STAR STREET: All five units of the Olive Street Homes project in Kansas City, Mo., each about 1,550 square feet and selling in the $140s, will save qualified low-income families an estimated $500 a year in utility bills because they are built to Energy Star qualifications.
Courtesy Blue Hills Community Development Corp. STAR STREET: All five units of the Olive Street Homes project in Kansas City, Mo., each about 1,550 square feet and selling in the $140s, will save qualified low-income families an estimated $500 a year in utility bills because they are built to Energy Star qualifications.

There’s little doubt that low-income families can benefit from green building, specifically in the form of lower utility bills, reduced long-term maintenance costs, and healthier indoor air. But integrating green into an already tight public housing budget can be problematic.

So instead of trying to convince builders of low-income and workforce housing to follow its guidelines at the risk of losing out to a lower bidder, Energy Star is pitching its program to the various local, state, and federal entities that finance or package funding for public housing projects to help building owners and occupants reap the benefits. “We’re reaching out to them to add Energy Star as one of the criteria in their application processes,” says Brian Ng, the affordable housing coordinator for Energy Star for Homes. “The most effective way to improve the energy efficiency of affordable housing is to target the money.”

To date, 40 community development corporations (CDCs) and state and municipal housing ­finance agencies (HFAs) include Energy Star within their application processes, typically by awarding extra points to those who promise to follow the program standards. Seven of them, says Ng, take it a step further by mandating Energy Star to gain access to public funds, grants, tax incentives, and low-interest loans, among other sources of funds.

Big Dreams: Projects such as Camden Dreams, a housing project for young adults aging out of foster care, benefit from integrating Energy Star into their specs.
Courtesy Blue Hills Community Development Corp. Big Dreams: Projects such as Camden Dreams, a housing project for young adults aging out of foster care, benefit from integrating Energy Star into their specs.

One of these is Blue Hills Community Services, a nonprofit CDC serving the Kansas City, Mo., area and this year’s recipient of the national Energy Star award for excellence in affordable housing. Blue Hills recently completed Olive Street Homes, in which all five detached units—partially funded by New Market Tax Credits and HUD dollars, among other sources—are Energy Star–qualified to be up to 40 percent more energy efficient than homes meeting the standard energy code, resulting in an estimated $500 annual savings in utility costs per house and a five-year payback on the investment to reach those efficiencies.

Blue Hills has integrated Energy Star into its projects since 2004. Olive Street Homes inspired the corporation to require the standards going forward. Olive Street also inspired the adoption of a city ordinance to apply Energy Star guidelines to all new and gut-rehab residential projects as of last year. “[It’s] worth the cost when considering the savings that are passed along to the most economically sensitive population,” says Joanne Bussinger, Blue Hills’ executive director. “These practices have revolutionized the standards [we use] in regard to durability, health, and affordability in urban housing developments.”

Meanwhile, the Green Homes Office (GHO) of the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs has become that state’s go-to agency regarding Energy Star. In 2006, the office mandated the standards and continued subsidizing the cost to make new, affordable homes compliant and boosted the state funds available for low-income and workforce housing development applications by $2 million for those that exceeded the baseline Energy Star home energy rating system (HERS) score by five to 10 points. “Energy Star is a platform for achieving our green affordable housing goals,” says spokesman Chris Donnelly. Nearly 4,000 Energy Star–­qualified homes have flowed through the GHO since 2000. “It provides a set of cohesive guidelines and clear expectations for project design and construction teams.”

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Kansas City, MO.