A study recently published in the Journal of the American Planning Association (JAPA) by Nicola Szibbo, PhD, a planner with the City and County of Honolulu, found that only 40 percent of LEED-ND certified projects included affordable housing. With very little incentive in the credit structure, many developers choose not to include affordable housing, and there are no consequences for doing so.
LEED-ND is a green certification program for neighborhood developments, sponsored by the US Green Building Council, the association that brought about the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system.
Much like the system for rating green buildings, LEED-ND focuses on three major development categories: smart location and linkage, neighborhood pattern and design, and green infrastructure and buildings. Two optional categories are innovation and regional priority. A development earns LEED-ND ratings by obtaining credits and accruing points under the various credit categories.
Affordable housing is offered as an optional credit, worth 3 points, and is paired with another option to provide multiple housing types, which is also worth 3 points. Overall, affordable housing provides 3 out of a potential 110 points in the system, and it is not required for a project to be certified.
Szibbo’s research included statistical evidence, survey research, and structured interviews. She surveyed 114 LEED-ND Accredited Professionals (APs) and conducted 20 personal interviews with developers and other LEED-ND APs. Among her findings:
- Among the 2009 – 2014 LEED-ND projects reviewed, 60 percent chose to ignore the specific affordable housing credit.
- The survey found that 41 percent of respondents believe the existing rating does not support social equity or social sustainability.
- There is opportunity for improving the LEED-ND affordable housing requirement according to 63 percent of the survey respondents.
- Twenty-three percent of survey respondents want more points in the rating system for affordable housing, while 13.5 percent want the affordable housing credit to be mandatory.
- From the interviews with LEED-ND APs, 59 percent believe developers are reluctant to include affordable housing in LEED-ND projects due to potential lower profits or the social stigma of low income housing affecting marketability.
This last point proves to be the crux of the matter, in my opinion. Developers construct buildings and neighborhoods to make money, and anything that gets in the way of that endpoint is not usually considered. This does not mean that some developers don’t have higher intentions in mind, but the majority are driven by profit.
A design and construction sustainability professional who teaches sustainability at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, states the difficulty of incorporating affordable housing into new privately financed LEED-ND projects:
“That is one that is going to be tough for…or hard to swallow for a lot of developers. For most developers that is that balance between the customer, the bottom line, and sustainability in most, all cases. That one will lose out unless you are working with a housing authority of some kind…. It’s just not a reality. It’s just not rooted in the development mindset for most developers. I don’t think it’s a cynical view, I think it’s just reality. First off, right now you are still kind of crazy to be doing a lot of mixed-use developments, particularly in hard-hit areas: California, where we work a lot, and Las Vegas. So, I don’t necessarily blame them either….
Affordable housing is just not in most corporate ethos right now. Now if it is a mission-driven organization like a housing authority, I would expect it to be a no-brainer, obviously! But it’s just not in the lexicon, it’s not in their ethos. It’s not top of mind for everybody right now.”
How to Change the Status Quo
So, how do we change things? Szibbo recommends several options:
- Make the affordable housing credit mandatory.
- Give more points for affordable housing, increasing the incentive to achieve the credit.
- Add additional credits to provide working-class housing.
- Provide incentives or subsidies (to offset certification expenses) to projects providing a larger portion of affordable housing.
The current neighborhood certification system does not adequately address one of the three pillars of sustainability: economy, environment, and equality. Lower income residents are left out of sustainable communities that could offer them a better, healthier lifestyle with work and play options closer to home.
Incentivizing affordable housing within the LEED rating system would go a long way to increasing options for low income families. A LEED-ND rating is desirable for developers, as these areas are often in high demand and command top dollar prices. The challenge is, can they look beyond the dollars and provide a truly sustainable neighborhood for all income levels?