How Will We Leverage Stimulus Dollars?

While it’s probably too early to accurately measure the impact or effectiveness of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, commonly known as “the stimulus,” we can examine its catalytic influence to transition America to a greener economy. Enterprise and other concerned organizations supported the administration’s push to pass a robust economic recovery bill and worked to ensure that the measures included in the bill would bring the benefits of a greener economy to low-income communities and individuals.

The stimulus has created a rare opportunity to transform America’s carbon footprint, metropolitan landscape, and its low-income communities in the years ahead. With energy-efficient and smarter green building investments, Congress and the administration fulfilled its green promise to America by writing energy-efficient and renewable energy provisions into nearly all the regulations and Notices of Funding Availability (NOFAs). Further, with $5 billion allocated for the Weatherization Assistance Program, $6.3 billion for Energy Efficiency and Conservation Grants, $250 million to green HUD-assisted housing, and nearly $1 billion for energy retrofit improvements to public housing, low-income residents will benefit from this new federal emphasis in many ways, one of which is the opportunity to live in healthier and more energy-efficient homes.

But the question that we must ask is how these funds will ultimately be leveraged and expended locally. Can we as a nation harness this momentum to transform, once and for all, the way affordable housing in the country is designed, sited, built or preserved? Can we develop holistic approaches that integrate energy efficiency, water conservation, and transit-friendly site location into our green building? Can we design and adopt universal green standards and protocols, performance metrics, commissioning and certification to track results? Can we commit to building pathways out of poverty for low-income people by linking them to green jobs and our greener economy? Enterprise believes that we can, and we must.

As the first bill of the new administration, the stimulus signaled to Washington and the nation what it meant to have a president, executive staff, and Congress that balance the wellbeing of our citizens with that of our planet. It is encouraging to have Congress and the administration put resources into greening America’s buildings in cities, suburbs, and rural communities and ensuring that all Americans benefit from this change.

But affordable homes, and their residents, cannot be left out of this equation. Low-income Americans have the same rights to greener, transit-friendlier, and healthier communities, and they are in the greatest need of the financial and health benefits of green housing. The stimulus bill was the first major federal legislation to make this connection and it sets the groundwork to begin greening all federally subsidized housing and community development programs.

Enterprise has always been in the business of creating and financing fit and affordable housing. Five years ago, with partners from diverse environmental, health, and housing sectors, we created the Green Communities Criteria. Green Communities is the only national green building standard that holistically combines energy efficiency, water conservation, site location and health measures. We set out to prove that it is possible to conserve water and energy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and operating costs as well as improve indoor air quality of affordable housing, for a marginal increase in building costs.

Over the last five years, Green Communities has created and preserved over 15,000 green affordable homes, trained thousands of housing professionals, and worked to implement the Green Communities Criteria into federal, state, and local housing programs. Housing that meets Green Communities Criteria also increases the health of residents, improves indoor air quality, decreases residents’ exposure to toxins, lowers asthma triggers and reduces emergency trips to medical care facilities. This translates into real quality of life improvements for residents and the communities they live in.

Even as Congress and the administration joined forces to commit dollars to bring the concept of a green economy to a national scale, we need to make sure that these funds catalyze and achieve real benefits for all Americans, especially those living in low-income communities and forgotten places. In the rush to evaluate the results from the stimulus, we shouldn’t get too hung up on counting only dollars and housing units. We should insist upon holistic and bold solutions, inclusive partnerships, effective delivery mechanisms, and measurable and sustainable results: bring these goals to scale, and ensure that healthy, sustainable, and affordable communities can be within reach for everyone.

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