Energy & Environment

In the Green

Viking Terrace Apartments, a low-income housing complex in rural Worthington, Minnesota, boasts some amenities. Thanks to an extensive renovation completed this summer, the four-building, 60-unit...
November 30, 2007

Viking Terrace Apartments, a low-income housing complex in rural Worthington, Minnesota, boasts some amenities. Thanks to an extensive renovation completed this summer, the four-building, 60-unit development has a picnic area, a volleyball court, a full basketball court and better playground areas. But there's an invisible feature that residents like even better - low utility bills. Viking Terrace tenants' energy payments have decreased by more than a third since the rehab, and they're saving on water bills, too. That's because Viking Terrace has gone green.

The refurbished 30-year-old complex includes elements such as low-flow plumbing fixtures, carpets made from recycled materials, energy-efficient appliances and improved ventilation systems. All the new paints, sealants and adhesives are low in volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, which can cause health problems. And the buildings were retrofitted with a geothermal heating and cooling system, greatly reducing monthly operating costs.

Viking Terrace is just the latest sign that "affordable" and "sustainable" can go together. It hasn't always been that way. The green-building movement, despite making significant inroads in both public and private construction, has largely skipped the affordable-housing sector. The assumption always was that green came with too gold-plated a price tag for low-income housing. That's changing. Cities and states are beginning to focus on the long-term paybacks of eco-friendly homes - particularly for the people who live in them.

That's especially true in Minnesota. Earlier this year, Minnesota became the first state to require green construction for all new affordable housing built there. Making it mandatory, says Kasey Kier of the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency, shows a commitment to the notion that everyone should have access to green design - and the lower bills that come with it. "With operating costs rising and energy costs rising, it's something we saw that we just had to do."

Viking Terrace is one of the first products of Minnesota's new mindset. It was a pilot project of a collaboration among the state, nonprofit developers and Enterprise Community Partners, a national foundation that has backed affordable-housing development for 25 years. The initiative helped to green Viking Terrace by underwriting the cost of the development's new geothermal system.


Green buildings have been catching on in the development industry for more than a decade. A lot of factors go into making a building green, but they generally break down into two categories. The first is a low impact on the environment, which can mean using recycled materials, re-using water or reducing construction waste, among other things. The second is a positive impact on people, which generally means improving indoor air quality or increasing reliance on natural lighting. Lately, green also is coming to encapsulate location, and the idea that building in a walkable, transit-accessible place is something to strive for.

The notion of applying green standards to housing, let alone affordable housing, is a relatively new idea. Only recently did the U.S. Green Building Council, whose "LEED" rating system is the de facto standard for green building, develop a set of criteria for homes. The knock on green building is that going through all the hoops, including LEED's certification process, can add between 2 and 4 percent to a project's price tag. That's not a negligible factor, particularly in the realm of low-income housing, where developers are always competing for limited funds.

But the lingering disconnect between "green" and "affordable" runs deeper than money. Developers who specialize in low-income housing are already accustomed to one set of rules and regulations, and going green would seem to add another. "It was like parallel universes," says Mary Jane Jagodzinski, a San Diego developer who has been involved with several green, low-income projects. "On the one side, you had the affordable-housing community, with its own issues, challenges and language. And then you had the energy folks, with their own issues, challenges and language."

State and local governments are trying to nudge the whole building industry toward green through a combination of incentives and mandates. In Chicago, for example, green projects are guaranteed an expedited permitting process. Developers in Arlington County, Virginia, are allowed a higher lot density for green projects. And Washington, D.C., is the first city to require green standards for all private construction, including residential projects. San Francisco has specifically targeted the affordable-housing sector by requiring all city-supported low-income housing developments to meet certain green standards.

At the state level, most of the action is occurring through administration of the Low Income Housing Tax Credit. That's the $5 billion annual federal program that finances almost all new and renovated rental properties for low-income people. Increasingly, state housing finance agencies are adopting policies that either encourage or require developers to incorporate green-building practices in order to have a shot at winning tax-credit funds. Some 36 state agencies have added green policies to their LIHTC programs - 28 in the past year alone. Some states have gone a step further. In addition to Minnesota's ambitious goal, housing agencies in Maine and Washington State essentially require green standards for all projects that receive state funds.

The upshot of these state and local actions, combined with similar new initiatives at the federal level, is that it's a lot easier being green. In some cases, it's really the only option developers have, says Madeline Fraser Cook, vice president of New Ecology Inc., a group that pushes for sustainable economic development in New England. "Once states included sustainability policies in their tax-credit programs, affordable-housing developers started saying, 'We have no choice but to make these projects green, if we're going to be competitive,'" Cook says. "It's basically forcing the industry to change faster than it would have naturally."

The industry also is getting a big green push from Enterprise Community Partners. Enterprise, a well-known player in the 17 cities where it does most of its work on affordable housing, is crusading to make green mainstream. "Green Communities" is the group's five-year, $555 million commitment to build more than 8,500 green homes for low-income people. Enterprise also worked with the U.S. Green Building Council to come up with a low-cost, low-hassle alternative to LEED for certifying affordable-housing projects.

"Green living shouldn't be only for those who have the most money in our society," says Stockton Williams, managing director for Enterprise. "Especially because the benefits of this can make so much more of a difference for those people who have less. We want to really transform the affordable-housing field, to make 'green' and 'affordable' one and the same."


In San Diego County, as in the rest of Southern California, the farther inland you go from the Pacific Coast, the hotter it gets. So temperatures in Poway, an upscale suburban city about 20 miles from the beach, can run 20 degrees warmer than in towns on the coast. For residents, that means high air-conditioning bills. But not for the tenants of Solara, an apartment complex in the center of Poway that opened in March. Their energy bills are significantly lower than their neighbors' across the street. In fact, the people who live in Solara don't pay a dime.

The entire 56-unit complex is powered by solar panels on the buildings' roofs. Because it's also energy efficient and incorporates other green elements, Solara essentially powers itself. Its developers say Solara has the lowest carbon footprint of any apartment complex in California - 95 percent lower than a conventionally powered project. Financed with the help of low-income housing tax credits and loans from both the city of Poway and San Diego County, Solara is the most aggressively energy-efficient example of affordable housing in California and probably the entire nation.

"We wanted to stay at the forefront of affordable housing," says Jagodzinski, whose nonprofit firm, Community HousingWorks, developed Solara. "We were motivated to build green, and we assumed that all the other leading affordable-housing developers were doing similar things. But about halfway through the construction, we turned around and realized we were doing something groundbreaking, something that hadn't been done elsewhere."

Solara's environmental benefits are obvious to anyone who sees the roofs. But Jagodzinski says it was something else that made a real impact on her when she first walked through the newly completed units there. "It struck me that there was no new-house smell." What she was noticing is that the usual odors of new construction - which some people falsely perceive as fresh and clean - don't materialize when you use products such as low-VOC paints and insulation that is low in chemicals.

Solara typifies the idea that there's much more to green building than being easy on the Earth. For advocates of green affordable housing, the fact that these structures are good for the environment is almost a side benefit. They're simply better places to live. For one thing, utility bills are lower and more predictable. That's an especially helpful benefit for low-income families, which have been hit hard by the skyrocketing costs of energy. According to the American Gas Association, low-income families now spend a record 20 percent of their income on home energy payments. That represents a 33 percent increase since 1998.

But green homes also are healthier homes. The typical American home is filled with harmful chemicals, from the neurotoxins in insulation to the formaldehyde in wood cabinets and finishes. In green buildings, those materials are replaced with natural versions that are less harmful. Additionally, going green means improving ventilation. Indoor air is recycled more often, and airborne irritants don't sit stagnant in a sealed apartment. This, too, is an issue that disproportionately affects low-income families, whose children suffer higher rates of asthma and other respiratory diseases than the rest of the population.

While there are more Solaras and Viking Terraces to point to now than there were a few years ago, affordable-housing developers still face many challenges with building green. Contractors have entrenched ways of operating, and those practices might not adapt easily to different materials and building processes. "That's still a challenge," says Madeline Fraser Cook. "Those guys who actually hold the hammers and nails - when you're asking them to change, you're asking them to change a lot."

There are also lingering debates over what materials pass muster as "green." Take floor coverings. A recycled-content carpet laid using low-VOC glue is a solid green option. But if your primary concern is health, no dust-catching carpet is as good an option as a smooth wood or tile floor that can be wiped clean.

The biggest obstacles are still questions of money: Does it really cost more to build green? How much more? Is it worth it? Advocates say that green buildings don't have to cost any more up front than conventional projects. That may be true when developers and contractors who are experienced with green practices work together. Most project teams aren't there yet. For the majority of housing developments right now, going green will add a few percentage points to the up-front cost. Over the life of the project, though, studies show that green affordable-housing projects are actually more cost-effective than conventional construction.

Even the money challenge is becoming less of a problem than it used to be. Developers are growing more amenable to "life-cycle" analyses that recognize the long-term value of green investments. Groups such as Enterprise are covering the added initial costs of eco-construction. And with the state and local policy changes, building green is quickly shifting from an added expense to simply part of the cost of providing affordable housing. Governments are deciding that "affordable housing" doesn't just mean "cheap." It means providing low-income families with a home that's healthy and easy on the wallet.


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