Magazine article The American Prospect

The New Environment for Housing: With a Few Crusading Advocates to Lead the Way, the Market for Green Affordable Housing Shows Promise

Magazine article The American Prospect

The New Environment for Housing: With a Few Crusading Advocates to Lead the Way, the Market for Green Affordable Housing Shows Promise

Article excerpt

STARTING OUT, RICK GOODEMANN WAS A MINNESOTA construction worker hired to refurbish a dilapidated building that had served as low-income housing for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. He remembers feeling a sense of waste in hammering away at a project that should have been properly built in the first place but, because of poor design, had disintegrated into disrepair. Further frustrating him, the houses hadn't appreciated for the buyer nor become an asset to the community. Instead, he said, he was merely putting a Band-Aid on a bigger problem.

The experience motivated him to get involved in local planning boards. Recognizing that developers had created high-end gated communities with highly efficient use of space and materials, Goodemann thought of applying similar design elements to affordable housing when he helped launch the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership, a nonprofit community development agency, in 1992. An early student of environmental products, he also wanted to utilize systems that reduced heating and cooling costs and conserved water.

His first major project, Nicollet Meadows in St. Peters, Minnesota, was unveiled in 2003 and got a big splash of publicity. Its success snowballed into many new developments that have earned him lasting respect and financial reward. Now the partnership's executive director, Goodemann has built 5,800 housing units with a $210 million investment. "We found that building these houses reduced energy consumption by 30 percent, and that money could be applied to other parts of their life--including, from a builder's perspective, affording a more expensive house; he says. "Sounds like a no-brainer, right?"

More affordable housing developers are starting to think the same way. Affordable developments incorporating energy-efficient technologies, healthy building materials, and environmentally smart site planning are coming on line in urban and rural areas across the country. Enterprise has, to date, supported more than 8,500 green units in 139 developments in 23 states, including one with the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership. Referring to the early green pioneers as "heroes," environmentalist Robert Kennedy Jr. notes that "it takes someone to lead and believe, and then others will follow."

"Low-income families and communities are especially likely to benefit from lower energy bills, healthier environments and better planned communities," according to Dana Bourland, who directs Enterprise's sustainable development activities through the Green Communities initiative. "Enterprise's goal is to make green the mainstream in affordable housing. We shouldn't settle for anything less."

Such a market transformation will take time. Green building is still a new concept to many in the affordable housing industry. One big obstacle can be finding professionals to apply the green technology. Sheila Greenlaw-Fink, executive director of Community Partners for Affordable Housing in Oregon, remembers the early resistance from architects and contractors to change the way they did business. Unfamiliar with materials such as fly ash in concrete or engineered lumber, many builders weren't sure how it would affect their installation or warranties.

Even before choosing technologies or materials, affordable developers need to adopt whole new ways of thinking. "In the past, architects made plans, contractors built them, and rarely did their consultants and subcontractors ever come face to face," says Greenlaw-Fink. "With green building, you need the team integrating design strategies from start to finish." A wetlands scientist may have to make their case directly to a civil engineer designing storm management systems, and contractors may be asked to modify parking lots and grading to protect trees. "It's far more complex, but also far more rewarding," Greenlaw-Fink says.

Her group recently completed a green development called Oleson Woods. …

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