Q&A: Raising the Bar for Green Affordable Housing

Enterprise Community Partners’ Krista Egger offers a sneak peek of the updated framework for improving the health and well-being of low-income residents.
Krista Egger, Senior Director of Initiatives, Enterprise Community Partners. Image courtesy of Enterprise Community Partners
Krista Egger, Senior Director of Initiatives, Enterprise Community Partners. Image courtesy of Enterprise Community Partners

Enterprise Community Partners’ Green Communities Criteria help developers, investors, builders and policymakers align their affordable housing investment strategies with environmentally responsive building practices. Launched 15 years ago, the green building framework is the first in the country that addresses the particular needs of the affordable housing sector. Currently, meeting the criteria is mandatory in New York City, where all affordable housing developments that receive city funding must comply.


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Recently, Enterprise asked experts in green building and practitioners to contribute to the 2020 update of the norms. In an interview with Multi-Housing News, Senior Director of Initiatives Krista Egger offers a preview of the next edition of the Green Communities Criteria and describes how green affordable housing should look like starting next year. 

Which are the most stringent needs of the affordable housing sector nowadays?

Egger: The biggest challenge facing the affordable housing sector today is the limited supply of affordable housing available and the urgent need to preserve the affordable housing we do have. This is an issue that affects large metros like New York City, where rents have skyrocketed and there is limited real estate that can be used for new housing, but also in hundreds of other cities and towns around the country.

Other major challenges include cost containment, which is where we have a big opportunity to create smarter, more energy-efficient buildings to save costs in the long term. It’s also critical that all affordable housing properties that are built or retrofitted today are done with our changing climate in mind, so that these homes will be habitable for years to come.

How can affordable housing advance health, resilience and environmental responsibility?

Egger: It’s an important question and the answer is that it’s critical to address all three at once and in every affordable housing building. We no longer need to demonstrate that these buildings are possible, we need to design and build in this manner every day. The only way to achieve impact at scale in a cost-effective manner is to approach each of these outcomes with holistic, interconnected strategies, rather than treating them in silos. Housing can and should be so much more than a roof overhead. Research has shown that well-designed affordable housing can make a major difference in the lives of residents and in the health of entire communities.


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How has Enterprise’s national green initiative evolved over the years?

Egger: Enterprise’s work in the green affordable housing space came about as a direct response to one crucial question: Can it be cost-effective to build healthy, energy-efficient and environmentally responsible affordable housing? We proved that the answer is a resounding “yes.” The next challenge was to move from concept to scale and address each barrier to creating widespread green affordable housing.

We created the Enterprise Green Communities Criteria to educate developers and the public about green affordable housing design and construction practices. We have deployed trainings and our technical assistance provider network to address capacity issues. We developed debt and equity products, grants and other sources of capital to address financial concerns, and we worked with HUD and state housing finance agencies to incentivize—if not require—building green within the existing institutional and political framework. 

As our evidence base and industry knowledge has grown, we’ve evolved the Criteria and developed precise tools, trainings and products to directly address specific considerations like rehabilitation versus new construction projects and urban versus rural builds. Over time, we’ve also been able to more directly and purposefully address how green building practices can positively impact resident health, increase property resilience and promote community equity. It’s these three areas that we’re particularly focused on for the latest Criteria update coming out in 2020.

To date, our Green Communities initiative, including the Criteria and financial products, has been used to create more than 127,000 green affordable homes in nearly every state and our impact continues to grow. We’re particularly excited that in this latest Criteria update, we’ll be including a “path to zero” strategy for affordable housing project teams to be able to cost-effectively implement design and construction practices that can reduce and will eventually eliminate building emissions.

Please tell us a few details about the comments you received this year for the updated standards.

Egger: We are thrilled about the level of engagement we’ve seen from a diverse range of stakeholders in the housing and green building communities. We received over 700 comments through our public open comment period, plus three dozen memos from agencies. We’re now working on incorporating the feedback we’ve received and fine-tuning the Criteria and we’ll publish our responses to the comments this fall. The comments covered every piece of the Criteria, including a mandatory smoke-free building policy, storm water management and water quality specifications and the “path to zero” strategy.

How has New York City’s affordable housing market changed since the Criteria became standard throughout the metro?

Egger: As the Green Communities Criteria have become standard citywide, we’ve seen that designers, builders and owners have become more accustomed to utilizing design and construction practices that create healthier, more efficient and environmentally responsible homes. With the introduction of stringent city and state climate goals in response to the growing threat and impact of climate change, we’re able to work even more closely with developer teams to chart a course of action toward eliminating building emissions entirely. 

What is your message to skeptics that say homes cannot be green and affordable?

Egger: We need to flip that script, because we think a development cannot be truly affordable without being green. Affordability is so much more than how much a tenant pays in rent. It encompasses other necessary expenses like utilities and health care, as well as the proportion of a family’s income that goes toward transportation to work, school and local services and more. All of those costs can be reduced or eliminated by building green. Over the past 15 years, we’ve shown that building a green home increases the cost by around two percent compared to a standard home, with a simple payback from utility bill savings alone in less than seven years. Simply put, we can no longer afford not to build in this manner.