It used to be that affordable housing emphasized cheap construction above all else. Thanks to the problems this caused (unattractive buildings, costly maintenance, and high utility costs, among others) most developers do better now. One growing trend is that of green affordable housing, designed with an eye towards the long-term benefits.
In a recent report from Global Green USA, Minnesota tied for fifth (with a grade of A-) in how well it encourages green practices in affordable housing. Global Green USA examined states’ criteria for distributing federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTCs). The ranking is based on how well those criteria incentivize eco-friendly development and how much green housing is actually built as a result. Subcategories included Smart Growth, Energy Efficiency, Resource Conservation, and Health Protection.
The report also highlighted the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency (the state body that awards LIHTCs to private, public, and nonprofit developers) for promoting green practices in existing housing rehabs. Minnesota awards an uncommonly high amount of LIHTCs to renovation projects versus new construction. While preserving existing housing is inherently eco-friendly, sometimes these moderate projects have a more limited ability to incorporate the latest technologies or qualify for LEED certification. Minnesota adapted their ranking system to take this into account, ensuring that preservation projects still have an incentive to green up and can access funding to make this possible.
One affordable-housing nonprofit, Aeon, has been a leader on this front. Sustainability is one of Aeon’s core values and it is expressed in their innovative projects, whether new construction or historic preservation. Their accomplishments have included installing the state’s largest solar water heater, serving as a testing ground for new building materials, adding underground parking to leave room for rain gardens and playgrounds, and using geothermal heating and cooling systems. Their projects use low-VOC finishes, Energy Star appliances, and quality exterior materials.
Residents of low-income housing can benefit enormously from these practices in several ways. Energy-efficient appliances can lower tenants’ utility costs; even marginal savings can be significant to someone counting every dollar. Another benefit is health outcomes. Low-income children tend to experience more asthma, allergies, and other health problems, and can’t always access good medical care. Improving their environment (for instance, by using low-VOC paint and flooring, or providing outdoor play space) reduces their exposure to toxins and triggers. Developments with an eye towards walkability and transit access reduce the need for cars and promote public transportation. While some of these practices have higher development costs, high-quality housing requires less maintenance down the road.
Affordable housing developments across Minnesota are eagerly taking on the green challenge. Whether we live in these homes or not, we all benefit from our state’s innovative work on this front.