Affordable HousingIn this issue

Green Leadership in Affordable Housing

Fundamental green practices like energy and water efficiency offer the greatest benefit to low-income families for affordable housing

By Kim Vermeer and Walker Wells

California is facing two significant challenges — housing affordability and climate change. Green affordable housing is a way to address these concerns simultaneously, while generating multiple additional benefits to builders, residents, communities, and the environment.  

Meeting the combined challenges of the climate and affordable housing crises requires a developer’s commitment to innovation and a design approach that addresses broader community issues related to health, equity and quality of life. Green affordable housing is a proven approach that works across multiple dimensions of sustainability to deliver economic, equity and environmental benefits. As described in our book Blueprint for Greening Affordable Housing (Island Press, 2020), green strategies augment and expand the value of affordable housing and resident quality of life, by lowering utility costs, improving health, supporting smart growth, and increasing community resilience. Green design also benefits builders by establishing goals early in the design process to guide future decisions on building envelope, HVAC systems, finish materials and site strategies. These goals in combination with LEED, Enterprise Green Communities or other rating systems provide a framework for a thorough and integrated design approach that resolves conflicts between systems and greatly reduces costs to the builder for change orders.

“Green affordable housing is a proven approach that works across multiple dimensions of sustainability to deliver economic, equity and environmental benefits.”

The opportunity for builders to apply green strategies in affordable housing design and construction is substantial. Typically, about 80,000 units of income-restricted rental housing are developed annually, by leveraging the $8 billion annual allocation of federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC). In California, LIHTC results in approximately 4,000 units of income restricted housing being built each year. Some degree of green building measures is a baseline in nearly all states tax credit allocation criteria, with many now requiring formal LEED, Enterprise Green Communities, or other certification.

Fundamental green practices like energy and water efficiency offer the greatest benefit to low-income families with utility cost savings able to be redirected in family budgets to health care, education, fresh food or transportation. Building close to transit and services offers both household and community benefits by reducing transportation costs, congestion and greenhouse gas emissions. 

Good ventilation, low-VOC materials, and active design strategies like open central stairways improve occupant health. Community rooms can be designed to serve as resilience hubs during periods of high heat, electricity shut down, or other emergencies. 

Green affordable housing is also fundamentally about leadership. The Blueprint emphasizes the critical role played by project managers in keeping the project’s green vision intact through the many stages of development: site selection, entitlements, site planning, massing and orientation, systems and materials selection, specification, construction, and transition to operations. Leadership in green affordable housing is also driven by staff and board members, or by a community’s willingness to set aspirational goals. With green leadership, teams are open to exploring emerging technologies or design strategies, and to participating in an iterative and integrated process.

Several Southern California developers are demonstrating this type of leadership. PATH Ventures works to end homelessness for individuals, families and communities by building and operating affordable rental homes paired with on-site services that support residents in regaining long-term stability, independence, and health. 

The organization recently completed construction on the Metro Villas II project in Hollywood which provides 120 permanently supported units, with 90 dedicated to households that experienced homelessness. Metro Villas II is one of the first developments completed through the 1.2 billion City of Los Angeles HHH bond measure to fund the development of supportive housing. Metro Villas II is achieving LEED Platinum certification through attributes including the urban in-fill transit-proximate location, density, energy and water efficiency, solar thermal and PV systems, low-VOC materials, and high levels of air filtration.

One of the most striking features of the project is the open central stair that promotes physical activity, encourages neighbors to interact, and reduces energy use by the elevator. Non-profit developer Community Corporation of Santa Monica is pursuing all-electric design for multiple projects currently in the design phase and reducing its carbon footprint by purchasing 100% renewable energy through the Clean Power Alliance.

As these organizations, and others featured in the case studies in Blueprint, demonstrate, through committed leadership, curious and persistent project managers, and by engaging multiple stakeholders across architecture, planning, policy, technology, construction, and financing, we can address the dual challenges of housing affordability and climate change, and create housing and communities that are affordable, equitable, climate smart and resilient. 

Kim Vermeer, LEED AP Homes, is Founder and President of Urban Habitat Initiatives. Walker Wells, AICP LEED AP ND and EcoDistricts AP, is a Principal at Raimi + Associates and a Lecturer at UCLA.

Walker Wells, courtesy of USGBC-LA
Kim Vermeer, courtesy of USGBC-LA