America is in the middle of a housing crisis. Expensive coastal cities have given over large swaths of their downtowns to homeless encampments. Over the past three years, local housing markets have gone boom then bust, creating huge increases in rent for many people who were barely making it as it was.
Nationally, there’s a shortage of 7 million affordable homes for extremely low-income renters, and that gap is widening every year.
We know that the housing crisis is a problem of supply, and that the solution is to build more affordable housing — fast. But the urgency of the situation shouldn’t distract us from the need to create housing that’s not only affordable, but also sustainable.
Sustainable affordable housing helps drive down housing costs over the long-term, improves community health, and future-proofs affordable housing investments by making buildings resilient to the impacts of climate change.
For these reasons, many professionals in the affordable housing sector have started taking a holistic view of affordability, considering not only the going rent on a two-bedroom apartment, but the ongoing maintenance, operating costs, utility bills, tenant retention, and even future flood risks. It’s possible to address all of these factors — while still making a dent in the housing crisis — by investing in sustainable affordable housing.
Sustainable Affordable Housing Cuts Energy Costs
The most direct and obvious way that sustainable construction can boost affordability is through energy savings:
- Energy-efficient HVAC systems, windows, and doors can greatly reduce how much electricity and gas a building will use.
- Good-quality insulation reduces the amount of air that can escape or enter a structure, improving indoor air quality and cutting the amount of energy that’s needed to heat or cool it.
- Design choices like the building’s position on its site, sun exposure, and even strategically placed overhangs can all have a big impact on indoor temperature and long-term energy use.
- Lower energy costs in common areas save building owners money, and shield residents from high utility bills.
Energy savings are particularly important for low-income and extremely low-income households, who, in addition to being rent-burdened, are often energy burdened, spending a share of their income on energy bills that is three times larger than what the average household spends.
When energy bills are affordable, more low-income renters can afford to stay in their homes. This is a good thing for residents, communities, and for affordable building owners, who will have an easier time retaining tenants and reducing costly vacancies.
Some green building elements cost more upfront, but they can more than make up for those costs over time through reduced energy usage, which helps preserve affordable housing for years to come. One Canadian study found that devoting just 2 percent of a construction budget to green design creates on average a 20 percent savings in total construction costs over a building’s life cycle.
Weatherization for Healthy Housing
Existing affordable buildings can benefit from weatherization measures, which improve energy efficiency as well as the health of residents.
Many weatherization techniques, like caulking up windows and doorways, or installing air-tight windows, are aimed at improving a building’s air envelope, reducing drafts and energy usage, while also protecting residents from lead and other environmental pollutants.
Improving the air envelope is also crucial for keeping out moisture that could lead to leaks and mold, problems that are much cheaper to prevent than to fix. Exposure to mold can exacerbate residents’ asthma, which is a condition that disproportionately impacts low-income populations who are more likely to live in affordable housing.
Recognizing the connection between sustainability, affordability, weatherization, and healthy housing, many federal grant providers for affordable housing have started combining physical inspections for weatherization and other housing codes that impact health into a single process.
On the local level, housing program managers should evaluate weatherization measures alongside local housing codes aimed at protecting health, and track both metrics through an effective inspection database.
Preserving this data over time will help city leaders draw important insights about utility bills, resident health, and more, and use them to shape effective housing policy for their communities.
Sustainable Affordable Housing for a Better Future
Sustainable design, construction, and upgrades may become even more crucial for keeping housing affordable in the near future.
Low-income residents and affordable building operators need relief from steep utility bills now; imagine how badly they’ll need it if the impacts of the climate crisis or other global events drive up energy prices significantly over the coming decades.
And, with such a large shortage of affordable homes already, it’s crucial that developers consider climate resiliency to help new buildings stand the test of time.
New construction is expensive, but it’s a lot more expensive when builders don’t account for future flood risks, fire risks, and other climate realities.
Truly affordable housing isn’t cheap housing. It’s housing that’s built from durable materials, with an eye on energy efficiency, community health, and future risk. Local leaders can begin tackling the housing crisis alongside environmental concerns by building affordable housing in their communities with sustainability in mind.