Developing Sustainable Housing: Moving Beyond Green

By David A. Turcotte

The United States has almost 90 million residential structures. While few have been built in a sustainable manner, we are nevertheless beginning to see more interest in green or environmentally sustainable housing. Most discussions of sustainable housing focus on the environmental and economic aspects, overlooking the social dimension. Achieving sustainable housing requires a holistic framework, incorporating the economic, environmental, and social dimensions of sustainability in equal parts.Planners must help ensure that social equity is given equal attention during discussions of sustainable housing.

Defining Sustainable Housing

One issue limiting the development of sustainable housing is the lack of consensus over its definition. Disagreement exists over whether the number one priority should be preserving the environment or meeting the needs of people. Most housing projects labeled as sustainable primarily focus on environmental and economic dimensions of sustainability. The social equity side of sustainability is often ignored because the term green housing is often used interchangeably with sustainable housing.

When considering the meaning of sustainable housing it would be prudent to consider the useful and widely accepted definition of sustainable development contained in the United Nations World Commission on the Environment and Development’s Brundtland Report: “… development that meets the needs of the present without sacrificing the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The Brundtland Report also argues for a multidimensional approach, highlighting “three fundamental components to sustainable development: environmental protection, economic growth and social equity.”

Housing as a Commodity, Not a Right

While a clear definition of sustainable housing would be helpful, that housing in the U.S. is generally viewed as a commodity and not a right as affirmed by the United Nations’Universal Declaration of Human Rights is another reason why the social equity dimension is often ignored. The political ideology that underpins U.S. housing policy sees the market as the preferred avenue for determining how housing is produced and distributed and homeownership as the desired outcome. In addition, powerful private interests, such as the National Association of Realtors (NAR), National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) and Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA), have had substantial influence over federal housing policy.

Government policy has generally depended on the private, for-profit sector to address the various housing needs of low-to-moderate-income families. As a result, housing policy has often supported the interests of well-organized, private industry groups while trying to address the housing needs of low-to-moderate-income households. Consequently, government’s role in providing quality housing is limited since housing is seen as a speculative commodity that should be distributed through the private marketplace.

Positive Trends toward Sustainable Housing? 

Despite the aforementioned challenges, we are also witnessing positive changes that support the creation of more sustainable housing. Such changes include initiatives to encourage higher density transit-oriented development, healthy homes and green construction, as well as architectural designs promoting neighborhood walkability. The negative environmental impact of current housing patterns is certainly attracting more public attention, particularly on the issue of global warming. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, building operations are responsible for almost 40 percent of carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S., while another 10 percent is attributable to construction. Among all buildings, it is housing that produces the most emissions. Additionally, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 43 percent, or 58 million tons per year, of construction and demolition waste is produced from residential activity.

When low-density sprawling residential development patterns are accounted for, the negative impacts of unsustainable housing on global warming and overall environmental quality is multiplied. Urban and suburban sprawl has created greater automobile dependency, worsening air pollution, more sedentary living and unhealthy communities. Many also contend that longer commutes undermine civic participation and vibrant communities.

Housing can also be unhealthy due to lead paint, poor indoor air quality and unsafe conditions, particularly for low-income families. The EPA has determined that indoor air quality of buildings is one of the top five environmental health risks in the U.S. According to the EPA, elevated levels of lead in children is still a serious problem today, particularly among urban and minority families, despite there being a lead paint ban in effect since 1978. In addition, asthma is now the number one chronic childhood disease in the U.S., with unhealthy housing conditions being an important factor in its proliferation. Furthermore, each year, millions of Americans are injured at home due to poor design and substandard conditions. The impact of unhealthy housing is evident by the association between poor-quality housing and various health conditions.

Besides health issues, housing is not affordable for many. According to Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies report The State of the Nation’s Housing 2007, “Affordability problems remain the nation’s fastest growing housing challenge.” The report concludes that in 2005 the number of severely cost-burdened households (paying more than 50 percent of income for housing) increased by 1.2 million to a total of 17 million. The vast majority of these households represent the lowest income earners in the U.S. Another indication of growing affordability problems is the number of households paying more than 30 percent of income on housing, which increased to 37.3 million. The high cost of housing can also negatively affect regional economies, as individuals have less disposal income, putting communities at a competitive disadvantage when compared to areas having lower housing costs.

Alternative Movements

The combination of the aforementioned problems are helping to drive efforts to examine more sustainable ways to develop housing. Certainly initiatives by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), with its LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system, and others to promote green buildings are raising public awareness about the negative environmental impacts of traditional construction and housing development. Many within the housing industry are also jumping on the green building bandwagon, as the NAHB is promoting green housing and encouraging local chapters to set up green building programs. In addition, the prevalence of unhealthy housing has reunited many groups within the public health and affordable housing communities, something that has not happened to this extent since the days of the tenement movement.Organizations such as the National Center for Healthy Housing and others have effectively called attention to myriad problems related to health and housing.

The smart growth movement emerged out of growing concerns about negative effects of urban and suburban sprawl by many environmentalists and policymakers. In 1996, the EPA, along with non-profit organizations and other governmental agencies, created the Smart Growth Network “to encourage development that serves the economy, community and the environment.” Critics, however, have lamented that smart growth may actually worsen inequities and be a catalyst for gentrification, as some studies have found inverse relationships between higher density and affordability. On the other hand, proponents argue that high-density development reduces land and housing costs. Furthermore, the first smart growth principle, creating a range of housing opportunities and choices, advocates for a diversity of housing types for all incomes, including affordable units. Smart growth is also embraced by realtors, as NAR publishes On Common Ground twice a year to encourage dialogue and a wide range of views on this issue.

Closely related to smart growth, new urbanism also attempts to encourage higher density design, but is more influenced by architects and physical planners. New urbanism postulates that modifications of forms will produce positive social, economic and environmental change, but critics complain that such changes are limited. The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) believes that “these strategies are the best way to reduce how long people spend in traffic, to increase the supply of affordable housing and to control urban sprawl.” Some detractors, however, note that new urbanism principles are often associated with gentrified communities and mixed-income HOPE VI developments, which have displaced low-income families. To counter these perceptions, CNU recently launched the Affordable Housing Initiative to encourage more inclusion of affordable housing in new urbanism projects.

Individual organizations like CNU and the Smart Growth Network are beginning to join forces to develop better quality housing and communities. In 2003, the National Resource Defense Council and CNU opened discussions with the USGBC to develop a certification program to integrate green building, new urbanism and smart growth principles. As a result, these groups formed a partnership to create a new certification product, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND). The goal of the partnership was to develop a national standard for neighborhood design encompassing four areas: smart location and linkage; neighborhood patterns and design; green construction and technology; and innovation and design process. To test the new LEED-ND rating system, a pilot program has been started to certify 120 neighborhood developments from various regions and community types. Based on the evaluation of these projects, the rating system will be modified, with the anticipated release of the final standards in 2009. Within the pilot rating system, projects can accumulate up to a maximum of 106 points, with four certification levels requiring anywhere from 40-80 points to achieve certification. While encouraging green and environmental practices are priorities of LEED-ND, projects can also earn up to 4 points if at least 20 percent of the units are affordable.

Momentum for sustainable housing has also been boosted by the Enterprise Foundation and National Resources Defense Council’s $550 million Green Community Initiative to build 8,500 green affordable housing units nationally. This initiative is different from many green housing programs as it targets only affordable housing, but is also focuses on improving economic efficiencies. In 1996, Global Green (GG) USA launched a Green Affordable Housing Initiative to encourage developers to incorporate green design into their projects. In addition, GG USA’s publication Greening the Tax Credits prompted several states to include green criteria into their Qualified Allocation Plans (QAPs), which are used to determine which projects receive Federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credits. Traditional affordable housing advocacy groups, such as the National Low Income Housing Coalition, are supporting sustainable affordable housing as it reduces utility costs for low-income households.

We are also seeing more initiatives at the state and local level to ensure that the social dimension of sustainability is included in green housing. The Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations in partnership with the Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC), New Ecology and the Tellus Institute started the Green CDC Initiative to provide training, technical assistance and financing for sustainable housing development projects. Many local non-profit affordable housing developers are beginning to incorporate more sustainable design features into their social justice work. Urban Edge, a 33-year-old CDC located in Boston committed to developing healthy and sustainable communities, built a 64-unit, affordable, mixed-use, transit-oriented project on an old brownfield site with green design features, including solar energy. On the west side of Buffalo, People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH) is conducting grassroots organizing to reclaim abandoned houses for low-income residents and clean up contaminated sites, including advocating for changes in housing policy and new urbanism from a social justice perspective.

Future of Sustainable Housing

The above examples are surely encouraging advances towards more sustainable housing development, however, can we create more sustainable housing without significant changes to the current housing system? It is certainly heartening that groups like NAHB and NAR are supporting principles of green housing and smart growth, as well as affordability and inclusion, but will these and other private interests attempt to block a more activist government? The State of the Nation’s Housing 2007 reported that the federal government is failing to provide adequate assistance for housing, as the share of non-defense discretionary housing expenditures declined from 10.2 percent in 1998 to 7.7 percent in 2006. Last year, spending on housing actually dropped in real dollars by 2.4 percent when taking inflation into account.

Regardless of potential industry opposition, government must clearly play a more active role in promoting sustainable housing and ensuring issues of equity are given equal priority. A new Democratic-controlled Congress may provide more political support for these initiatives. In the past, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s Public Policy Conference included “affordable and sustainable housing” as a top policy recommendation. In addition, inequities within the system, such as tax deductions providing housing subsidies for affluent homeowners and industry groups while reducing support to low-income families, must be addressed. Most sustainable housing development activity has happened despite inadequate federal assistance because state and local government made supporting these projects a high priority. Moreover, state and local government should change zoning and permitting laws that currently promote high-cost, low-density development and establish regulatory barriers to affordable housing.

Accordingly, planners must join with diverse stakeholders to support increasing resources for holistic approaches to sustainable housing development, recognizing the connections between the social, economic and environmental dimensions.

David A. Turcotte is senior program manager at the Center for Family, Work and Community at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. He also teaches in the university’s Department of Regional Economic and Social Development. He can be reached at David_Turcotte(at)uml(dot)edu.

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