The Measures of “Safe and Decent” Housing

The definition of “affordable housing” is widely agreed as a household spending no more than 30 percent of its gross annual income on housing costs. Congress adopted this standard for public housing in 1981, and it has remained mostly unchanged since that time (Note: we are only noting the current broad policy consensus on the 30 percent affordability target, not making a substantive argument it is the right target or that its implementation is not distorted across housing programs and household sizes). The goal of most housing programs and organizations, however, is not just to provide affordable housing but to provide “safe, decent and affordable housing.” Although there are some broad metrics with respect to what is “safe and decent,” to a large degree the measure of housing quality and building performance is left up to individual jurisdictions and building owners (and managers).

Local energy codes are one benchmark to compare the quality and performance standards of all housing across jurisdictions. In recent years, those standards have increased significantly. In the first 30 years after the adoption of the first energy codes, energy efficiency increased just 16 percent over the 1975 baseline to the 2006 version of the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC). However, just six years later, energy efficiency standards had increased substantially, such that the 2012 IECC is 30 percent more efficient than the 2006 version.

There is of course a tension between housing quality and housing affordability. Cheaper construction at higher densities on inexpensive land can indeed help address an immediate housing crisis. But an exclusive focus on reducing cost doesn’t address longer term housing needs and can exacerbate many social challenges such as access to community resources, a healthy living environment, and a housing unit that is durable and cost-effective to live in over time.
The U.S. Department of Energy funds a cost/benefit analysis of both residential and commercial codes, typically conducted by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). This analysis looks first at energy savings and then at any increase in first costs, adjusted for variations in costs across the country. PNNL then does a lifecycle cost analysis (LCC) to assess overall cost effectiveness.

According to the DOE/PNNL analysis, moving to IECC 2012 from IECC 2009 results in positive cash flow starting in years one or two, depending in part on variations in local climate. For example, the bulk of the Sunbelt is in Climate Zone 3 and would experience $163 of annual savings per unit, with the largely Northeast and Midwest Climate Zone 5 experiencing $320 of savings each year. Again, these savings are calculated after accounting for any additional upfront construction costs.

The PNNL report has data on each individual state, and there is an even more detailed individual report by state here.

The IECC codes are simply national models and are adopted (and amended) if at all by individual states and localities. Although not all jurisdictions adopt these codes at the same time, the overall trend toward increased efficiency, as a baseline standard is clear. As of February 2015, there were 14 states that had adopted residential energy codes equal to or better than the 2012 IECC, and another 25 that adopted the 2009 IECC. Additionally, both HUD and USDA have determined at least that the 2009 IECC does not negatively affect the availability or affordability of new construction of single and multifamily housing, and thus the 2009 IECC is required for most affordable housing projects regardless of location.

One key principle of affordable housing is that we do not achieve short-term affordability by building low quality homes—especially relative to shared community standards. In this respect alone, it is important for housing professionals to be aware of broader trends and changes in housing standards, locally and regionally as well as nationally. Building energy codes are just one component of what constitutes safe and decent housing. But it is a component that is measurable, changing rapidly, and has multiple impacts on individual residents.

Some additional residential energy code resources from the Institute for Market Transformation (IMT) can be found here and here.

(Photo credit: Flickr user Heather, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Lisa Hodges is an attorney with over 15 years experience in affordable and public housing, large scale urban redevelopment, and neighborhood revitalization. She has served as the director of Real Estate for the Boston Housing Authority and as development advisor to the District of Columbia Housing Authority (DCHA). Prior to working with DCHA, Lisa was special assistant for Housing Policy to the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development for the District of Columbia (ODMPED). Lisa is an adjunct assistant professor at the Howard University School of Architecture, and she holds a JD from Harvard Law School and is a member of the Maryland State Bar.
Casius Pealer is director of Tulane University’s Master of Sustainable Real Estate Development (MSRED) program and a professor of practice in the School of Architecture. In addition to these academic roles, Casius is of counsel in the New Orleans office of Coats | Rose, a Houston-based law firm, where he concentrates in the areas of affordable housing, real estate finance, and energy and water efficiency. He also maintains a separate consulting practice, Oystertree Consulting, supporting public agencies and developers using green building as an additional tool to achieve long-term affordable housing solutions. He can be reached at


  1. This commentary hits the mark. Affordability should not mean that we build for the short term simply to put a roof over people’s heads. Recently we have seen the use of micro units to house people as an experiment in the Bronx in New York City. This is a far more workable solution both in terms of keeping rent costs down for the tenants and in reinventing older buildings. As I have pointed out before there were those crafts people of the Nehmiah houses in East New York, Brooklyn due to the fact that separate water main hook-ups for each townhouse were replaced by a central water circulating system. We still do not know how finances will be affected for these homeowners if there is major work that comes along for the main circulatory plant.
    We should build with the future in mind.


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