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Public housing continues to play leading role in green construction

by Pat Lewis, housing communications consultant

NHC invites guest blog posters to write on important housing topics. The views expressed by guest posters do not necessarily reflect those of NHC or its members.

The El Paso Housing Authority officially cut the ribbon Friday at its Paisano Green Community, the first net zero, LEED Platinum public housing community in the nation. Its 73 units will be home to about 100 senior citizens. (It’s also Enterprise Green Communities certified.)

Features like wind turbines, rooftop solar panels, and air-source heat-pump water heaters will generate all the energy the development needs. In fact, the agency will sell any excess power it generates to El Paso Electric. (See Executive Director Gerald Cichon’s video presentation on the project at last summer’s CLPHA/HUD green conference.)

Paisano is just one more example of how housing authorities are playing a leading role in greening affordable housing. From New York’s Green Agenda to a solar panel farm in Indianapolis public housing, these agencies are finding innovative ways to cut operating costs, improve residents’ lives, and help meet the growing number of citywide carbon emission reduction mandates.

It’s not just green that makes Paisano stand out. The design by architect Workshop8 is a model for senior living, a challenge facing more and more communities as senior populations in need of affordable housing grow.

As Workshop8 puts it, “The buildings are configured so that the residents can see their neighbors walking through and across the garden spaces. Circulation zones and semi-private outdoor spaces are created that provide for the opportunity of informal interaction—a wave, a short conversation or a stroll together through the garden to the community building to pick up one’s mail.”

It’s also a reminder of how Recovery Act funds to public housing agencies created thousands of jobs and generated billions in new economic activity at the same time they rehabbed and built in thousands of new affordable housing units. El Paso was one of 36 communities to receive a competitive Recovery Act grant to build green affordable housing. The agency leveraged the $8.25 million grant to raise the total cost of $15 million—including a $500,000 loan from the city of El Paso and $7 million from its Capital Fund Program and reserves.

“One of the most interesting things about the Paisano Green Community is how many pressing domestic issues it addresses — and what it says about our ability to tackle those issues,” said HACEP CEO Gerald Cichon. “We created over 400 jobs and provided needed housing for some of our most vulnerable citizens. We slashed energy spending and demonstrated that going green isn’t a luxury that affordable housing can’t afford. And we showed the potential for economic growth from this kind of development.”

Pat Lewis is a consultant who worked most recently as communications director for the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities.

NHC, alongside member group Enterprise Community Partners and the U.S. Green Building Council lead the Green Affordable Housing Coalition, organizing policy and educational efforts to promote projects like Paisano Green Community. Learn more at the Coalition’s website and look out for new convenings and forums.

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