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Affordable and Sustainable: The Intersection of Housing and the Environment

Sustainability in Housing
Affordable and Sustainable: The Intersection of Housing and the Environment

Affordable and Sustainable: The Intersection of Housing and the Environment

As I stroll through the bustling streets of our city, I’m struck by the juxtaposition of towering high-rises and the humble homes that dot the landscape. It’s a tale of two worlds – one of luxury and opulence, the other of struggle and scarcity. But amidst this urban tapestry, a remarkable story is unfolding, one that weaves together the fabric of affordable housing and the preservation of our environment.

Unlocking the Power of Sustainable Affordable Housing

For years, the affordable housing crisis has been a persistent challenge, leaving countless families and individuals without access to the basic need of a roof over their heads. But now, a glimmer of hope is emerging, as a growing movement seeks to address this issue through the lens of sustainability.

Take, for example, the work of Michael Claproth and his team at Enterprise Community Partners. As the senior program director of the Sustainable Connected Communities (SCC) initiative in Southern California, Claproth has made it his mission to ensure that affordable housing providers have the tools they need to stabilize their buildings and make them resilient to the impacts of climate change.

“To me, that’s the sweet spot – the intersection of affordable housing and climate resilience,” Claproth explains. “We want to make their properties as viable as possible from financial and physical standpoints, and to make them resilient to our changing climate.”

This holistic approach recognizes that the challenges facing affordable housing and the environment are inextricably linked. By addressing both simultaneously, Claproth and his team are creating a ripple effect that can transform entire communities.

Overcoming the Hurdles of Sustainable Retrofits

One of the biggest obstacles faced by affordable housing providers is the daunting task of retrofitting their properties to become more energy-efficient and environmentally-friendly. As Claproth notes, “Financing to build affordable homes is challenging, and it becomes even more difficult when trying to retrofit and decarbonize portfolios.”

The upfront costs can be staggering, with the need to pay for consultants, engineers, contractors, and materials. And the process of navigating the complex web of rebate programs and other funding sources can be a bureaucratic nightmare, leaving many housing providers feeling overwhelmed and underequipped.

But even in the face of these formidable obstacles, innovative solutions are emerging. The Cooper Gardens project in the Bronx is a shining example of what’s possible when affordable housing and sustainability converge.

This 156 million dollar, 450,000-square-foot development boasts an impressive array of sustainable features, from rooftop solar arrays to ENERGY STAR appliances and advanced air filtration systems. And it’s not just about the physical infrastructure – the project also includes a rooftop garden that provides fresh produce to the community and a partnership with BronxWorks to offer on-site supportive services for formerly homeless residents.

As Elaine Braithwaite, the senior director for new construction at LM Development Partners, explains, “Sustainability is at the forefront of the projects we develop. We use ENERGY STAR appliances, low VOC paints, and just tried to make the building as sustainable as possible.”

Bridging the Funding Gap

But even with innovative approaches like those employed at Cooper Gardens, the funding gap remains a persistent challenge. As Claproth notes, “A lot of these programs are rebate programs. A developer will have to pay for the work upfront and then get the funding on the backend. If you’re doing a full electrification retrofit, that’s potentially millions of dollars to pay for consultants, engineers, contractors, in addition to the materials. Affordable housing providers are operating on thin margins, and that’s just not feasible.”

Fortunately, there are glimmers of hope on the horizon. At the state level, the Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities program in California has provided $3 billion in funding to cross-sector teams of municipalities, developers, and community development organizations. This has contributed to the development of 17,000 affordable homes and thousands of transportation improvement projects, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 5 million metric tons.

And at the federal level, the Inflation Reduction Act has brought much-needed funding, with billions of dollars earmarked to assist in paying for retrofits and building developers’ capacity.

Fostering Community Resilience

But the story of sustainable affordable housing isn’t just about bricks and mortar, or even the bottom line. It’s about creating vibrant, resilient communities that can withstand the challenges of our changing world.

As Dr. Manisha Kulshreshtha, the senior vice president and chief clinical and strategy officer at St. Barnabas Hospital, eloquently states, “Our whole mission is to prevent our patients from getting into the hospital. I know it sounds weird for me as a provider and a physician to say that, but we want them healthy. That’s our goal.”

Through initiatives like the Cooper Gardens project, the intersection of affordable housing and sustainability is giving rise to a new vision of what a thriving community can look like. One where fresh produce is grown on rooftops, where solar panels harness the sun’s power, and where formerly homeless individuals are provided with the support they need to get back on their feet.

It’s a vision that extends beyond the physical realm, touching the lives of the people who call these communities home. As Maria Perez, a resident of Cooper Gardens, shares, “When I got pulled to live here, I’d seen how the apartment looks. It looks beautiful, and it’s the perfect place to raise the boys.”

Forging Powerful Partnerships

Achieving this vision, of course, requires collaboration and partnership. As Braithwaite from LM Development Partners notes, “We’re so grateful for our partnership with Wells Fargo. We think it’s so critical for partnerships like this to happen so that we’re able to develop these kind of large-scale, complex mixed-use projects like at St. Barnabas.”

Indeed, the success of initiatives like Cooper Gardens is a testament to the power of public-private partnerships. Financial institutions like Wells Fargo, which provided a $67 million Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) and a $72 million Letter of Credit to finance the project, play a vital role in unlocking the resources needed to make sustainable affordable housing a reality.

As Korbin Heiss, the managing director of Community Lending and Investment at Wells Fargo, eloquently puts it, “Studies have shown that living in a stable, affordable home results in stronger outcomes for children, youth, and adults. So while it sounds like a platitude, it’s really an investment in all of us.”

A Future of Sustainable Prosperity

As I walk away from the vibrant community of Cooper Gardens, I can’t help but feel a sense of hope and optimism. The intersection of affordable housing and sustainability is not just a lofty ideal – it’s a tangible reality, one that is transforming the lives of countless individuals and families across the country.

Through innovative partnerships, strategic funding, and a steadfast commitment to creating more resilient and equitable communities, the affordable housing solutions organization HACC is leading the charge in this critical endeavor. By bridging the gap between housing affordability and environmental sustainability, they are paving the way for a future where everyone can thrive, no matter their economic circumstances.

As I reflect on the journey ahead, I’m reminded of the powerful words of Dr. Kulshreshtha: “We did not want to gentrify this neighborhood and displace anyone from here. We wanted to make sure that this community was able to survive and live here.”

That, to me, is the true essence of sustainable affordable housing – a vision of a world where everyone has a place to call home, and where that home is a testament to our collective commitment to a healthier, more resilient planet. It’s a future worth fighting for, and one that I’m honored to be a part of.

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