What comes to mind when you think about green communities? I find many people think about technology - solar panels, wind turbines, or rapid public transit. Another important pillar of green communities is action: the actions people take related to the buildings in which they live. Green communities must incorporate technology and action.
As an uncertain housing market continues to plague the economy, obesity rates escalate, and the number of children and adults living in poverty reaches an all-time high, green housing and sustainable community development have never been more critical. Implementing a holistic vision of sustainable development in the residential sector would help the US address three of its biggest challenges: an economy in the doldrums, climate change, and rising long-term health care costs.
The benefits of sustainable development are vast: healthier air to breathe, reduced carbon emissions, water and energy cost savings, improved health from fewer triggers for asthma, and opportunities for people to live active lifestyles. The list goes on. Less well known are the benefits from the actions we take every day in our homes.
Reduce, reuse and recycle
At home in Eden Issei Terrace in Hayward, California, 64-year-old Myrtis stopped taking long showers and now turns the water off while she brushes her teeth. She uses compact fluorescent lamps to conserve energy and has made other changes in her daily activities to conserve resources and to live a healthier lifestyle. Alone, Myrtis' action would not make much of a difference. But she is not alone. Following green- and healthy-living resident activities at the 100?unit residence for low?income seniors, all residents are encouraged by staff to reduce, reuse and recycle.
The results of these collective actions by Myrtis and her peers, paired with green upgrades at the property, are impressive. Compared to 2010, Eden Issei's 2011 gas usage dropped 29.3 percent, with a cost savings of 35.7 percent; electricity usage went down 54 percent, with a 50 percent cost savings; and water usage fell 28.7 percent, with costs down 14.3 percent. Eden Housing seeks to replicate such programs and results across its housing portfolio spanning 10 counties in California.
Eden Housing encourages all of its residents to take a leadership role in their communities. Resident leadership like Myrtis' is important in getting residents to make small but impactful changes because it demonstrates, in a personal way, that change is not only possible, but painless. To cultivate such leadership, Eden Housing provides its staff with educational toolkits with information to share at resident meetings.
The organisation brings in guest speakers and incentivises residents by giving away items such as reusable shopping bags and water bottles. Informational flyers with tips on being green are posted in highly visible areas, reinforcing the information shared at resident meetings. For residents like Myrtis, who have made meaningful changes, Eden Housing recognises their efforts at meetings to encourage other residents to make changes as well.
The green- and healthy-living, resident-led engagement programme at Eden Issei builds on tools and resources provided by Enterprise Community Partners, which helps people realise the personal benefits of living in a green building. The free online resources include multiple approaches that allow people to start with what is most important to them. For Myrtis, it was water. Enterprise sees supporting such resident-led efforts to take green actions as fundamental to its efforts to green all new and existing affordable housing by 2020.
The US cannot afford to continue on a path of conventional development that squanders natural, human and capital resources.
Together, if public and private partners green all affordable housing in the US by 2020 -or 8 million existing and future affordable homes and apartments that receive public subsidy - it would provide a healthy place to call home for millions of families, prevent tens of millions of tonnes of CO2 emissions annually, create job opportunities and result in billions of dollars in construction activity.
This vision raises two hotly debated questions: how much will these green technologies and actions cost and what are the returns on investment? Skeptics say building green housing is too expensive because of added costs for recycled materials, nonvolatile-organic-compound paints, and energy-conserving appliances, to name a few reasons. Supporters counter that higher upfront costs pay for themselves over the lifecycle of the housing while also reducing the environmental footprint and improving health for residents. However, the debate is becoming moot as upfront costs decrease while green building technologies and actions advance.
For example, building to the Enterprise Green Communities Criteria, the first national framework for green affordable housing that includes measures for site improvements, location, energy efficiency, water conservation, health, materials, and operations and maintenance, increases the total development costs by only two percent. The rate of return on this upfront investment is 17 percent.
Housing that meets the criteria delivers other measurable benefits such as improved health and a two-tonne reduction in CO2 emissions on average, compared to local building codes. Enterprise Green Communities Criteria are about technology and how we build. Behaviours exhibited by Myrtis and encouraged by green- and healthy-living programmes are about action and how we live. Creating greener communities will require all affordable housing stakeholders to think in terms of both.
Ensuring that all affordable housing is green by 2020 is a bold but achievable vision: since 2004, Enterprise has invested $1.8bn in 27,000 green affordable homes and in providing green technical assistance to developers. In addition, Enterprise Green Communities Criteria have been adopted as the baseline for affordable development by cities and states across the country, including in New York City, which is on track to create and preserve 165,000 affordable housing units for 500,000 New Yorkers by the end of 2014 as part of its New Housing Marketplace Plan.
What is necessary is commitment and seamless collaboration between public and private partners to identify opportunities within the development, regulatory and finance industries to consistently deliver the economic, health and environmental benefits of green housing across the country. Sounds easy, right?
Every development opportunity - from housing retrofits to building entire neighbourhoods - can deliver the benefits of green. The US cannot afford to continue on a path of conventional development that squanders natural, human and capital resources. There is simply no reason to do so. Green affordable housing is not about the economy, the environment, or health. It is about the intersection of all three and the families that are struggling to find jobs, to stay healthy, to keep the lights on and to pay their bills. Green affordable housing exists at this nexus, which is why it is such a powerful lever for social impact and a catalyst for solutions to several of the biggest challenges in the US.
In an era when more than one-third of all Americans spend more than 50 percent of their income on rent, green affordable housing technology helps keep rents affordable by reducing energy and water usage. We have seen that educating tenants on the green features where they live and about the health, economic and environmental benefits of green living results in further savings through action. Visionary developer Jim Rouse, who founded Enterprise with his wife Patty 30 years ago, used to say "what ought to be, can be with the will to make it so". We can green all affordable housing by 2020 with a shared, holistic vision of sustainable community development - and the commitment to make it so.
Yianice Hernandez is the deputy director of Green Communities at Enterprise Community Partners, where she oversees the research and evaluation of economic, environmental, and health benefits of green affordable housing. In addition, she manages the development of tools and resources to share best practices and she directs the ongoing performance tracking of Green Communities developments.
A version of this article first appeared on the Solutions Journal.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.