Affordable Housing Leads the Way 

8 min read

New Jointly Certified Eco-Friendly, Healthy Communities

This year, a spate of affordable housing communities throughout the nation are expected to be awarded joint certification for rehabilitating or constructing healthier, more environmentally friendly buildings. The wave of jointly certified projects arises from a new dual certification program offered through the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) and Enterprise Community Partners (Enterprise).

Enterprise offers the Enterprise Green Communities (EGC) certification, while IWBI offers the WELL Building Standard. The two entities joined forces last year to offer joint certification. Thessalonica Court Apartments, an affordable multifamily building in the Bronx, rehabbed by Jonathan Rose Companies, became the first project in the nation last year to achieve the new joint certification, meeting all the requirements for offering cleaner air and water, as well as energy efficiency. It also incorporated health-promoting strategies, such as sealing around openings between apartments to minimize air leakage and increase comfort, installing planters for a community garden and adding a physical fitness center.

“We are deeply committed to creating communities that support human health and the ecosystem resilience,” says Rose Companies President Jonathan F.P. Rose. “The integrated certification provides developers with a template to achieve this goal.”

Krista Egger, vice president for Building Resilient Futures at Enterprise, says Rose Companies and Thessalonica Court are “ahead of the curve” in moving forward with joint certification.

“Certification is a holistic focus on health, energy, water resilience and ecological impact so families and individuals who live in affordable housing can count on having a healthy place to live,” explains Egger. “We’re expecting many more (certified projects) later this year and into the future.”

Lauren Zullo, managing director for impact at Jonathan Rose Companies, says she believes affordable housing is “leading the way when it comes to green and healthy projects.”

“Many energy-efficient and healthy communities are coming out of the affordable housing sector,” says Zullo. “It is paving the way and pushing the rest of the market to accelerate their pace of change and make a commitment to energy efficiency and human health.”

Bolstering Energy and Resource Efficiency
Building healthier, energy-efficient communities requires carefully selecting building materials and using new technologies to save resources, explains Zullo.

“A typical suite of measures involving energy and water would be LED lighting, ENERGY STAR-rated refrigerators, low-flow faucets and shower heads,” explains Zullo.

Thessalonica Court embraced a broad array of measures to ensure healthy air and water within buildings, as well as energy efficiency, Zullo adds. The 191-unit apartment building is equipped with an energy recovery ventilation system for a portion of the building that minimizes energy loss by using exhaust air to temper fresh air coming in from the outside. The building also has a boiler control system that utilizes a network of temperature sensors that feed information on indoor conditions back to the boiler plant.

“Many traditional boilers run on the temperature outside,” says Zullo. “We use a smart control system that takes readings from across the building and modulates the boiler so it is delivering heating in a way that it is reacting to indoor air conditions.”

The project also has smart irrigation controls that utilize data from weather systems and the cloud and then modifies watering based on the information.

“If it rains, it provides less water or might not water the landscape at all,” Zullo says. “You won’t see sprinklers running if it rained the previous night.”

The building also was tightly air sealed with caulking around windows, insulation behind power outlets on exterior walls and covers over through-wall air conditioner sleeves. In New York, landlords pay for heat and residents usually pay for cooling, including the AC units. Jonathan Rose Company offers a discount to residents to purchase more energy-efficient units.

Promoting Health
Promoting residents’ health is a major factor in the Enterprise Green Communities and WELL Building joint certification. Achieving healthy environments requires ensuring healthy indoor air quality and mitigating excessive heat and cold. Excessively hot summer days in the Bronx impact residents’ health. To mitigate the urban heat island effect, which arises from the low tree canopy and dark surfaces, such as blacktops, the Rose Companies used high reflective coating on outdoor surfaces, as well as light-colored paints.

“We painted the concrete and resurfaced the roof so they held less heat,” says Zullo. “We also did significant replanting and put in requests to the city to fill in the street trees that had been lost over the years.”

Zullo adds that ensuring healthy indoor air quality was in line with Rose Companies’ long-standing tradition of working with healthy materials.

“Rose’s long history in thinking about human health and healthy building materials helped us to adapt quickly to become one of the first housing providers to achieve the (joint certification) because we were already using healthy building materials,” says Zullo.

Selecting flooring that limits the number of chemicals of concern results in healthier indoor air quality, stresses Zullo. It is important to select healthy low-VOC paints, cabinets and countertops that use low-VOC sealants and adhesives. VOCs are volatile organic compounds that give off harmful gases.

“These types of finishes are a major component of poor indoor air quality,” says Zullo. “They can be disruptive to respiratory and endocrine systems.”

Words of Advice
Zullo advises other developers looking to achieve certification—or build healthier communities—to check out the Enterprise Green Communities website, which lists all of the requirements and resources for healthier, efficient communities. The Healthy Building Network is useful for finding ideas and products to help in constructing healthy buildings. The Healthy Building Network offers a program called HomeFree, which lists easy-to-follow guidelines and categorizes the types of materials that are better or worse for human health. HomeFree is geared toward affordable housing developers.

“It is a great starting point for folks just launching into this,” says Zullo.

In terms of cost, Zullo stresses that many of the efficiency measures reduce energy and water costs on projects so developers often recoup their costs in a few years.

“We target a five-year payback for these types of measures,” she says. “In New York, we are subject to local laws that cap emissions, so any work we do at the property works toward not exceeding those caps.”

Zullo says healthy materials are not necessarily more expensive.

“We tackled it by trying to set universal standards for our company, so we don’t have to approach each project separately,” she says. “We have a standard paint, for example. It is not a significant cost increase if you make a portfolio-wide commitment.”

The Journey to Joint Certification
EGC has offered green certification programs since 2010 and is geared specifically toward affordable communities. When Green Communities started to update its requirements in 2020, Egger says the group was interested in how it could improve and expand its guidance to affordable housing developers. They began talking to IWBI, which was looking to have a greater impact on the affordable housing space.

“We wanted to recognize and elevate affordable housing properties creating healthy living spaces for residents,” says Egger. “We engaged with WELL to combine our two standards and the result is a preeminent certification program.”

Egger says Green Communities has hundreds of projects in the pipeline going through the early stages of certification, from the design phase to mid-retrofit.

“We are expecting dozens of these properties to receive certification later this year,” she says.

Egger adds that many state affordable housing financing agencies consider green certification when awarding funds and credits.

“It is embedded as a policy incentive in more than half the states,” she says.

On average, Green Communities certifies 10,000 dwelling units a year with its original certification.

Egger praises Thessalonica Court for being the first in the nation to achieve dual certification, especially since it is a rehabilitation project, which can pose more challenges.

“We all recognize in affordable housing that retrofits can be more complex when you have existing building components to work around,” she says. “It is not as flexible as when you start from a blank slate.”

 Zullo says the COVID pandemic “laid bare some of the health disparities” in built environments across the nation.

“Since (COVID) there has been an increased focus on human health in the built environment,” Zullo says. “First it was a focus on achieving better ventilation because COVID and ventilation go hand in hand…We’re also seeing a broader discussion about environmental justice and social equity. We can’t have that conversation without talking about affordable housing.”   

Pamela Martineau is a freelance writer based in Portland, ME. She writes primarily about housing, local government, technology and education.