Affordable housing goes 'green'

Such homes may cost more to build, but cities are encouraging them for their long-term savings.

It's an inside-out apartment house: The boiler is on the top floor, the insulation is outside the concrete walls, and the garden's going to be on the roof.

On New York's Lower East Side, this brick apartment house - still under construction - is one of a number of environmentally conscious and energy-efficient building projects.

It's also one of the more tangible manifestations of a trend taking off in cities across the country: the merging of affordable housing and "green" building. City officials and others are recognizing that energy-efficient buildings, while they may cost a bit more to build, are far more affordable than traditional housing in the truest sense of the word. They cost less to operate and live in, and they provide tenants with a healthier atmosphere that can save on healthcare costs.

This fall, when reviewing certain grant proposals, New York City will start giving developers who want to build affordable housing "extra points" if builders pledge to incorporate green building principles. At the same time, Chicago is offering housing developers and apartment-building owners incentives if they build "green roofs," which are essentially roof gardens that help both insulate buildings better and improve overall air quality. And in Los Angeles, city officials have incorporated green standards into parts of the city's building code.

In the past year, the Enterprise Foundation, a leading provider of capital and expertise for the development of affordable housing, has helped start 77 green developments in 21 states, which will create more than 4,300 environmentally efficient homes for low-income families.

"If you just take the 4,300 homes in the pipeline right now, each year we will have $1.5 million of energy savings in those homes, more than 5,000 tons of reduced greenhouse-gas emissions per year, and 30 million gallons of reduced water use a year," says Bart Harvey, CEO of the Enterprise Foundation. "Those are remarkable savings, and they really reflect that the country needs to think and work in a different way: Green and affordable need to become synonymous."

The notion of green building is often associated with counterculture, leftist environmentalists of the 1960s and '70s. But during the past decade, green building principles have become increasingly incorporated into commercial buildings by corporations conscious of the bottom line. To encourage that trend, the US Green Building Council created the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), a group that trains and certifies architects, builders, and designers.

In 2000, LEED developed a set of standards to certify commercial buildings that meet environmental and energy-efficient standards. During the past summer, it set up a pilot project to certify residential buildings.

In another sign that green building is becoming more mainstream, the National Association of Home Builders this year announced its own set of voluntary green standards for builders, as did the Enterprise Foundation.

"Doesn't it make sense that if you're going to invest all of this time and money that you build well, that you build healthy? It sounds like a slam-dunk to me," says Mary Spink, executive director of the Lower East Side People's Mutual Housing Association, a nonprofit that's committed to building affordable housing.

Ms. Spink and her organization have been ahead of the curve: They built their first energy-efficient affordable-housing project seven years ago. And that was just the beginning. They've just received $8.5 million in tax-credit equity from Enterprise to build 44 more units of green affordable housing.

Standing on the top floor of one of their green projects that's almost completed, Spink points out the thick, green tiles made of recycled rubber that line the roof in preparation for a garden. She's showing this to a top executive from Citigroup, which has just pledged $1.5 million to Enterprise's green initiative.

"This is our first venture into green affordable housing, and the lesson is that we can do economic development with respect for people and the environment and do it economically," says Pamela Flaherty, senior vice president of global community relations at Citigroup. "The secret objective is much broader, which is to transform the whole affordable- housing infrastructure across the country."

If history is a guide, that could be possible. Back in the 1970s, when the alternative energy movement in construction began, there were no standards for how well a house should be insulated. Now, they're generally established.

"In each decade, there are some things that become so incorporated in the mainstream they're hardly talked about anymore, like minimum levels of insulation in homes," says Rick Schwolsky, an early advocate of green building and now editor in chief of two construction trade magazines.

For many in the movement, the hope is that ultimately green becomes the norm. "That's the ambition, that green building as a concept disappears and becomes part of regular, mainstream architectural practice," says Jack Elliot of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. "In a world with diminishing resources and rising expectation, I think it's inevitable."

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