Green Common Ground

Prospect Co-Editor Robert Kuttner spoke with Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and Bart Harvey, chairman of the board of Enterprise Community Partners. The NRDC is one of America's leading environmental groups. Enterprise is a leading force for community development that champions equitable sustainable development. Beinecke and Harvey created a unique partnership called Green Communities to enlist the environmental community on behalf of affordable green housing, and advocates of community development to support environment-friendly building strategies. It was a partnership waiting to happen. Green Communities is a $555 million commitment to make sustainable development the mainstream among affordable housing developers. It marks the start of a deeper collaboration between these two organizations and, their leaders hope, their respective movements.

Robert Kuttner: What are the key elements of the alliance between environmentalists and the movement for affordable housing and community development?

Bart Harvey: Both communities have worked together as sponsors of the new green building standards. It's also about smart sites for housing. It gets into land use, which is going to be the big area of collaboration between environmentalists and developers of all kinds, not only community developers.

Kuttner: Was this a hard sell with environmentalists, or perhaps not their top priority?

Frances Beinecke: It wasn't a hard sell for us because we're deeply committed to advancing the green building movement. We'd been engaged in the development of the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) process in the U.S. Green Building Council. Historically, we have a major commitment to the urban environment. Some people look at cities as sources of pollution. We see a beacon of sustainability, the place where you could get much more efficiencies out of development and land-use patterns. So this wasn't a hard sell. It was a great opportunity to come together and find common ground.

Harvey: In general, the challenge was to develop a set of criteria that would produce the maximum community-development impact for the least amount of additional capital, and the maximum amount of environmental impact by lowering energy cost and water cost, which are economic savings. We save money with smart growth and higher density development, because the second highest cost to low-income people is their transportation.

Kuttner: What are some interesting stories of this playing out in actual communities?

Harvey: Well, there are 139 Green Communities projects complete or in development and every one is a great story. One example, the first to participate, is Denny Park in Seattle. It's infill, mixed-use development in a revitalizing area. It's accessible to transit and features numerous environmental conservation features, especially dealing with storm water management. The developer, the Low Income Housing Institute, has learned to go green with virtually no additional costs.

Kuttner: Do you need to take on the low level of government subsidies for housing, or is this more about doing the best with what we've got?

Harvey: We are confident that sustainable affordable developments will perform better over time, generating significant financial savings, but we need resources to get green affordable homes built. Enterprise's commitment through Green Communities is $555 million in financing and technical assistance. But that's just a drop in the bucket in terms of moving the whole industry. Federal funding is critical, but the reality is that it has been steadily declining for more than two decades.

Beinecke: There are several other aspects to it not directly related to low-income housing. For instance, there's an initiative started by Mayor Greg Nickels of Seattle that more than 300 mayors have signed on to, committing to lowering their carbon emissions. They're looking at electricity coming in. Almost 30 percent of carbon emissions are embedded in buildings. This can help all citizens.

Changing the climate by changing habits

Kuttner: So the big opportunities are the way buildings are built, how they use energy, and density as it affects transportation.

Beinecke: You know, New York City has much more energy efficiency per capita than really any other major metropolitan area in the country because of the public transportation system and because of the density of the housing. So as we go forward with building, part of the green community's program is to ensure the transit is a very, very pivotal part of it, as we -- if 30 percent of our carbon emissions come from cars, we have to provide that alternative to people to get to where they need to go through public transit, and that requires greater density.

Harvey: Mayors and governors are way ahead of Washington on this, and it's not a partisan issue. To give just two interesting examples on that, Governor Mitt Romney worked with us to announce a $200 million commitment to green affordable housing in Massachusetts and Mayor Gavin Newsom has committed to make all affordable housing in San Francisco sustainable in partnership with Enterprise. Those guys may not agree on much else. We found city after city, there's a hunger for this. It's about energy efficiency and water savings and smart materials. It's smart growth, which includes transportation. It's healthy housing. It's density, which is smart growth. It is a combination of factors that are sort of all rolled up into one, and people get it.

Kuttner: Is there also a tacit technology and jobs policy here, with linkages to the development of new technologies for producing buildings that are more energy efficient?

Beinecke: That's translated in many different forms -- developing the new technologies that would go into building using everything more efficiently: more efficient appliances, light bulbs, using wood more efficiently, the way the buildings are manufactured.

What has really shifted dramatically, in about the last 18 months, is the way people think about these issues. Rather than thinking that to be environmentally conscious you have to be penalized and controlled, now to be an environmentalist you're an innovator. You're looking at new solutions that really address these issues. And the green building movement in many ways is the beacon of that because people can see it around them. In New York City, there are several commercial buildings built that are along green designs. It's catching fire not only among architects and commercial developers but also among those in the building trades. It's a very good place to be right now.

Kuttner: What are the obstacles? If I'm a developer and I want to do this on the ground, what makes my life more difficult?

Harvey: Site selection is a difficult part of it. Some green developers have come to us, and said they can't meet the site requirements around amenities and public transportation. Rehabilitation can be challenging, too. Let's say you already have an existing building and you want to rehab it along green lines. But it's facing wherever it's facing, and it can't take advantage of some of the integrative green designing that you need, and there's some real cost issues in that. Also, in the process of rehab of rural areas, or getting sites that are near transit, there is a challenge in getting the density that you need.

Beinecke: If you're using new approaches, you also have to amend the building codes so that they make these new approaches possible. Another is just having people in the building trades be trained and familiar with the new practices. There's a learning curve -- getting enough people knowledgeable about it that it becomes routine rather than something that's unique.

Harvey: Let me give you another example on the ground. It's also about the mentality of the property managers. There is a building manager in one major city we work in that has become a great property manager for green. They advertise it that way. It's a competitive advantage for them; they had to ditch all of their big buying contracts to get materials for cleaning; they committed that they would meet green criteria, and they couldn't use insecticides to get rid of the rodents. To get economies of scale, they have to in big enough blocks that they get lower cost from their manufacturers.

They are retraining their people on how to take care of solar and other aspects of green buildings. So part of our effort was for market transformation. As you promote enough of this technology, you lower their costs; you make it worthwhile for larger-block buying, which gives you discounts with all of your suppliers. You have enough trained people in it that can train others. You begin to get to a tipping point where it becomes mainstream rather than a one-off, and market pricing is critical in all of this.

Kuttner: What else would you like to see the federal government do or not do?

Beinecke: Some of it doesn't relate directly to housing -- but to new energy policies that promote the solution. So we're looking for renewable portfolio standards that would require that a certain percent of the energy produced is generated by renewable energy, which could be solar, wind, or biomass. This area of policy is growing, for several reasons. One is to promote energy independence and energy security in the country but also to deal directly with global warming. More than 20 states now have renewable portfolio standards, typically 15 to 25 percent, but we think there should be a federal standard so that this gets “incentivized” across the country and develops a strong market for renewable power.

Many of the new people coming into the new Congress have put energy policy at the center of issues they want to take up early in the 110th Congress. So we will be working hard on making sure that there's promotion of efficiencies and renewables to maximize the tools that are available to people like Bart, as they are promoting green, affordable housing.

Harvey: The federal government can lead by example. The General Services Administration, which rents and builds office space for the government, has already adopted sets of green criteria for its new buildings that it does itself. The federal government can also promote sustainable development through modest changes to existing programs, such as providing points for green projects in competitive allocations of federal grant funds and by working with national organizations like Enterprise and the U.S. Green Building Council to raise awareness and provide training.

More greenbacks for green

Kuttner: Is more direct federal financing something you'd welcome?

Harvey: Yes, but we recognize the budget issues. The only way it works at scale is to assemble federal, state, and local resources together. States administer the federal low-income housing tax credit, which is the most important affordable housing program. We have been working with state agencies to encourage sustainable development through the program. There are also a bevy of state and local resources for solar and other renewable energy and energy efficient building. In our projects, we try to roll them all up and to produce enough critical mass using low-income housing tax credits on the rental side to make a real difference and then roll in the other credits so that they work along with the tax credit.

Kuttner: How do the constraints on resources limit what you can do?

Harvey: In the past, environmentalists have sometimes been pitted against community developers for resources. Very different bases support the environmental movement and who supports the community movement, but they really are parts of the same movement for a better built-out country that makes more sense and has less environmental damage that goes with it.

These two forces are just beginning to feel each other out. They've been separated, and both of us have suffered at times, like under this administration and in certain states we've been pitted against each other where the governor comes and says, “Well, we only have so [many] resources and we're going to take from the community developers and give to the environmentalists.” In Florida a few years ago a coalition of groups got together and said, “No, you're not. If you want to fix the Everglades, you aren't going to take it out of the community developers; you're going to find some more money to fix the Everglades.”

It's not perfect, but the environmentalists see something that's critically important. What we're trying to do is to have a progressive agenda, to really look at areas where we can work together and ultimately get to the biggest and most difficult set of issues, which are around land use.

Beinecke: Bart and I have co-hosted exchanges between the two groups. We went to a meeting of the community development groups that Bart hosted, and then he and Stockton Williams of Enterprise came to a meeting of all the national environment groups that we hosted. It's not so much that we've been pitted against each other, although in certain instances people have tried that. It's really more that these communities have focused on our own agendas.

Harvey: In the Pacific Northwest, there is a Cascadia land plan that we're backing, and we had a meeting of all the environmentalists and all the community development people to say, we need to back it and we need to defeat some bills that were going to kill it. We need to get together and allow the growth that needs to occur and do it in the right way. It is about people; it's about our built environment; it's about making cities work; it's about our inter-dependence not only with other people but with nature and the world that sustains us.

Beinecke: What's increasingly happening, and it's not only happening here, is that there is a lot of commonality, and those of us in various sectors are realizing that we have greater opportunity if we have broader alliances. We may not agree on everything, but there may be a few areas of common purpose where coming together makes us just a much stronger force. One of the key issues to promoting sustainability is to have a healthy and efficient built environment, because fundamentally environmentalism is about the well-being of people. It's about protecting our environment for people who are experiencing it in their air, water, food, and homes.

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