Existing Housing Stock TO Green Affordable Housing and BACK TO the Open Market

In the area where I live, communities are growing more conscience and concerned about energy conservation and efficiency. Some local governments are making important investments in the housing stock by offering incentives for homeowners to get energy audits and retrofit their homes for energy efficiency. Nonetheless, many homeowners remain wary of the process. It takes a homeowner with an unusual knowledge of green building practices, an unusual commitment to the environment, and/or unusual faith in technologies to dive right in and “green” their home.

Relying on homeowners to take the initiative cannot be the only strategy for “greening” the existing housing stock, so here’s an idea. Transfer some existing housing into affordable housing and retrofit them for energy efficiency at the same time. The affordability restrictions don’t have to remain forever. Ideally, they wouldn’t. The “greened” housing could cycle back into the market and municipalities can focus on “greening” additional properties. The key is retrofit them while they’re in your control.

I was inspired by Boulder, CO. Boulder has growth restrictions which have caused the price of housing to rise faster that it might have otherwise. So, Boulder adopted inclusionary zoning policies to ensure that low, moderate, and middle income folks can afford to live in the city. What’s unique is that Boulder allows developers to fulfill their affordable housing requirements by renovating existing homes and selling them to a qualifying family or turning them into affordable rental properties. They didn’t want to contradict their growth restrictions.

With Boulder, Co and Burlington, VT as my inspiration, here are some details of my policy idea (notable details, like logical incentive structures for every step are not totally worked out yet, but bear with me… they will probably be different for each community anyway):

  1. Establish a community land trust or something that would serve the same function. The community land trust should be flexible, with graduated goals for the amount of housing in the trust. Homes in the trust don’t have to stay there forever, in fact my idea will only work if homes cycle out of the trust while new homes are acquired.
  2. Establish some affordable housing development requirement.
  3. Now, give developers some options: develop affordable housing, donate housing to the land trust, and/or renovate housing already in the  land trust. Cash would be the less fancy, but sometimes more efficienct option. (You can add all kinds of nuances like, if the developer’s planned development is already “green” beyond code requirements, you can acknowledge the intrinsic affordability of  “greenness” and count that toward meeting the affordable housing development requirement!)
  4. Renovations must be “green” and adhere to strict minimum building performance requirements.
  5. Give residents of land trust homes incentives to make additional green improvements. Give them a list of qualifying improvements and the requirements for the work, then demonstrate the value you place on those improvements by giving them more equity stake in the house. (This step has some important educational value.)
  6. Once a trust property has been “greened” to your high standard, it is more affordable to live in (it’s more energy efficient, more durable, and offers a healthier indoor environment) and more valuable, so let it be sold out of the trust.
  7. Acquire a new property in it’s place and let it be “greened!”
  8. Keep the cycle going! After all, you have an unusual knowledge of green building practices, an unusual commitment to the environment, and/or unusual faith in technologies! You gotta be the one to invest in this process. Experience in “green” homes is probably the only thing that will convince your average homeowner/buyer to go “green”.

There are the basics. To clarify (in case it wasn’t obvious), the “you” I am speaking to are communities as wholes (all you invested citizens),  local governments, and their partners that might be able implement some fashion of this idea.

Ensure affordable housing and “green” your community’s housing stock AT THE SAME TIME! What do you think?