Although luxury “green” towers are springing up like saplings around New York City, affordable housing proponents are saying more and more that New York’s low- and middle-income families also should be able to live in environmentally sounder structures that reduce illness, lessen the impact on the city’s infrastructure and environment, and give people a safe, healthy place to come home to.

One of the biggest questions in planning and constructing green housing is how to define “green” – just what it means for a building to be energy-efficient and healthy. There are the LEED standards, exacting criteria developed by the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council that can make builders eligible for local tax credits. There are the green standards set down in the Green Communities initiative at Enterprise Community Partners Inc., a national affordable housing group that handled much of the funding for a building just opened in the Bronx. And then there are what green housing supporters call simple measures – sealing holes to stop heat loss, using durable flooring and more – that by themselves may not garner LEED tax credits, but do decrease buildings’ impact on the environment.

Jacob’s Place, the new building on Webster Avenue in the Fordham section of the Bronx, had its ribbon-cutting one week ago. The building includes 63 apartments, an early childhood education center and a playground. It also has a “green roof” with vegetation that collects rainwater – thus cutting down on polluted runoff – plus solar panels that provide electricity for the building’s common areas and elevators.

In a tour of the roof on Monday, the skyline of the north Bronx was visible over the iridescent blue solar panels and sedum plantings. Esther Yang, a new fellow with Enterprise’s Frederick P. Rose Architectural Fellowship, explained to a group of visitors that the roof cuts down on the heat given off, slows down the flow of water into city sewers, and adds a layer of insulation to the building.

Later in the morning, in a room painted with low-fume paint, U.S. Rep. Jose Serrano, who represents the area, said that “to have a green building is a major statement in the Bronx.” He recalled the earlier eras when “it looked like no one wanted to live here” in the borough.

The developer of the building is Fordham Bedford Housing Corporation, a community group that develops and manages “safe, sound and affordable” complexes in the Bronx and will serve as landlord at Jacob’s Place – which is named after the late Astin Jacobo, a longtime community activist in Crotona and the Northwest Bronx.

Pat Logan, director of development with Fordham Bedford, said while the building isn’t LEED-certified, it does meet the criteria for Enterprise’s Green Communities initiative. Fordham Bedford often works with Enterprise, whose financing arms provide equity, grants and loans for affordable housing, and it decided to use the Green Communities criteria, Logan said.

Those are “holistic” standards, he said, such as building a complex near public transportation, using materials that don’t cause or add to health problems, and making efficient use of the building’s energy and water.

Fordham Bedford developed – and now owns and manages – another residential building on Webster Avenue with a green roof, which in 2005 may have been the first installation of a green roof on a Bronx affordable housing complex. Those involved in Jacob’s Place believe its combination green roof-solar roof is another first for Bronx affordable housing.

The solar panel system was paid for by both a government agency and a private solar program. About half of the roughly $90,000 cost of the solar system was paid by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), while about half was paid by BP PLC as part of the Solar Neighbors Program. That’s a program through which the energy company donates a solar system to a low-income family, or low-income housing, each time a celebrity buys a BP solar system for his own home.

With Jacob’s Place, the matching purchase was made by actor Owen Wilson. And last Monday at the Jacob’s Place ribbon-cutting, actor Edward Norton – whose grandfather, the developer James Rouse, co-founded Enterprise in 1982 in Maryland – made a surprise appearance to tout the Solar Neighbors program. Solar Neighbors was the “brainchild” of Norton and was created by BP and Enterprise.

Solar systems aside, there is the question of which green standards a developer will choose. Asked whether the developers and funders of Jacob’s Place considered using the standards of LEED – which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design – and receive related tax credits, Abby Jo Sigal responded that New York City itself is generous with tax credits. Sigal, an Enterprise vice president and director of its New York metro region operations, added later that “there’s costs associated with doing that [LEED] certification, and it’s sometimes challenging for affordable housing to carry those types of costs.”

There is also the question of whether the city’s real estate developers feel there’s a sufficient market for green building. Developers and buyers have an incentive to make buildings energy-efficient, said Frank Ricci of the Rent Stabilization Association, a lobbying group representing about 25,000 of the city’s managing agents and real estate owners. That’s because doing so can save money, he explained. But other than a market for good construction that makes buildings efficient, there is “not a ‘green market'” right now, he said.

It may be growing, however – as ground was broken on another affordable green development just today. Representing Brooklyn’s largest such building, Atlantic Terrace in Fort Greene will house 80 co-op units. Sponsored by the Fifth Avenue Committee and HPD, the building will house low-, moderate- and middle-income residents by the end of the decade.

Overall, Jacob’s Place cost about $14.5 million to build and furbish. Of that total, the federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program supplied $5.6 million, according to Logan of Fordham Bedford and Sigal of Enterprise. Enterprise “syndicated” those tax credits, raising the funding from financial institutions. About $4.2 million of the total was supplied through the city’s Housing Development Corporation (HDC), about $2.7 million through the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), and about $1 million from the Bronx borough president, said Logan. In addition, Fordham Bedford contributed about $300,000, and the city donated land.

The rents at Jacob’s Place reflect the needs of low-income New Yorkers. Residents of Jacob’s Place, most of whom already are moved in, will pay no more than 30 percent of their income in rent. Logan said rents are $723 for a one-bedroom apartment, $871 for a two-bedroom and $1,007 for a three-bedroom, figures he called “significantly below market rate.”

To be eligible for a Jacob’s Place apartment, prospective occupants can’t earn more than 60 percent of area median income, or AMI, and for some apartments in the building, they must make less than 60 percent of AMI. Occupants are chosen from a citywide lottery, but some apartments are set aside for local residents, said Logan. About 55 of the 63 units are occupied, with tenants for the remaining units “pretty much” selected at this point, he said.

Whatever the final pricetag of a building, green measures don’t need to be expensive, according to green advocates. Katie Swenson, the director of Enterprise’s Rose Fellowship program, which partners early-career architects with community groups, said green buildings may cost more, but that cost can be minimized. “You can do an extraordinary amount for very little cost,” Swenson said.

Like how, for example? “Caulk,” she says. The sealant “can be the difference between a leaky building or a tight building. It’s not sexy, it’s not glamorous…but it can have a big impact.”

The city’s top housing official offered public support for both affordable housing and green housing at the Bronx building’s opening. “We need to build buildings like Jacob’s Place,” said Shaun Donovan, commissioner of HPD. “We hope to use this model,” he said, adding, “We look forward to many more in this community.”

– Rachel Nielsen