The Opportunity for Green Affordable Housing
Photo above: Trinity Walk Apartments is an example of Southface Institute’s EarthCraft Multifamily program, which incorporates green building design into affordable home units.
By Southface Staff
April is National Fair Housing Month, a perfect time to shine a light on Atlanta’s affordable housing challenges. Like many cities in a rapidly urbanizing area, Atlanta’s growth and increasing desirability come at the cost of its affordable housing options. As housing prices steadily rise, the options for lower- and middle-income Atlantans become fewer. But there are promising options for attainable solutions in Atlanta’s growth—housing that is both high-performance and affordably priced.
The big shift
According to the nonprofit housing organization Enterprise, in a region where housing prices are rising faster than wages, Atlanta loses 1,500 affordable units every year. Another major concern is that more than 80% of the city’s households spend more than 45% of their income on housing and transportation.
To amplify the problem, Atlanta in 2019 may be on the threshold of the largest shift in wealth and demographics it’s seen since the mass white flight to the suburbs from the 1960s to the 1970s.1 African-American neighborhoods in Atlanta’s West and South Side experienced decades of decline through the decades prior to the Great Recession of 2008. By 2013, however, as the housing market nationally and in Atlanta started to recover, middle- and upper-income residents began moving within the city limits to these neighborhoods, increasing desirability and prices.
In a report released in March 2019 from the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, Atlanta was number 13 nationwide for the most neighborhoods gentrifying between 2000 and 20132 and ranks number five in intensity of gentrification.3 Adding to the picture, in 2018, Atlanta topped Bloomberg’s list of U.S. cities with the greatest income disparity.4 All these numbers exist alongside recent studies5 that continue to rank Atlanta in the top most affordable metros nationwide for homeownership, offering perspective on the global crisis in affordable housing.
For low-income and long-term renters in Atlanta, the resulting average yearly rent increases are emerging as an overarching threat to their overall economic stability. Though the shortage of affordable housing units citywide is making it difficult for middle-income residents to find space, for the many working poor in Atlanta, present standards of so-called affordable rental units—$1,000 per month for one-bedroom apartments—are still outside of actual affordability.6 And prospects do not improve nationally: In only 22 out of 3000 counties nationwide can minimum-wage workers afford a one-bedroom apartment.7
At the same time, despite the continual population gains, Atlanta remains less dense than most major cities and still has large swaths of land available for residential development. Many of these thousands of developable acres are currently being held by a small number of public and private entities. The opportunity to create affordable housing in these areas that is sustainable and accessible to energy-efficient and healthy transit options is significant and timely.
The cost-effectiveness of sustainable housing
Atlanta’s current need for affordable housing could be met by going green—a solution that city leaders are beginning to explore as they welcome development beyond single-family units, with a priority for multi-family and mixed-income housing units. The largest need for affordable housing is in the West and Southwest portions of Atlanta, where the majority of households spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing.8
Whether renovated or newly constructed, energy- and water-efficient single and multifamily homes have the potential to cost significantly less to construct and operate. In fact, high-performance, new construction developments are nearly 5 percent less expensive per square foot to build than their traditional counterparts, and residents save an average of $96 per year on their energy bill, using 14 percent less energy per square foot than those in non-green developments.9
According to Southface Institute President Andrea Pinabell, the benefits of sustainable housing go even further: “In addition to the obvious efficiency benefits, green affordable housing also improves the determinants of health for the occupants.”
A market opportunity
Funding for more affordable units is becoming available, as Mayor Keisha Lance-Bottoms recently announced a $1 billion-dollar affordable housing project to build thousands of new affordable housing units throughout the city.
These new units may be built using an existing “Low Income Housing Tax Credit,” or LIHTC program, designed to keep housing costs affordable. The program was established through the Tax Reform Act of 1986 and gives state and local agencies nearly $8 billion a year to distribute tax credits for buying, rehabilitating or building rental housing for low-income households. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development calls the credit the country’s “most important resource” for creating affordable housing.
Georgia’s 2019 Qualified Allocation Plan (QAP) requirements are even more heartening for the future of affordable, high-performance housing. Under these newly approved guidelines, the Georgia Department of Community Affairs (DCA) now requires all projects looking to qualify for certain housing tax credits to earn a third-party sustainable building certification, such as EarthCraft.
Atlanta is already a leader in green-certified and high-performance office buildings, 10 opening the door for more education to builders and developers about the interest in and rewards for investing in this type of housing, a conversation that should include accessibility of housing to MARTA and bike paths.
Collective effort is needed
To create consensus around “green” affordable housing in Atlanta, proponents can engage leaders both online and in-person: attending neighborhood planning unit meetings and festivals, as well as hosting events to better educate the marketplace about why high-performance developments will help rather than hurt affordability.
“It will take a collective effort, including engaging Atlanta’s residents, if we are to improve the housing affordability challenges facing our rapidly growing city,” says Tim Block of Enterprise Community Partners. “Residents not only need to be better informed about what’s at stake but need a platform to share ideas and a way for their elected officials to hear them.”
With access to shared ideas in mind, as part of Fair Housing Month, Enterprise sponsored a 100 Great Ideas Atlanta campaign that offered a digital forum on Facebook, where residents and other city actors talked about housing affordability with experts and peers and contributed ideas for solutions.
“We will synthesize all the ideas into a report, share it with elected officials and discuss opportunities to implement the most promising ones,” says Block.
The future of affordability in Atlanta is in sustainable, high-performance housing. With more education to city planners and developers, these cost- and resource-saving housing units can bring not just increased prosperity but better health and environmental outcomes to Atlanta residents.
For more information about green affordable housing, register for Southface Institute’s upcoming Sustainable Atlanta Roundtable on Attainable Housing and Equitable Neighborhoods. REGISTER