By Iris Richmond. In their first partnership together, the EPA and Habitat for Humanity will address two key issues for builders and owners of affordable homes: brownfields sites and energy efficiency. The two parties have agreed to turn "eyesores" into locations for new affordable homes that also meet Energy Star requirements.

"We don't want to price people out of the market, but we do want to better enable them to sustain the cost of homeownership over time," says Jane Malone, Habitat's director of national programs in Washington. "Savings, in terms of monthly energy bills, more than outweigh the initial costs a family's mortgage would have to absorb for added energy features."

But testing sites for the placement of energy-efficient Habitat homes has proved cost-prohibitive. That's where the EPA comes in. Under the agreement, the agency carries out the environmental assessments of land that Habitat wants to purchase -- for a cost of roughly $100,000 for parcels between five and 10 acres.

Of the Habitat's 1,634 affiliates, five -- Denver, Charlotte, N.C., Boston, San Francisco, and St. Paul/Minneapolis -- are participating in the initial phase of the program. The cities were chosen for their relations with regional EPA operations, Malone points out, not because of the number of brownfields in the area. The number of homes to be built will depend on the number of healthy acres found.

Testing, testing

"Testing sites can be a very expensive process, and the EPA's coverage of these costs helps immensely," says Malone. "Now Habitat can bring testing funds, on top of redevelopment, to the sites, which brings in property tax dollars to the locality, something that will help us to negotiate better terms for land."

Photo: EPA

Inking the Deal: Governor Christie Todd Whitman, the EPA's administrator, and Tom Laird, managing director of the Washington office for Habitat for Humanity International, at the signing ceremony in Fairfax, Va., held to mark the start of their partnership to develop brownfields. With the selection of the five affiliates only recently completed, the search is underway to find potential properties to acquire. Habitat, based in Americus, Ga., should begin testing sites in a few months. As it stands, if test results show extensive contamination, Habitat will most likely decline taking ownership of the property. "We're looking for properties that tests confirm need no cleanup because funds aren't presently available to cover the costs needed for an unhealthy parcel of land," says Malone.

EPA's head of special projects Ben Hamm concurs, but says that under the new brownfields remediation law passed by the Bush administration this year, beginning in October the EPA will have the authority to give grants to nonprofits for clean up of contaminated sites.

"By the time Habitat lays the pipeline, we conduct our tests, get the results back from the lab, and have a consulting firm give us its take on it," he says "funds should be available if tests show there's work that needs to be done."

Both groups hope, adds Hamm, that this initiative will start a trend towards integrating energy-saving features into affordable housing. Habitat says it can't estimate how many of its homes will be built to comply with energy programs, because it doesn't issue mandates to its affiliates. But with the EPA helping expedite the biggest obstacle, land acquisition, Habitat will concentrate on offering its energy training program to as many as 25 percent of its affiliates.

Published in BIG BUILDER Magazine, July 2002