Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Scaling Up the Greening of Affordable Housing

by Michelle Winters,
Senior Manager, Green Strategies,
NeighborWorks America

We know how to build and retrofit homes to be more efficient and healthy and to have minimal impact on the environment, and NeighborWorks organizations in New York State and across the country are moving into this space rapidly as more people become aware of the benefits of green building. The affordable housing industry has both an opportunity and a responsibility to be leaders in the development and rehabilitation of green housing to secure these benefits for the families and communities that we serve.

Last week, leaders from across New York State gathered at the Syracuse Center of Excellence to develop an action agenda for scaling up the greening of affordable housing in the state. NeighborWorks America convened the event to bring together NeighborWorks network organizations, state and local policymakers, and representatives from the financial, research and consulting communities to discuss progress, opportunities, and challenges in scaling up green rehabilitation focusing on program design, finance, and workforce development. [View photos from the event.]

The Center of Excellence was a fitting host for such an event with its LEED Platinum “living laboratory” providing inspiration and an environment of creativity. Beyond the impressive elements in the building itself, the COE is notable for its vision of an Innovation Ecosystem, which supports collaborative projects focusing on clean and renewable energy, indoor environmental quality, and water resources.

Three leaders in green building from the NeighborWorks Network kicked off the event: Home HeadQuarters, Asian Americans for Equality and the Community Development Corporation of Long Island. The three organizations demonstrate the complexity of the challenge – each one representing a very different market environment. But despite the geographic and economic differences, they all share the same vision: to expand the industry’s ability to transform affordable housing from inefficient and unsustainable to green, healthy, and resilient homes for low-income and working families.

According to the EPA, the average household in the U.S. spends at least $2,000 a year on energy bills, over half of which goes to heating and cooling. For a low- or moderate-income family those bills can represent a sizeable – and increasing – component of annual income. In New York State, with a relatively old housing stock and cold climate, low-income families can pay 15 percent or more of their income on utility costs, according to NY State Division of Housing and Community Development. In one neighborhood that is the focus of a collaborative effort between Home Headquarters, Syracuse University, and the Center of Excellence, some residents were paying up to 50-75 percent of their incomes for utilities during the winter.

The New York State Weatherization Assistance Program is the one of the largest of such programs in the country, with approximately almost $70 million in grants this year to advance energy efficiency for low-income residents of both single-family and multifamily homes. And the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) is known for its innovative and effective programs aimed at reducing energy consumption, promoting renewable energy, and protecting the environment through its support for financing, research, and workforce development efforts throughout the state. NeighborWorks organizations in New York partner with these agencies and others to create more affordable, healthy, and efficient homes in their communities.

Some of the other new and innovative efforts that were discussed at the Roundtable include:

New York State is taking steps to address some of the challenges faced by the industry as we attempt to take greening efforts to scale. Without better data on the performance of green buildings and retrofits, lenders are hesitant to leverage utility savings to help pay capital costs of greening. More attention needs to be paid to the management and residents’ knowledge of green operating practices to ensure that the benefits of physical improvements are achieved. And, building up a workforce with new green auditing, retrofit, and installation skills won’t help us green more housing unless the consumers of housing – homeowners and rental property owners – have the resources and motivation to drive demand for green homes. NeighborWorks America is looking forward to working with the NeighborWorks network and our industry partners on solutions to these challenges to move toward greener, healthier and more efficient homes and communities.

For more information on the opportunities and challenges, look for the full report on this Roundtable to be published in the next few weeks.

Please join us at our upcoming symposium in Los Angeles on March 2, 2011 for an in-depth discussion of the benefits of greening for families and communities.