LEED Enables Greater Efficiency for Affordable Housing Residents

The LEED Homes Awards feature innovative, LEED certified affordable housing projects

By ALYSSON BLACKWELDER

In the Bronx neighborhood of Morrisania, 3365 Third Avenue offers opportunity and sustainable living for low-income residents. With sustainable features like a rooftop solar array, a green roof and an airtight insulated concrete form envelope, the project team for this residential building estimated that the building has reduction savings up to 90% higher than conventionally built structures. The building also provides residents with a youth education center and a 9,500 square foot community space.

To the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), projects like 3365 Third Avenue embody what all buildings should aspire to be: innovative, healthy and sustainable, but also designed thoughtfully, with the intention to bring out the best in communities. By certifying to LEED, buildings have a roadmap that bridges inherent gaps in opportunity and access to quality living spaces for the most vulnerable populations.

Nationwide, there is a shortage of affordable housing for low-income individuals, but that means there’s an opportunity for residential builders and developers to bring innovative solutions to market that have the power to transform communities. More than 567,000 affordable housing units have certified through LEED, verifying for residents and other stakeholders that a home meets the highest sustainability standards, improves efficiency, helps lower utility costs, and prioritizes their health and well-being.

USGBC advocates for homes that are sustainable, efficient, resilient, healthy, and contribute to building more equitable communities. These standards are critical for any project, but even more important for the affordable housing market. Millions of Americans live in homes that do not promote their health or safety and cost more than 30% of their income. The future requires a more resilient approach to home building and LEED gives the market the tools and guidance to get there.

Over the years, USGBC has been proud to recognize exceptional LEED-certified homes, their builders, and developers through the annual LEED Homes Awards. Included in this yearly announcement are affordable housing projects that have not only earned LEED certification, but have exhibited innovative strategies that enhance levels of sustainability and support a higher quality of life for residents.

The LEED Platinum Arroyo in Santa Monica, Calif. was recognized as an Outstanding Affordable Project this year. Consisting entirely of 64 affordable units, the Arroyo includes sunshades to reduce solar gain and energy demands on cooling systems, as well as solar panels for onsite energy generation. The project incorporated a shaded community space inspired by the local California landscape that is tolerant to drought, requiring lower maintenance. The Arroyo also provides on-site services for residents including health and wellness classes, computer skills training, and after school programming.

For developers and others who wish to build affordable housing and achieve LEED certification, several tools exist to support their plans, including access to Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) funding. Under this program, the federal government issues tax credits to states that state housing finance agencies implement. These state agencies award these credits to developers through a competitive process that varies widely from state to state but is outlined in the form of a Qualified Allocation Plan (QAP).

A state’s QAP includes requirements and competitive criteria for affordable housing projects seeking LIHTC funding, which help the state determine which projects will receive the credits. Increasingly, states have taken note of the benefits associated with LEED certification, and their QAPs have reflected as such As of 2020, there are at least 34 states that include references to LEED certification in their QAPs, either as a requirement for projects or in the form of competitive points earned.

The Weatherization Assistance Program, administered by the U.S. Department of Energy, supports energy efficiency strategies in low-income households. This program currently provides around 35,000 homes with weatherization improvements and upgrades, including repair or replacement of HVAC systems, installation of efficient lighting, and blower door testing. Many of these tactics complement those encouraged by LEED, including high levels of energy efficiency, a tight building envelope, and building energy metering. USGBC has gone on record in support of this critical program.

Affordable housing residents deserve opportunities to live in healthy, resilient, and efficient spaces. When green building practices reach more residents, the more equitable and prosperous we can truly become.

Alysson Blackwelder is the project manager, advocacy and policy, of the U.S. Green Building Council.