There is a growing environmental sustainability movement in the US, and DC is no stranger to it. In fact, DC has one of the highest green standards in the country, due in part to former Mayor Gray’s Sustainable DC initiative that went into effect a few years ago. When it comes to new housing construction in DC, many new developments offer sustainable features in their units. Likewise, it is becoming increasingly common for owners of existing properties to take steps towards energy efficiency as well, whether it is installing water efficient toilets, or placing solar panels on their roofs. Yet, many sustainable features are costly. As a result, when you think of an “energy efficient home” the terms “low income” or “affordable housing” usually doesn’t come to mind. However, DC has entered into a new pilot program that will help bridge affordable housing with sustainable design in one particular development. I hope the project will provide insight into how to balance the cost of incorporating environmentally sustainable design when constructing affordable housing.
DC recently received an award from the International Living Future Institute to build sustainable affordable housing. This organization’s “Living Building Challenge,” is a pilot program that will provide DC with free technical assistance and expertise to equip affordable housing with green technology. Six cities will participate in the program this year. DC’s award will allow the District to develop ten to 15 energy efficient townhomes on a site in the Deanwood area. Under the program, the site will be “net-positive,” so it will create more renewable energy than it uses. The development will incorporate solar panels and smart-design features to help achieve this goal. It is estimated that this project may take up to two years to complete, and the unit’s efficiency will be monitored for the entire first year that residents live there before it can “receive green certification under the Living Building Challenge”. Despite this lengthy process, I am excited about DC entering into this program, and I am interested in what it will teach us about developing sustainable affordable housing.
Here at Manna, we recognize the importance of equipping our affordable homes with environmentally efficient technology, and we try to do so whenever possible. The standard benchmark that we meet is Enterprise’s Green Communities Criteria , which sets criterion regarding water conservation, energy efficiency, and integrative design (just to name a few). Some of the sustainable technologies we have installed in our developments include energy efficient windows, which provide our homes with both ventilation, and warmth, and translate into reduced energy costs for our residents. We were also able to install solar panels on the roof of the Whitelaw Hotel Apartments at 13th and T Streets NW, with the help of a grant we received from Neighborworks. In addition, there are a lot of environmentally sustainable measures we have to take, due to DC law. For example, as part of compliance with DC storm water management regulations, we will be installing a green roof at an apartment building undergoing rehab on Kennedy Street NW. However, it is not easy to finance these sustainable advancements; there is an art to finding funds to pay for the additional costs. There is a need for both the public and private sector to provide more resources. Nevertheless, once the financial obstacles of making affordable housing environmentally sustainable are overcome, the benefits are enormous, both on the individual and communal/public level.
According to the GW Solar Institute, although low-income households use less energy than affluent households on average, electricity costs make up a much larger share of a low-income households’ budget compared to their counterpart. The cost of electricity accounts for 5.7 percent of the median low-income family’s budget, compared to 1.9 percent of other families’ budgets. Therefore, providing access to solar energy and other sustainable features for low-income communities could actually generate wealth and meet a large percentage of their power needs. It is estimated by the George Washington Solar Institute that if all low-income households went solar, their annual budgets would increase between $17.9 billion and $23.3 billion.
If people are spending less money on energy, they will have more money to save, and flexibility to take care of other financial responsibilities. Ultimately, an eco-friendly home can make a home that was affordable to purchase or rent, even more affordable to live in. Environmentally sustainable designs are not only good for the environment, but they can be a source of financial security for its owner and greatly impact low-income households.