What is green affordable housing?

Feature image: The LEED Platinum Casa Feliz in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Photo credit: Patrick Coulie.

Housing costs continue to rise, which often means renters with low incomes have to move out of their neighborhoods or choose spaces that might not be what they prefer. The National Low-Income Housing Coalition found that no U.S. state has an adequate supply of affordable homes and that 70% of low-income renters are spending more than half their income on rent and utilities.

Affordable housing is only becoming more important—but what, exactly, is green affordable housing? USGBC believes that all people don't just deserve affordable spaces--they deserve healthy, sustainable ones. We support legislation like the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program and Qualified Allocation Plans (QAPs) that incorporate LEED and green building standards. These guidelines help build housing that is not only affordable, but that also benefits people and the climate.

Here are a few examples:

Building healthy homes

LEED certification standards put residents’ needs first. Green homes have health benefits like clean indoor air and materials that don't emit toxic chemicals—take the LEED Platinum Waimea Huakai house in Kauai, Hawaii, which prioritized healthy building materials, air quality, and a safe and walkable location. A recent project in Kansas City, Missouri, built LEED Platinum tiny homes during the COVID-19 pandemic for community shelter guests in need of quarantined spaces, putting an emphasis on good ventilation.

Finding community-based solutions

Beyond creating healthy spaces, buildings also need to consider the needs of the whole community. A 2020 LEED Homes Award winner, Scholar House in Cincinnati, Ohio, included people in the community at every step of the process. To help low-income single parents pursue post-secondary education, the developer added support services, gave subsidies to families and partnered with local community organizations.

Involving the community throughout the process of building is an important part of creating equitable solutions, and LEED social equity pilot credits can help.

Reducing utility costs

Utilities can be a major financial burden for families, but LEED standards help create more efficient buildings, which reduces heating, cooling and water costs. With a more efficient system, Scholar House was able to reduce utility bills by 23%. Also, local-level community solar programs help make solar energy more accessible to everyone, which not only benefits the environment, but also lowers energy bills for residents.

Creating a greener future

Green building also plays a role in reducing the effects of climate change. This change, which has been worsened by human activity, with 40% of annual global emissions coming from buildings, affects low-income communities more than others. However, LEED standards can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other negative effects on the environment. A UC Berkeley study found that LEED-certified buildings contributed 50% fewer greenhouse gases (GHGs) due to water consumption, 48% fewer GHGs due to solid waste, and 5% fewer GHGs due to transportation. Using LEED certification to reduce emissions helps us work towards a healthier, greener future for all.

Green affordable housing helps ensure that everyone has a safe, healthy living space that meets their needs and is sustainable over the long term. USGBC's Guiding Principles for Green Affordable Housing outlines five goals: accountability, educating residents about environmental stewardship, encouraging participation in the planning process, focusing on affordability, and leveraging green building standards and rewards for developers.

Want to know more? Explore further resources below.

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Learn more about LEED homes