Onsite programs at the West Arbor community center have featured sustainability education and regularly include after-school reading and activity programs serving roughly 150 children. Photo credit: Matt Weigand,The Ann Arbor News.

Green and Healthy Affordable Housing: Modeling a Solution for Environment and Economic Justice

Everyone deserves a healthy place to live. That’s what the Ecology Center’s motto of “healthy people, healthy planet” is about.

by Elizabeth Harlow

One of 50 stories, from 50 years of action

Everyone deserves a healthy place to live. That’s what the Ecology Center’s motto of “healthy people, healthy planet” is about. It’s about promoting environments where people can thrive, in their own homes and across the Earth we share. Between 2014 and 2016, the Ecology Center partnered with the Ann Arbor Housing Commission on three major public housing renovation projects to help establish high quality, sustainable building as the future of affordable housing. The Ecology Center’s Green and Healthy Homes program demonstrated how to maximize energy efficiency and cost effective energy investments, reduce or eliminate toxicity, and integrate highly durable materials into affordable homes to benefit residents and communities. 

Miller Manor boasts a special rooftop. The top of the seven-story building provides one of the finest panoramic views in town, including a vista of the downtown Ann Arbor skyline across the green sweep of adjacent West Park. But it’s not just the downtown buildings that glint in the sun: since 2015, Miller Manor’s roof itself has caught the light with 10,000 square feet of south-facing solar panels. The 42 kW photovoltaic solar array is an uncommon feature for a rent-subsidized public housing development, and a valuable one: it fulfills one month’s worth of annual energy needs for the building’s 106 apartments, or an equivalent energy consumption to seven typical Ann Arbor homes. 

Architect Jason Bing, former Healthy Buildings Director at the Ecology Center, counts standing next to the completed solar installation for the first time as one of his most rewarding professional moments. He wants more people to understand why green features shouldn’t be unusual in a setting like Miller Manor, but rather the norm for public and private affordable housing. So, between 2014 and 2016, Bing worked closely with the Ann Arbor Housing Commission (AAHC) on the Miller Manor renovation and on two other AAHC redevelopment projects designed to showcase the feasibility and the powerful benefits of green and healthy low-income residential construction. 

When AAHC Executive Director Jennifer Hall was seeking a partner that could assist in facilitating the implementation of some of the green building goals outlined in state (MSHDA) and federal (HUD Sustainable Communities Challenge Grant) grant commitments, the Ecology Center was in a unique position to help with its long history of working at the nexus of sustainability and housing affordability, including residential energy justice work stretching back to the 1970s. Bing and other Ecology Center staff offered deep knowledge of green building choices and a focus on health and sustainability first.

“It was invaluable for us to have a mission-driven third party advocate when we discussed our options with our developer, general contractor, architect and engineer,” says Hall. “We have a mission to serve people with disabilities, the elderly, homeless households, people who have a hard time getting and maintaining housing, and more. We have a mission to provide as healthy of a living environment as possible.” 

Tackling Homelessness with Less Energy Consumption, Less Toxicity, More Durability

Bing and the Ecology Center team helped to develop and implement redesign plans to improve the affordability, sustainability, and healthiness of homes for the AAHC and its tenants at West Arbor (previously North Maple Estates), Creekside Crossing, and Miller Manor. The connected support services ranged from setting guiding principles for the projects to coordinating with funders, architects and construction contractors to developing sustainability education materials for residents. 

All three projects focused on three main goals: maximizing energy efficiency, eliminating or substantially reducing toxicity in homes, and emphasizing material durability in building. The projects also prioritized resident education as a key to success and sought to “push the envelope on green.”

Energy efficiency is a particularly significant driver of environmental and social benefits, given both the climate impact of building energy use and the cost burden on low-income households, which often pay much larger portions of their income on basic utilities than more affluent households. High efficiency furnaces and appliances cost more on the front end, but investment in long-term cost effective energy solutions allows the AAHC to stretch its budget further to serve residents. 

“The AAHC is unique in that we pay all utilities,” says Hall, so “any savings the AAHC has on our utility bills, reduces our operating costs and enables us to have more funding for maintenance, capital improvements and services to tenants.” The Miller Manor solar array alone saves the budget-constrained Housing Commission about $24,000 per year that can go toward other critical work, while comprehensive energy efficiency and water conservation upgrades make the best use of the fewest resources at all three properties.

Inadequate public housing budgets and short-term profit disincentives to make tenant-focused improvements for private landlords also leave much of the affordable housing market characterized by degrading old housing stock and low-quality repairs and renovations. The AAHC renovations prioritized using high-quality nontoxic or minimally toxic materials that were durable and made to last. These building choices accrue health, environmental, and financial benefits. 

“Many tenants have allergies and fragile health conditions that can be worsened by toxic chemicals in building materials,” notes Hall. Low-toxicity durable materials also protect the wider environment, and  because they need repair and replacement less frequently, they reduce long-term operating costs for the AAHC.

The renovation of North Maple Estates into West Arbor included the demolition of 20 single-family detached units built in 1969 to make way for 42 new townhouse-style units, including seven high-efficiency, "baseline" multi-family buildings, one six-unit, multi-family "enhanced" building, and one high-performance "deep green" community center. When the new apartments opened in 2017, half went to families who were previously homeless. 

“We used the green design standards at West Arbor as a starting point and made even more green and energy efficient design decisions at our next new construction project on Platt Road and State Street,” says Hall. These two redevelopments represent the final stage of a seven-year overhaul of the AAHC’s full portfolio, and they will provide twice as many households with a place to live as the old buildings. Creekside Crossing, on Platt Road, replaces six residential units built in 1969 with 32 new 1-5 bedroom homes, including three dedicated for homeless veterans, as well as a community center and  playground. Tenant move-in is scheduled to begin in early December. State Crossing, on Henry Street, saw its first residents in new homes in time for Thanksgiving, including in 16 units reserved for homeless households.  

Ongoing Challenges: Chronic Underfunding and “A System of Disincentives”

Some of the people who moved into West Arbor in 2017 had been on the AAHC’s waiting list since 2010. Today, the Ann Arbor Housing Commission’s waiting list for Housing Choice Vouchers is so long that it is currently closed for new applications. When it was last open--for just five days in November 2018, after being closed since 2012--more than 4,300 people applied for 600 available spots. On average, applicants made just $10,948 per year. The demographics of the applicant pool also offered a snapshot of systemic inequities in poverty and housing: 39% were homeless, 36% were disabled, 71% were Black, and 78% were women.  

There still isn’t anywhere near enough affordable housing to go around, and more action is needed at all levels of government, from local to federal, to address widespread problems of homelessness, housing instability, and unhealthy housing. Affordable homes meeting the quality standards of AAHC’s recent redevelopments are particularly rare, both among subsidized units and in the open housing market.

“There needs to be the political will to make systemic changes and substantial investments in healthy, affordable housing” says Bing, who today works on building sustainability in Ann Arbor Public Schools. “I think the AAHC has done a fantastic job trying to develop a roadmap working within the limitations of the policy system and framework that guides their work. These developments are a good first step.”

The current limitations are substantial. The scant availability and low quality of much affordable housing is the product of decades of bad public policy, including deliberate disinvestment in public housing assistance. In 1974, Richard Nixon placed a moratorium on all public housing programs, and Ronald Reagan slashed the budget of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development by half in 1982. Federal funding for housing assistance, in inflation adjusted dollars and as a percentage of U.S. GDP, has never even come close to a return to its 1970s levels. In this environment of scarcity, upfront investment in quality affordable housing is hard to secure.

“There’s a system of disincentives to making healthy, high-performing affordable housing,” says Bing, that includes a convoluted web of restrictions from federal housing authorities, state agencies, and local utilities on the use of the severely limited existing funding. “Trying to navigate the funding formulas and legal restrictions can be frustrating and downright confusing, even for those that are well versed in energy policy and building codes.”

“The affordable housing world of federal and state funders generally say they value green, energy efficient, healthy buildings, but these goals add costs and funders are always trying to reduce costs. We were able to secure local grant funding to fill the gap, but that is hard to do in most communities,” says Hall. “The other challenge is incentivizing developers to pay for costs that do not benefit the developer or owner but that do benefit the tenant, such as energy efficiency and healthy materials.”

Ecology Center’s Housing Work in 2020: A Pandemic, and Progress

The Ecology Center is pushing lawmakers to build a better system for humane and equitable housing policy, a need that--like so many others--has become more visibly urgent in the context of COVID’s economic and health ravages. 

In partnership with the Michigan Energy Efficiency for All coalition, the Ecology Center filed an intervention on the Michigan Public Service Commission’s COVID docket early in the year, calling on the state not to leave Michiganders, quite literally, sick and in the cold. The intervention urged the Governor to take strong actions to protect people from water and power shut-offs, to implement strong utility reconnection policies; to continue and expand measures that promote access to energy efficiency, internet, and phone service; and to help people stay in their homes with strong eviction and foreclosure protections, coupled with rental and mortgage payment assistance. 

Most recently, the Ecology Center is excited for a major local victory in the 2020 general election, for Proposal C to fund affordable housing in the City of Ann Arbor. In a resounding vote of approval, 73.5% of voters supported implementing a 20 year millage, which is estimated to raise $130 million (in today’s dollars) to create 1,500 affordable housing units. This funding represents an enormous step forward on multiple fronts, including addressing the region’s housing segregation, homelessness, housing insecurity, as well as the climate crisis and air pollution, and the range of public health disparities created by housing insecurity and pollution.

The Ecology Center endorsed and worked on Prop C along with five other environmental and climate organizations in Washtenaw County: Ann Arbor 2030 District, Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice, Sierra Club Huron Valley Group, Sunrise Ann Arbor, and Washtenaw Climate Reality. “If the Ann Arbor community is serious about fighting the climate crisis, we’ve got to address the housing crisis that prevents working people from living here and forces them into long commutes,” said Michael Garfield, Executive Director of the Ecology Center, in his endorsement statement. “Transportation is one of the region’s largest sources of carbon emissions.”

The units funded by Prop C will be targeted at households earning zero to 60% of the Area Median Income (AMI), which currently corresponds in the Ann Arbor area to four-person households earning less than $60,900 per year. The Ecology Center hopes that developers will draw from the proven success of the green healthy affordable housing models established at Miller Manor, West Arbor, and the new Creekside and State Crossing developments. We also look forward to the further greening of the AAHC’s full portfolio of properties through a transition to full renewable energy, as called for by the City of Ann Arbor’s ambitious A2Zero carbon neutrality plan. 

“Housing Commission buildings house some of the folks that could benefit the most from healthy building practices, no net operating expenses, and climate resilient designs that withstand extreme heat and cold, power outages, etc.” notes Bing. “Frankly, I think affordable housing should set the standard for residential healthy, net zero energy design.”

Created in partnership with the Environmental Justice HistoryLab at the University of Michigan.