It's Easy Being Green

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Something is clearly special about West Side Village in Newark. The tidy rental development in an elegant brick building, on the border with East Orange, couldn't look more different from the sagging row houses with collapsing porches across the street. This is a place built with solidity and care.

A couple of telltale clues reveal that this former watch factory is different beneath the skin as well. The windows are made of fiberglass, so they don't let out heat. Small round metal grates up and down the exterior walls act as vents for each apartment and eliminate the need for energy-leaking ductwork between floors. Other environmental considerations–everything from recycled cellulose insulation to ample daylighting and hardwood floors, which substitute for the usual vinyl–can't be seen from the outside.

But what's most striking about West Side Village is that this model of environmentally sound development was created for tenants making less than $25,500 for a family of three. Its developer and manager, RPM, a Montclair builder of affordable housing, won a million-dollar grant from New Jersey's new Sustainable Development and Affordable Housing Pilot Program to help finance environmental features on the project. An effort of the state's housing and community development agency, the pilot program has granted a total of $5 million to 10 housing developers to experiment with measures to make sure affordable apartment buildings and townhouses don't adversely effect the environment.

Projects in Newark, Trenton, Camden, East Orange, Jersey City and Burlington County will soon follow West Side's blueprint. During construction, everything from two-by-fours to bricks and concrete will be recycled or reused. No vinyl siding is used, because it's toxic to produce and difficult to recycle, and interior paint must contain low levels of toxins. Wherever possible, buildings are near public transportation and provide parking for bicycles. Overall, apartments are designed under this program to be at least 30 percent more energy-efficient than the average rental unit.

The grant allowed RPM to add dream features to the West Side Village. Cellulose insulation, for example, tightly fills cavities in walls; cheaper fiberglass is significantly less effective. A high-efficiency heating and cooling system was developed in collaboration with a Boston building consultant. “Every year we look at new kinds of heating and cooling systems, which are so important in a building like this,” says Ed Martoglio, a partner in RPM. “This program provided an incentive to go a notch above.” The extras added about $6,500 to the nearly $100,000 cost of building each apartment.

By finding out from developers themselves what it takes to get projects like West Side Village built and running, state officials hope to learn how to make environmentally friendly buildings a standard part of affordable housing development. “My goal is to transform the marketplace by raising the environmental bar for all affordable housing developers in New Jersey,” says Commissioner of Community Affairs Jane Kenny, who oversees the program.

Kenny got the fever for sustainable building on a trip to the Netherlands, where she was impressed by Dutch advances in affordable housing construction. It doesn't hurt that the Whitman administration has made the environment a top issue; the state planning agency is committed to real estate development “within the capacities in infrastructure, environmental, natural resource, fiscal, economic and other systems to support growth.” New Jersey also has resources to do it–funding for the grants comes from its Balanced Housing Trust Fund, which takes a bite from real estate transactions to help fund affordable housing.

But the most immediate mandate may be one Kenny and her colleagues didn't plan on. Fuel prices are out of control, and expected to rise still 30 percent higher this winter. Those increases place the greatest burden on those least able to pay for them–people of modest means, who too often live in poorly insulated, energy-guzzling apartments. “It's a huge marketing benefit for us,” points out Martoglio. West Side Village apartments are advertised as cutting heating bills in half.

Peggy Huchet, who runs the program for Kenny, contends that the state and developers have a serious opportunity to make sure that homes cost as little to heat and light as they do to rent or buy. “The analogy is recycling, which nobody did before and is now a matter of habit,” says Huchet. “We're breaking down the barriers by just getting people to do it.”


New York could certainly use New Jersey's commitment to green affordable housing. Mounting utility costs are more than a mounting burden for tenants; they can devastate entire communities. Just look at landlords' wholesale abandonment of buildings in the 1970s, which was partly fueled by the rapid escalation of oil costs. But building high-quality, low-cost housing that won't crush landlords and tenants under utility bills isn't easy. A new state law provides tax breaks to developers who use energy-saving technology–but only for large office or apartment buildings. For low-income housing, a weatherization program is the state's sole effort.

New York construction costs are high, and funding sources don't give affordable housing developers much room to maneuver. Typically, builders try to develop as many units as they can as cheaply as possible. In the process, New York has become littered with less-than-beautiful apartments that are anything but environmentally friendly.

It takes creativity, tenacity and a willingness to compromise to break out of the rut. Nos Quedamos, a community development organization in the Bronx, has managed to make progress as it builds hundreds of apartments for its Melrose Commons complex. Neighborhood residents made it clear that they wanted the new construction to be solid and welcoming. They also wanted it to promote the health of their neighborhood, where asthma is a chronic problem aggravated by substandard housing. It fell to Petr Stand of LSGM Architects to render those desires into workable buildings.

“Design is incredibly important to people,” observes Stand. “The more you feel like actually being out on the street and promenading through your neighborhood, the safer the neighborhood.” Nos Quedamos has incorporated custom features into its townhouses–concrete walls (because rodents will eat through gypsum board), and vents in the top of each building to help them breathe without losing heat. Unlike the many new Bronx developments with driveways out front, Melrose Commons is built out to the property line.

But some ideas didn't fly. A “graywater” system, which would have recycled washing and bathing water into toilets, was barred under health laws. While insulation is solid, heating systems are fairly standard. And though Stand and the residents wanted the buildings to be entirely covered in brick, the New York City Housing Partnership, which helped finance the project, insisted that vinyl be used on the rear walls as a cost-saving measure.

As a leading developer of the city's affordable housing, the Partnership has since looked for ways to build green features into its projects. It's experimenting with “value engineering,” in which savings are factored into cost calculations. Expensive airtight windows, for instance, would be worth installing if that means buying a smaller boiler.

But Stand believes that environmentally sound construction won't happen on a large scale unless government takes the lead. “These buildings are investments, and these investments need to be amortized over a number of years,” he says. “It's really going to take somebody on an agency or an elected level making this a priority.”

That may not happen anytime soon in New York. “The state has been successful in incorporating incentives for special-needs housing, nonprofit participation, and other items into its scoring systems for affordable housing programs,” notes local housing consultant Martin Dunn. “That's one possible way to handle it.” But Dunn also observes that in the crunch of the city's affordable housing crisis, the political tide has been moving in the opposite direction, toward retailoring building codes to cut costs and spur a greater volume of new construction.

But if the will is there, turning affordable housing green would be a snap. The city holds a secret weapon: its design guidelines for projects funded with city dollars. Says Dunn, “They could unilaterally mandate whatever they wanted.” n

Matthew T. Mitchell is a Brooklyn-based urban planner and writer.