Washburn

The Mission is Green

This version is my creation but it sounds a lot like the mission statement of most affordable housing developers in the United States.  The absence of environmental issues in such statements demonstrates that green, at least until recently, was not part of the lingua franca of the housing community. Historically, creating "safe, decent, and affordable" housing and adopting "green" design, were seen as opposing agendas.   Allocating funds to environmental concerns would reduce funds for housing, as reflected in sentiments like "if I have to choose between meeting a green standard or building another unit, the choice is clear, the housing comes first."  I certainly don't want to argue against the core need for shelter - we discussed the severe shortage of affordable housing last week - but this type of statement is perhaps more a reflection of the bifurcation of social and environmental issues that has arisen over the past 40 years, than the reality on the street. In the mid 1960s, national housing policy was moving away from supply-based models, prompting the Department of Housing and Urban Development,to explore demand-side subsidies. Using tools such as Section 8 vouchers, tax-breaks to developers, and Community Development Block Grants, the federal government shifted its primary role from that of developer to one of enabler. The burden to actually build housing was transferred to local governments and neighborhood organizations. In response, a community of housing professionals - people with a deep humanitarian streak - emerged to navigate the increasingly complex system of permitting and financing in order to get projects built.  Many members of this community perceived housing as purely a social issue, built on the premise that housing is a basic human right and that equitable access to housing is a core part of a fair, just, and yes, sustainable society. Concurrently, the environmental community was going through a transformation.  Burning rivers in Ohio and oil on California beaches pushed environmental issues into the national consciousness and recast environmental pioneers like Rachael Carson from cranks to visionaries.  Arguing against the need for environmental protection seemed outdated and the cornerstones of the environmental protections and procedures we now take for granted - the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, National Environmental Protection Act, and Endangered Species Act - made their way through Congress at the pen of Richard Nixon.  Professionalization of the environmental movement followed in short order, with the establishment of the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the retooling of the Sierra Club.   What were the missions of these organizations? To protect people from environmental toxins and protect the environment from mistreatment by business and industry. Over the next thirty years the housers and the environmentalists rarely found common ground, with the most notable exception related to creating safeguards for exposure to lead paint in federally operated housing development.  Not infrequently did conflicts arise.  Preserving land from development increased land costs and made affordable housing more difficult to create.  The higher density of many affordable housing developments raised concerns about increased traffic and pollution. About a decade ago the environmental community began to recognize the regional land use benefits of higher density development and the air quality and traffic congestion benefits of providing affordable housing throughout a region.  It was a seminal moment for groups like the Sierra Club to come out in support of development. At about the same time, progressive affordable housing developers began to see green as part and parcel of their mission.  Digging deeper into the language of safe, decent, and affordable, it became clear that green was not a separate issue but instead a way to expand, and thus augment, the core values expressed in their existing mission statements.  From this new perspective, "decent " came to include thermal comfort, access to daylight and views, and good ventilation; "safe" now folds in avoiding exposure to formaldehyde, volatile organic compounds, mold, dust mites, and phthalates; and "affordable" addresses not just rent but also utility costs, fluctuations in utility expenses, health costs, and the cost of missed work due to illness. Aligning these two groups so that green is seen as integral, rather than external to the core mission of affordable housing, expands the scope of the housing and the breadth of benefits to individuals, communities, and the planet that affordable housing can generate. What do you think? Leave us a comment. ———- Walker Wells, AICP LEED AP, is Director of the Green Urbanism Program at Global Green USA and the editor and co-author of Blueprint for Greening Affordable Housing.