New Developments: Revisiting Healthy Housing Principles

4 min read

Last month, NH&RA hosted an inspired town hall focused on health and sustainability in affordable housing. The panel theme was inspired by a conversation I had with Krista Egger, vice president of National Initiatives at Enterprise Community Partners. Krista had recently updated me on the latest iteration of Enterprise’s Green Communities (EGC) Standard, which is the “gold standard” for affordable housing green building standards. I was intrigued and excited by the new ways the EGC update incorporates resident health into its design strategy.

We have discussed health and housing on many occasions in Tax Credit Advisor the past several years, mostly from the angle of how affordable housing serves as an effective healthcare intervention for high-risk and at-risk populations, like the homeless, elderly and/or individuals with diabetes, hypertension or asthma. We have made the case for making more direct connections between affordable housing providers and healthcare institutions, including managed-care organizations, hospital systems, as well as institutions of higher education with medical, social work and/or geriatric care programs. In the midst of a rapidly spreading pandemic, the public awareness of the necessity of more safe, sanitary, affordable housing has reached a broader audience. This has manifested itself this year in high-profile government action, including emergency rental assistance and several national eviction moratoria, and we hope in the near future an expansion of affordable housing programs, perhaps as soon as next month in a lame-duck session of Congress, if the stars align, to address the housing supply deficit.

This is the perfect time to reexamine our foundational understanding of “safe, sanitary, affordable housing” and how our development models should evolve to promote health in a post-COVID-19 world. Readers may also revisit some recent thinking by our Guru columnist David Smith, who did a fantastic job of laying out in much better detail an argument of why we need a new framework for viewing affordable housing in his June 25 NH&RA Virtual Town Hall, as well as in the September 2020 issue of Tax Credit Advisor. My focus for the balance of this column will be less expansive in its approach but will focus on some small scale strategies we all might reasonably implement in the course of our everyday work.

I will start by reminding our readers that the principles of the green building movement (as incorporated in building standards like EGC) are more than just about utility savings. For example, green building techniques promote better health through the use of non-toxic building materials and cleaning materials, which when used have positive health outcomes for residents and employees working in affordable housing and these days do not necessarily even cost more than non-healthy building products.

Today, architects are designing buildings to promote physical health and also to facilitate the mental health of its residents. Engaging residents in the design process gives a personal investment in their community and increased agency and self-worth. Simple design approaches, like promoting natural light in units and creating spaces for residents to exercise and interact and socialize staves off depression and isolation.

Energy assessments and commissioning robust operations and maintenance plans can identify systems that may not be performing optimally that can save dollars in the operating budget but can also promote resident health (e.g., indoor air quality can be dramatically improved with proper air filters and identifying water leaks can mitigate the onset of mold).

Our recent October 8 Town Hall cited several case examples where the greenest HVAC system option under-consideration also had the lowest life-cycle cost. Where incremental investments are necessary to promote greener, sustainable housing there are a wealth of new resources available thanks to leaders like the National Housing Trust and its partners in the Energy Efficiency for All Initiative that have collectively advocated for the creation of $3 billion in affordable housing resources from utilities around the country.

Healthy housing is important in normal times and critical when our public health is under attack from a global pandemic. Green housing is by definition healthy housing and should be front of mind as we respond to this pandemic. It is also more resilient, which will make us better prepare for the next global catastrophe, including climate change and extreme weather events. Furthermore, it also contributes to greater equity in our society and environmental justice. For these reasons and more, we should all revisit and reinvest in greening our businesses and our portfolios – it is practicable, increases the value of our financial investments and it’s just the plain right thing to do for our residents, our employees and our society.

Thom joined National Housing & Rehabilitation Association (NH&RA) in 2004 and currently serves as its as Executive Vice-President and Executive Director. NH&RA is a national trade association and peer-network for affordable housing and tax credit developers and related professionals including: investors, lenders, public agencies and professional advisers. Thom directs the association’s day-to-day operations including legislative and regulatory advocacy, committee activities, conferences and events, publications, financial management and strategic planning. Thom also serves as the Executive Director of the Tennessee Developers Council, a state-wide trade association for affordable housing developers and professionals active in Tennessee. In 2013 he spearheaded the launch of NH&RA's Preservation through Energy Efficiency Project, a major educational initiative supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Thom also serves on the Board of Directors for International Center for Appropriate & Sustainable Technology (iCAST) as well as the Advisory Board for its ResourceSmart program, a turn-key, cost-effective, green rehab provider for multifamily affordable and market-rate housing communities and nonprofit facilities. Thom is a frequent speaker at affordable housing, sustainable development and tax credit industry events and has been published in a variety of industry journals including Tax Credit Advisor, Independent Banker, and the Novogradac Journal of Tax Credit Housing. Thom also serves as the Associate Publisher of Tax Credit Advisor, a monthly magazine for tax credit and affordable housing professionals and is an Executive Vice-President at Dworbell Inc., a boutique association management and communications firm in Washington, DC. Thom was previously employed at a national lobbying firm focusing on financial services and technology issues. Prior to moving to Washington, Thom worked in media relations in the New York State Assembly and as a research assistant for New Hampshire Governor Jeanne Shaheen. Thom graduated Magna Cum Laude from Tufts University with a double major in Political Science and History.