Environmental, housing groups to go `green'

8,500 homes across U.S. to be built or renovated

October 03, 2004|By Scott Waldman | Scott Waldman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Environmental and affordable-housing groups joined together last week on a new effort to build or renovate more than 8,500 homes across the country during the next five years.

The $550 million plan will build homes near public transportation and schools, jobs and other services to increase opportunities for low-income families and reduce transportation costs. The homes also will be constructed with environmentally friendly materials and methods in hopes that energy costs will be lower for those who live there. This kind of construction is known in the industry as "green building."

"It's the first time that the environmental field and community development have come together to set a standard for affordable housing in the country," said Bart Harvey, chairman and chief executive officer of the Columbia-based Enterprise Foundation, which is teaming with the Natural Resources Defense Council and others on the effort.

Money for the Green Communities Initiative is coming from a variety of sources, including corporate and philanthropic groups. The effort will offer financing, grants, technical assistance and training to developers as it promotes the conservation of energy and natural resources.

Income-eligible people will be able to buy or rent the homes, which will include new and existing homes. Some homes will be built in Maryland, Harvey said, adding that most locations throughout the country have not been chosen.

The Enterprise Foundation works to help low-income families find homes and jobs. The New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council aims to build a safe and healthy environment for all living things.

Environmental advocates expressed enthusiasm that conservation would take place on such a large scale.

"It's an opportunity for us to demonstrate there is a way to build community, including a population that has been under-served, that serves them better and serves the environment better at the same time," said Kaid Benfield, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Environmentally-conscious building methods - or green building - uses energy-efficient materials such as appliances and solar panels as well as water management and resource conservation efforts. For example, green homes might incorporate recycled materials for floors or tiles and appliances that use less water and energy.

In 2002 and last year, more than 27,000 homes meeting green standards were constructed - up from 19,000 built between 1990 and 2001.

Project planners estimate that Green Communities homes will cost an average of 5 percent more to build than conventional homes. However, costs are expected to drop as developers learn more about green building materials and use the products, said Anne Madison, vice president for Enterprise Social Investment Corp., a division of the Enterprise Foundation.

"The more mainstream this becomes, then the costs become reduced," Madison said.

And green-building methods and materials should translate to lower utility bills.

"The people that need green communities the most are low-income individuals and families," Madison said.

Qualified buyers for the homes will consist primarily of those with poverty-level incomes. That level varies by state. In Maryland, the poverty level in 2003 was an annual income of $9,392 for an individual and $18,660 for a family of four.

The Green Communities Initiative will offer financial incentives to developers looking toward instituting green-building practices. It also will encourage state and local governments to include green standards as part of their competition for low-income tax credits.

The homes will be constructed by community-based groups that build homes for low-income families as well as building companies. While some of the work will involve renovating homes, houses will be built near existing infrastructure to minimize the environmental effects.

Ground soon will be broken on the first project in Seattle. Denny Park will be an apartment complex that employs some green-building techniques. Materials will include energy-efficient lighting and controls, storm water retention in landscaping planters and a metal roof for rainwater runoff.

Supporters said they joined the effort because the project was innovative on a national scale.

"They're trying to raise the standards for quality affordable housing," said Kelly Caffarelli, executive director of the Home Depot Foundation, a project partner.

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