passing a single new law or resorting to existing mandates. Although states such as New York have passed tax incentive programs to encourage green building development, the movement for the most part is voluntary -- illustrating the tremendous potential of the building sector to pave the way for a cleaner, more sustainable future.

Resources For Action

Progressive Policy Institute's State Environment Exchange

U.S. Green Building Council

California Sustainable Building Task Force

"The Costs and Financial Benefits of Green Buildings: A Report to California's Sustainable Building Task Force," October 2003

California Governor's Executive Order D-16-00 establishing state sustainable building goal

Pennsylvania Governor's Green Government Council's

Ford Rouge Center Landscape Master Plan, William McDonough & Partners

"Toyota campus expansion is a showcase of green building practices," Toyota Environmental Update, March 2003

"Greener By Design: NRDC's Santa Monica Office," Natural Resources Defense Council

"Audubon Nature Center is Certified as Nation's Most Environmentally Friendly Building," National Audubon Society

Smart Communities Network, Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Network (EREN), A Project of the U.S. Department of Energy

Additional Reading

Miguel Bustillo, "Building on Green Principles: Los Angeles Boasts Two of the Most Ecologically Advanced Structures in the Country," Los Angeles Times, January 26, 2004


Pegi Shriver
Vice President for Marketing and Fund Development
U.S. Green Building Council
1015 18th Street, NW, Suite 805
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 82-USGBC or 828-7422, Ext: 145
(202) 828-5110 (fax) for general USGBC inquiries for LEED inquiries for membership inquiries

Uchenna Bright
Program Assistant
Natural Resources Defense Council
40 West 20th Street
New York, NY 10011
(212) 727-4532
(212) 727-1773 Fax

Mark Yamauchi
Facilities Operations Manager
Real Estate and Facilities
Toyota Motor Sales, USA Inc.
19001 S. Western Avenue
Torrance, CA 90501
(310) 468-6263

Jan Mazurek
Center for Innovation & the Environment
Progressive Policy Institute
600 Pennsylvania Ave. SE Suite 400
Washington, D.C. 20003
(202) 544-5014 (fax)

PPI Green Building Play

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