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Green Communities National Summit Identifies Challenges and Solutions: Keep it Up!

AlistairJacksonI recently attended the Enterprise Green Communities National Summit – Feb 27 and 28 in Dallas, TX. In fact, my colleague, Elly Bunzendahl and I delivered a Green Communities Criteria 101 training as a prelude to the National Summit, in part to provide an introduction to the Green Communities 2011 Criteria for Summit attendees who were not familiar with the program. Roughly 80 of the 200 summit registrants attended the training, suggesting that, even after more than seven years in the field, there are many newcomers to Green Communities' approach to greening affordable housing. This is a good sign.

For O’Brien & Company, the synergy of sustainability and affordable housing has always had gravity. Who better appreciates the benefits of lifecycle thinking than the client who is required to hold a new property for 30 or 40 years, or more! And what better way to address the “equity” component of sustainability’s “Three Es” (Environment, Economy, Equity) than in the pursuit of providing high performance, healthy housing to people who are economically and/or socially marginalized?

So, what of the Summit? In 2009, Enterprise deepened its commitment to green affordable housing by setting a goal that all the housing they helped produce or preserve would be green by 2013. This later evolved into a National Call to Action; that ALL publicly subsidized housing should have the opportunity to benefit from green practices by 2020. Prior to this National Summit, Enterprise held a series of regional Convenings in Denver, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Seattle, and Washington, 2011 and early 2012 to help focus the national discussion.

The goal of the National Summit was, through the participation of national affordable housing leaders, to identify the major barriers to achieving the 2020 objective and to identify innovative approaches to overcoming those barriers. The 200-person brainstorm was facilitated and focused using the services of AmericaSpeaks; a non-profit dedicated to engaging citizens in the democratic process, and experienced in the use of technology to enhance dialogue and sharing in large-group settings, among other things. Certainly, the ability to synthesize the ideas from twenty tables into a series of powerful themes that we could then vote on using personal, wireless voting tablets put the old-fashioned flip charts and dot-voting process to shame. And the fact that they could take the output of an eight-hour session with 200 people and summarize it into a 4-page hard-copy document that was handed to participants before they left the session was impressive indeed. Not inexpensive, for sure, but if you are involved in large group process and haven’t seen this technology at work, I urge you to check it out.

Picture1For me, a few things stood out from my personal discussions with attendees at the training, at my Summit table and from the synthesized themes from the whole group:

1. The affordable housing “universe” is made up of an uncommonly dedicated, creative and realistic collection of people – if we can’t figure out the solutions to this challenge, I’m sure no-one can!

 2. The dominant themes that drive this community were “creating resilient communities of choice that fulfilled the promise of the USA,” “promoting social justice,” “creating healthier outcomes for residents,” and, “reducing costs for owners and occupants.” Nothing very surprising here, but a happy blend of idealism and pragmatism;

3. Regarding challenges, the top items were:

  • In Design, Construction and Operations: Reliable data for construction and operations; changing occupant behavior; and education (somewhat related).
  • In Financing: Capturing the true costs and benefits; monetizing Long-term savings; and, devising a way to subsidized the first cost of green affordable housing.
  • In Policy and Regulation: Inexperienced regulators, policy makers and funders; the need for incentives for owners and residents; and the lack of a consistent approach to green requirements across Qualified Allocation Plans from different federal and state agencies.

4. In terms of innovations and breakthroughs, the top items were:

  • In Design, Construction and Operations: A central repository for design, cost/benefit, operations and performance data; incentives to facilitate behavioral changes among residents; and, a “Process in a Box,” – a turn-key, step-by-step guide for designing, building and operating a green affordable housing project. (Hey! Can this really be so hard?)
  • In Financing: Devise more financing options, such as Green US Treasury Bonds, PACE and on-bill financing, social impact bonds, etc.; develop a financial product to monetize off-site effects such as water quality, human and community health; and standardize underwriting by GSEs and banks.
  • In Policy and Regulation – Pass a GREEN Community Reinvestment Act that requires banks and insurance companies to require green practices in CRA investments; create a uniform national green building requirement with Treasury that would apply to ALL QAPs; and, make the connection between green strategies and human health more explicitly understood.

Overall, I came away feeling optimistic. A few, well thought out and implemented policy and financing interventions could move the focus from subtraction to integration. Instead of conversations about what needs to be value-engineered out to meet capital budget and the per unit cost caps, we have conversations on how to draw more capital into the first cost of the project in order to eliminate long term utility and O&M costs, and minimize replacement requirements.

The Summit also highlighted a couple of areas that need the same kind of positive, solution-based focus:

1. There is a woeful lack of meaningful performance data available on the achieved performance of green-certified multi-family projects, most particularly affordable projects. How can we make capturing and sharing this data routine and convenient? Can this be added to the scope of affordable development projects? This is worth more discussion.

2. An increasingly large percentage of the energy, water and health impacts of a residential unit is up to the behavior of the occupants. As designing in green features becomes the norm for affordable housing, more emphasis will need to be on addressing occupant behavior. We have worked with Enterprise to create, test, and promulgate effective models of residential engagement and education. Can these be routinely added to the scope of funding for new and existing affordable development projects?

Enterprise hopes to continue this discussion. If you want to participate, check out:

Did you enjoy this article?  You may also enjoy reading Green Resident Engagement Cards Inform AND Empower in California Non-Profit Housing Developments: Interview with Maria Elena Marquez-Brookes, LINC Housing’s Director of Resident Services

Alistair Jackson, CSBA is a Principal at O’Brien & Company. He was involved in the development of the original LEED for Homes Pilot Rating System and is, among other things, the Quality Assurance Designee (QAD) for O’Brien & Company’s role as LEED for Homes Provider. He is a strong advocate for market-led innovation and market transformation towards sustainability. He is also a father of two – and impatient for change towards a better future.

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