This Issue
 
The Affordable Green Neighborhoods Grant Program aids
low-income housing projects in the pursuit of LEED certification.


WRITTEN BY Jeff Harder and Eric Butterman

From the looks of things today, you’d never know the Homes at Old Colony are a world apart from what they used to be. First built in 1940, the Old Colony Housing Project in South Boston was one of the city’s oldest developments. But by the turn of the 21st century, it had become one of the costliest places under the Boston Housing Authority’s jurisdiction, with rundown infrastructure, high energy consumption, and a litany of health and safety hazards for its tenants—not to mention the site design itself. “It was a classic superblock setup,” says Shiva Prakash of New Ecology, the Boston-based nonprofit that served as sustainability consultants on the site’s redevelopment. “There wasn’t much connectivity to the site, and residents were siloed off in their own buildings.”

 

But six years after the demolition of its distressed predecessor and mere months after earning Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Neighborhood Development (LEED ND) Stage 2 Gold certification, the Homes at Old Colony are a breath of fresh air near the South Boston waterfront. A cohesive site design places townhouses in the center and taller buildings at its periphery. Streets that once stopped at Old Colony’s outskirts now extend into a pedestrian-friendly grid, linking the development with surroundings that include an elementary school and access to the transit authority’s subway and buses. Its 285 units are still deeply affordable public housing, Prakash says, “but it doesn’t feel institutional at all. It feels like home.”

 

The Affordable Green Neighborhoods (AGN) Grant Program was a vital part of Old Colony’s transformation. Developed by the U. S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and the Bank of America Charitable Foundation, the program has helped 31 affordable housing projects around the country pursue LEED ND certification since 2010, resulting in 298 acres, 5,667 dwelling units, and 8.3 million square feet of buildings meeting the rating system’s criteria—with many more to come. “By providing money, enhanced education, and an open communication channel with our staff, our hope is that we can help get developers over the hump, get their first project under their belt, and be able to take that knowledge forward to use in the rest of their work,” says Casey Studhalter, LEED ND project manager for USGBC.

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Cover: Beacon playground. Shiva Prakash at the Old Colony Housing project in South Boston. Photo: Eric Roth

The advancement of LEED ND’s holistic, community-minded approach is at the heart of the Affordable Green Neighborhoods Grant Program. Besides urging improvements in energy efficiency, indoor air quality, and other green design criteria into buildings and surrounding infrastructure, LEED ND seeks to make neighborhoods more livable. That means mitigating environmental impacts through sensitive project siting; reducing vehicle travel by creating pedestrian-friendly terrain and by placing jobs, schools, retail locations, and other services within walking distance; and promoting smart growth of communities through careful, concentrated design that resists sprawl.

 

It’s an approach that naturally fits affordable housing developments. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, more than 6.5 million low-income families spend more than half of their incomes on the cost of housing and utilities. Great distances can separate affordable homes from gainful employment, bringing strain on families and their lifestyles. “[Through LEED ND], there’s a chance to see all the benefits from holistic green neighborhoods, and the benefit to these families who are economically challenged can have a huge effects for years to come,” Studhalter says. “This can be the tip of the iceberg.” But even though LEED ND principles yield great results, obstacles to implementation remain: certification can be costly, and many developers of affordable housing simply don’t have the experience, knowledge, or resources to navigate the process.

 

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In response, USGBC and the Bank of America Charitable Foundation launched the Affordable Green Neighborhoods Grant Program to give selected nonprofits and public agencies the tools to ensure their projects earn LEED ND designations. Along with $31,000 to cover certification expenses, the grant includes registration for workshops as well as LEED Green Associate and Accredited Professional exams, access to USGBC staff for technical assistance, and other educational resources.

 

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Most of the townhouses have photovoltaic panels that provide electricity to the site.

Bank of America has a long-standing relationship with USGBC and plenty of common philosophical ground. (One hundred of its financial centers have achieved LEED certification, for example.) Community development has been a focus of the Bank of America Charitable Foundation—the bank’s philanthropic arm—and the AGN Grant Program grew out of the shared concern between the two organizations, says Richard Brown, senior vice president of corporate social responsibility for Bank of America. “Local residents and community leaders know what is needed to meet local affordable housing needs,” Brown says. “What they may need help on is making those projects optimally energy efficient and harnessing neighborhood-scale sustainability that gives equal emphasis to economics and equity. That’s where USGBC can help and why the assistance made available through the Affordable Green Neighborhoods is so important.”

 

So far, 31 projects have received AGN grants: 10 in 2010 and 2012, and 11 in 2014. To see a glimpse of the program’s genuine success, the transformation at the Homes at Old Colony is a good place to start.

 

In 2009, once demolition crews erased Old Colony’s past incarnation, developers Beacon Communities, in partnership with the Boston Housing Authority, aimed to redevelop the entire context of the site. With a blank canvas, Prakash says, LEED ND criteria helped craft a holistic vision for the siting and connectivity of the neighborhood. But when New Ecology discovered the Affordable Green Neighborhoods Grant Program and joined its first round of recipients, those LEED ND criteria became more than sources of inspiration. “If there were moments when it would have been easier to do something a different way, there was an understanding that those principles were now set in stone,” Prakash says.

 

The AGN grant proved especially valuable because the team behind the Homes at Old Colony was entering uncharted territory: it was the first LEED ND project for Beacon Communities as well as New Ecology. “We didn’t have a lot of institutional knowledge about how to go about the process,” Prakash says. “The AGN program provided not only the raw funding for certification, but a lot of technical and peer support as well.” Project teams collaborated during monthly conference calls, sharing ideas with one another and finding solutions to issues that popped up during the certification process. And if there were uncertainties in whether any feature of Old Colony’s redevelopment would meet credit guidelines, Prakash says, USGBC staffers were a phone call or an email away. “I could just email Casey [Studhalter] and say, ‘This is exactly what we’re doing. Do you think this meets the credit requirements?’ I never had a panicked moment.”

 

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Dave Queeley, Mark Dinaburg, and Jirair Ostayan outside Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corp. Photo: Eric Roth

With the second phase of construction completed in spring 2014 and the project expected to wrap up in 2015, the Homes at Old Colony earned LEED ND Stage 2 Gold certification. Solar panels line the roofs of the development’s buildings, each of which—from the townhouse-style residences to the Joseph M. Tierney Learning Center—has its own LEED designation. It remains deeply affordable, and Prakash said that a concerted effort to get Old Colony’s former residents into the renovated space means many of them returned, heaping praise on an upgraded environment that fosters community. Without the AGN grant, Prakash says, the Homes at Old Colony would have never come this far. “The grant was absolutely critical in terms of the actual certification. There was no way that the Old Colony site would have been able to go through the formal LEED ND process without it.”

 

Elsewhere in Boston, David Queeley, Eco-Innovation Fellow at Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation (CSNDC), says his organization needed the grant to enhance Dorchester’s Talbot Norfolk Eco-Innovation District (TNT EID), a 46-acre, 13-block area comprising 252 homes, a mix of triple-decker, multi-unit, as well as one- and two-family dwellings. With plans to develop at least 175,000 square feet of mixed-use space, Queeley says the district primarily houses low-income residents, and that CSNDC also intends to provide home ownership opportunities in the form of affordable, close to net-zero condominiums, known as the New England Heritage Homes (NEHH). The NEHH vision was created with residents present every step of the way, from architect selection to design review. “We already know that we can get a good amount of LEED ND points for things I’m proud to say we’ve already accomplished—smart location and linkage, neighborhood pattern and design, and walkability were just a few,” he says. “It was a thrill to get the grant, confirming our feeling that we‘re heading in the right direction.”

 

After receiving their grant in 2014, CSNDC and the residents of the TNT EID joined a community whose members are all looking to help each other learn and succeed. “There are projects throughout the country going through what we are, and we can all benefit from each other’s experience,” Queeley says. And besides giving the Talbot Norfolk Eco-Innovation District an all-around healthier design, he says the LEED ND designation demonstrates an investment in the future to the neighborhood’s residents. “We need to have equity goals so the residents have a stronger stake in what happens,” he says. “I always say, ‘Why not here? Why not us?’ I know we can reach our goals and this grant helps move that conversation and that process forward, and keeps them front and center in everyone’s minds.”

 

In Charlotte, North Carolina, David Howard, senior vice president of strategic initiatives and fund development for the Housing Partnership, was involved in the effort to make Brightwalk at Historic Double Oaks more sustainable. Originally a World War II-era housing project, the community has undergone a remarkable transformation with 50 of its 98 acres pursuing a LEED ND designation. “We had 573 apartments going bad, so we bought them, tore them down, and we intended to make them sustainable,” Howard explains. “We took brick, concrete, and asphalt on the street and found a way to reuse it. There are 216 affordable apartments on the property and 120 single-family houses—we’re proud to say that it’s now one of the hottest-selling neighborhoods in the city.”

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After receiving an Affordable Green Neighborhoods grant in 2012, Howard and his colleagues took advantage of all of the available resources. They got an up-close look at the nuances of LEED ND certification at Greenbuild, while the USGBC’s insights helped them further immerse themselves in the fundamentals of sustainable communities. “From all the education, we started to really learn just how big the sustainability community was,” Howard says. “This is a country realizing where our world and industry is going—it’s going towards a greater understanding of the environment.” In the future, he looks forward to learning even more from the USGBC team. “We need sustainability to improve lives and for greater credibility—I’m confident in what this grant will help us achieve.”

 

And in Philadelphia, 53 of the 120 apartments that make up 2010 grant recipient project Paseo Verde are set aside for low-income occupants, says Rose Gray, senior vice president of community and economic development for Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha, who served alongside architect and landscape architect, WRT and Jonathan Rose Companies as project co-developers. But she adds that the community—located near Temple University, a nearby health clinic, and social services offices—provides the same amenities to every tenant. “You can go out in the garden area, use the fitness center and community room—we even have stairways that play music to encourage exercise,” she says. “It’s 100-percent occupied in both affordable and market. Low-income communities should have the same things any others do: green spaces, trees, and walkability.” Looking back after achieving LEED ND Platinum status for the project, Gray says her organization found the grant’s resources particularly helpful in training. “It really helped lead us through all three phases of the LEED ND process,” Gray says. “I don’t think of this as a one-time thing, but as each of us learning lessons that will continue to lead us forward.”

Low-income communities should have the same things any others do:
green spaces, trees, and walkability.

 —Rose Gray

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In Philadelphia 53 of a 120 apartments that make up the 2010 grant recipient Paseo Verde are set aside as low-income housing.

These successes are poised to continue. Thanks to the continued support of the Bank of America Charitable Foundation, funds allocated for the program grew by 28 percent for the 2014 round. This newly expanded program allows five projects in the most recent round of grant recipients a two-day, on-site visit from USGBC staffers to answer questions, give advice, and help bring projects from conception to fruition.

 

By continuing to advance LEED ND-certified affordable housing projects, the Affordable Green Neighborhoods Grant Program helps counter some of the nagging myths about sustainably designed communities. “It really ensures that the concepts of sustainability aren’t limited to high-end developments. It’s unfortunate that green building often gets an unfair characterization that it’s only for the top one percent, and that not everyone benefits. This shows that sustainability can be made available for all,” says Gray. And once developers have finished their first LEED ND-certified community, chances are it won’t be their last.