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Green housing: In Buffalo, it's not just for rich people

Can cities build sustainable housing that's affordable, too? Buffalo, N.Y., did and created a job-training pipeline in the process. Here's what can happen when a neighborhood takes the lead.

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Ensuring that the homes it produces are energy-efficient is an important component of PUSH's work, because heating and energy costs account for a large percentage of living expenses in Buffalo.

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"A lot of the houses in this city are over 100 years old and poorly insulated, so to have an apartment at an affordable rate but also that is totally energy-efficient, through the new windows and insulation, the utilities bills will be drastically reduced," McClain told me.

Green buildings enjoy lower operating costs, but they're more common in luxury real estate portfolios than in the inner city. That's a perception that PUSH is looking to change.

In 2011, PUSH completed a net-zero energy house—a home that produces as much energy as it uses. The project was launched to showcase renewable energy technologies and to help give low-income residents paid job training.

In the process, the builders found another innovative use for vacant lots: They dug a deep trench in the adjacent lot to provide geothermal heating and cooling for the house. On all of the buildings, PUSH reuses existing materials where possible, upgrades the windows and insulation, and installs Energy Star-rated metal roofs that help to passively cool the buildings.

Back at the PUSH headquarters I met co-founder Eric Walker, who I instantly recognized even though we had never met. Walker guest-starred on an episode of ABC's reality TV show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition that aired in 2010. In a typical episode of the show, a handful of hyperactive celebrities and local volunteers target a distressed home that is owned by a family undergoing illness, disaster, or some other hardship, and they quickly fix it up for the family in need.

Instead of just fixing up one house, though, PUSH and some 4,500 volunteers teamed up with the show's producers to fix up several surrounding properties in the neighborhood as well.

Why go back to the way things were when we can create housing that embraces the best of tradition and the best of new thinking?

Extreme Makeover brought the West Side some positive national exposure, but Walker still has mixed feelings about the show. Neighborhood improvement can either come from external forces or it can come from within, and the forces of change portrayed in the show weren't entirely homegrown.

"In organizing, we talk about three kinds of power: power over, power for, and power with," explains Walker. The TV show gave PUSH an opportunity to inspire, but the tools of change were in the hands of the ABC producers and the celebrity hosts—not members of the community. "It was one step removed from the power we're trying to build," Walker says.

The TV cameras packed up and left, but the transformational power remains in the neighborhood. It is evident in the carefully restored Victorians that line Massachusetts Avenue; in the raised beds the community has acquired through PUSH; and in the fact that parents now take their children to the once-dangerous park they fought for and won themselves.

Mark Andrew Boyer wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Mark is a photographer and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. His work has appeared in GOOD, Inhabitat, and Mindful Metropolis.

This article originally appeared in YES! Magazine.

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