Designing truly sustainable infrastructure requires creating sustainable, resilient and equitable buildings and communities that consider the future of the planet and the people alike. Ensuring all projects, including residential affordable housing, are not only environmentally sustainable but also contribute economically and to social justice. This is one of the priorities of many green building certifications, such as the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building rating system.
A lack of affordable housing has resulted in high levels of homelessness across the United States. In January 2020, for example, more than 580,000 people experienced homelessness. People of color and historically marginalized communities face multiple factors, including redlining, de jure segregation, poverty and systemic inequities. These issues have created an abundance of people struggling daily to find stable, quality housing. Moreover, the affordable housing that is available is in need of energy efficiency improvements.
The rising cost of energy is another factor that puts low-income communities at a further disadvantage. Low-income households spend an average of more than 16% of their income on energy bills, compared with 3.5% for higher-income households. Some 17 million households report receiving disconnection notices from their utility over lack of payment. This only reinforces the need to build more green affordable housing.
There are many benefits to building more affordable green homes, including environmental, economic and even health benefits. In fact, a 2016 report on green affordable housing in southern states shows that affordable green homes have lower energy and utility costs, lower maintenance costs and overall higher quality homes. And third-party certification, such as LEED for residential projects, affirms homes deliver on design plans and meet green building commitments that save energy, water and other resources.
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To help boost affordable homes, an increasing number of states across the country require developments to meet green design standards that prioritize energy and water efficiency, resource conservation and sustainable development in order to receive funding through the Low-income Housing Tax Credit. These policies come alongside recognition of the benefits housing certified to green building certification systems such as LEED offer residents, including improved conditions for health and comfort and reduced costs of utilities. In Colorado, self-certification for the QAP program was recently eliminated as an option for compliance, with third-party verification such as LEED required to increase integrity and impact. Taking advantage of such policies can lead to higher quality affordable housing, efficiency, resource management, and resilience for the future.
Eaton Apartments in downtown Westminster, Colo. is a great example of how access to affordable housing can be enhanced with green building practices. Redeveloped from the Westminster Mall, Eaton Apartments is a LEED Silver certified complex with 118 affordable units, six two-bedroom townhomes and 21,000 square feet of street-level retail space. Not only does the complex have green design elements like energy and water efficiency, thermal and lighting controllability, and access to public transportation, but social sustainability is also emphasized by providing mixed-income rent prices to increase access to affordable housing. The apartments offer quality indoor air, comfort and sustainability to low-income residents who have often only had the option of damaged and run-down affordable housing.
The recently enacted Inflation Reduction Act includes provisions that will make it possible to create more affordable housing projects like Eaton Apartments. The new law allocates funds to the Department of Housing and Urban Development for affordable housing retrofits to improve energy and water efficiency and indoor air quality and incorporate clean energy sources. The investment is precisely what’s needed to help low-income families maintain stable, long-term housing.
Magnifying the scale of impact that affordable green housing can have on the communities in need of them, as well as on the environment, should be a focus of truly sustainable projects. Increasing accessibility and affordability of green housing by centering equity is key in ensuring everyone can have a stable, safe and sustainable place to live.