The Dollars and Sense of Green Affordable Housing


We’ve updated and reposted this 2016 article to further the exchange happening this week for the 100 Great Ideas campaign, in which Atlanta community actors of all kinds are joining together to brainstorm ways to improve the city’s housing equity. Atlanta loses 1,500 affordable homes each year, and housing costs have increased by 48 percent since 2010. Join the conversation and share your ideas on the campaign’s Facebook page from April 8-12.

By Alex Trachtenberg, Senior Project Manager, Community Impact for Southface Institute’s Regenerative Places & Spaces program.

The subject of green building leads people to think of drowning in guidelines, checklists and expensive upgrades. The subject of affordable housing conjures thoughts of code-compliant, cost-conscious construction that allows for minimal enhancements of any kind. At face value, the two are seemingly incompatible ideas. But some of my own research and advocacy, done together with Southface Institute alumnus Sarah Hill and the Virginia Center for Housing Research at Virginia Tech, has aimed to upend the notion that green building can’t also be affordable, especially for those who need it most.

In 2016, our two organizations produced a joint report entitled “The Impact of Green Affordable Housing”. That same year, I led a session on the results of the report at Southface’s annual sustainability conference, Greenprints. The session, “The Dollars and Sense of Green Affordable Housing,” was attended by architects, builders, designers, city planners, government representatives and nonprofit executives.

Alex Trachtenberg leads a session, “The Dollars and Sense of Affordable Housing,” at Southface’s annual sustainability conference, Greenprints.

Many developers, builders and general contractors assume that green building practices are prohibitively expensive in all but the most luxurious developments. However, the 2016 report shows that the numbers tell a different story, even for affordable housing developments; total construction costs for green developments are about five percent less than traditional developments.

When expenses are broken down into hard costs (materials, labor and equipment used in construction), and soft costs (design and construction fees associated with management), hard costs are only two percent more for green developments and soft costs are 13 percent less. While these percentages may seem inconsequential, they show that green versus non-green development construction costs vary so slightly that it barely pays to prefer non-green developments over green ones.


Development TypeTotal Cost / sfHard Cost / sfSoft Cost / sf
Green Developments$91.85$55.43$36.42
Non-Green Developments$96.09$54.54$41.55
% Difference-4.51%1.62%-13.16%

Survey data revealed how stakeholder groups, other than builders, made assumptions related to the development process. A survey of property managers showed that 38 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “Above code green buildings are more energy efficient than energy-code compliant buildings.” A more favorable result emerged from housing finance authorities: 50 percent of them agreed that green developments are more energy efficient, and 75 percent agreed that green building practices lower utility costs.

The study found that green buildings lower utility costs for residents by more than 14 percent and 12 percent less on common areas paid by owners. Estimated monthly utility bills save resident families $100 per year, and senior citizens save $120 per year. The study shows another fact that is just as important, though less quantifiable: green building certifications may lead to a more consistent end product and more predictable energy bills for low-income residents across a state’s portfolio of affordable housing developments.

Administration and maintenance costs were somewhat higher for green buildings versus non-green buildings. This is surprising and contradicts the literature and many goals of green building. Anecdotal evidence suggests that increased operations, maintenance and administration costs may be due to staff and resident education about the equipment and technologies used in the developments.

Per year, green developments save $5,000 on owner-paid utility costs. In addition to stakeholders agreeing that green developments are more energy efficient, most of the developers in this study also believe that green buildings provide a higher quality end product, and residents report more comfortable living conditions in their green dwellings.

For more information, you can review the Impact of Green Affordable Housing full report.

See original article at SaportaReport.

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