February 14, 2008

Affordable green housing: a social, economic priority

  • Government agencies offer incentives to encourage more
    King County


    While green building has become a major force in market-rate home construction and residential development, many see a strong need to elevate the role of green building in the affordable housing arena.

    Historically, affordable housing has not been built to the highest standards, which has affected the health and well being of populations dependent on affordable housing as a resource. In addition, affordable housing projects are often built on the edges of urban areas, making it difficult for residents to participate in the most vital and vibrant elements of society. Providing access to environmentally sustainable, healthy homes within a reasonable distance of a community’s core then becomes an issue of social equity.

    The need for new affordable housing is on the rise, especially as older affordable housing projects reach the end of their usable life throughout our region. Here in King County, we see an opportunity to not only create green affordable communities, but to better integrate affordable housing into society.

    Growing opportunity

    Photo by Steve Keating Photography, courtesy of GGLO
    Greenbridge, a mixed-income community in White Center under development by the King County Housing Authority, is replacing more than 500 distressed homes with 1,000 green housing units. King County’s GreenTools program is working with local governments to expand green housing.

    As the “green” economy grows, so do the opportunities for those living in affordable and mixed-income communities to find greater economic prosperity, through work in green construction and trades.

    King County Executive Ron Sims supports creating green affordable housing that will not only provide a higher standard of living and benefits to the environment, but also help to create more economically vital, livable communities.

    “Our commitment to creating sustainable housing for lower-income populations goes beyond the four walls of the homes we build,” Sims said. “We are working to build communities where access to jobs, critical resources such as schools, public transportation and retail shopping are included in the mix. Ultimately, this benefits our entire community as we work to raise the standard of living for all citizens.”

    To help create green affordable housing and communities, King County’s GreenTools program is working with local governments to provide resources and information to expand green building and development throughout the region, and will work to influence the “greening” of affordable housing developments. These education efforts include technical assistance to builders, residents, local governments, architects and housing authorities.

    Creating green affordable housing makes sense from an economic point of view, according to Aaron Adelstein, executive director of the Built Green program of King and Snohomish counties.

    “While initial development costs can run from 1 to 5 percent higher, there are significant long-term savings in terms of lower energy usage for heating and cooling, less water usage, stormwater runoff mitigation and more,” Adelstein said.

    For residents, this also means lower utility bills.

    “Residents save money, and they also experience lower incidents of illness such as asthma because green homes tend to be healthier,” Adelstein said. “Green building also tends to hold up better over time, making it a smart investment for government and non-profits that support affordable housing.”

    Incentives to build green

    Green building is starting to take hold within affordable housing communities in King County. Greenbridge, a newly constructed mixed-income community in White Center, was built to replace over 500 distressed homes with 1,000 new green housing units, an urban center and built-in services.

    The project is part of Executive Sims’ White Center Enhancement Initiative, which ties in redevelopment throughout the neighborhood to create a vibrant, economically viable community.

    Greenbridge is seen by many as a beginning and a model for more changes to come. To help expand efforts to build green, the GreenTools program also provides grant incentives to help with the cost of gaining LEED or Built Green certification for new projects, and gives priority to projects that incorporate affordable housing.

    Additional assistance has been established at the state level within the Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development. It oversees the state’s Housing Trust Fund, which provides funding to develop affordable housing. Affordable housing projects applying for financial assistance from the Housing Trust Fund must meet or exceed the state’s Evergreen Sustainable Development Standard, which is closely aligned with the LEED standards.

    By tying funding sources to green building standards, developers of affordable housing receive incentives and assistance to build green, which ultimately provides benefits to the community in the form of better living standards and longer-lasting infrastructure.

    Green economy

    “Green-collar” jobs — work that involves environmentally friendly services and products, including green construction — offer a chance for many lower-income Americans to achieve economic independence.

    In Oakland, Calif., the green economy is growing thanks to a campaign launched to create green-collar jobs by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. According to a recent article in the Alameda Times-Star, the Oakland City Council endorsed the campaign with $250,000 in funding, which led to an inventory of 126 businesses willing to participate.

    The push for green-collar jobs will help expand opportunities for all as the green economy continues to grow. In Oakland, a former manufacturing hub that was hurt by jobs going oversees, green-collar jobs offer citizens a chance to find meaningful, well-paying work that will ultimately benefit the communities in which they live and work.

    Van Jones, cofounder of the Ella Baker Center in Oakland, will be a keynote speaker on March 13 at the Built Green Conference at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center in Seattle. He will discuss green-collar jobs for inner-city populations. For more information on this event, visit, and to learn more about King County’s GreenTools program, visit

    Patti Southard is a project manager with King County’s GreenTools green building program.

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