For many first-time home buyers, affordability concerns don't stop once the initial down payment is scrounged up, or even after monthly mortgage amounts have been calculated. How a house is designed and built can also influence its net effect on the household budget long-term. “You don't want to put someone in a home who will then lose it because they can't afford to pay their utility bills,” says Angela Hurlock, executive director of Claretian Associates, a nonprofit developer in Chicago.

LOCALLY GROWN: Homes in phase one, two, and three were built by South Chicago Workforce, a  local nonprofit contractor that hires more than 60 percent of its construction  workers from the local community.
John Gress LOCALLY GROWN: Homes in phase one, two, and three were built by South Chicago Workforce, a local nonprofit contractor that hires more than 60 percent of its construction workers from the local community.

It was this logic that led Claretian to begin offering starter homes that were not just affordably priced but also green built and energy efficient for low-income buyers in Chicago's economically stagnant 10th ward nearly a decade ago. To date, 30 new single-family and duplex homes in the New Homes for South Chicago program have been built on vacant city lots, featuring high-performance mechanical systems and appliances, structural insulated panels, rooftop photovoltaic systems, low-flow toilets, and eco-friendly finishes such as cork floor tiles, carpet made from photos: john gress recycled plastic bottles, and composite decking made from sawdust and recycled shrink wrap. Sustainable features have been made possible with grant funding.

Clustered mostly within a five block radius, the pioneering homes are simple by design, but they are nothing to sneeze at when you consider that they consistently surpass Energy Star standards by 30 percent and exceed the city's building code for moisture management. Solar panels (oriented east-west to maximize gain) offset approximately one-third of the electricity consumed per household, and homeowners receive credits for any electricity they generate that's fed back to the grid. The neighborhood is located within walking distance of a number of public transportation options, including three bus routes and light rail.

ELEVATED APPEAL: Sunken lots with vaulted sidewalks are a hallmark of this old Chicago neighborhood, where  street levels can be 6 feet to 15 feet higher than the foundations  of houses. Some of the newly constructed infill homes maintain that  tradition.
John Gress ELEVATED APPEAL: Sunken lots with vaulted sidewalks are a hallmark of this old Chicago neighborhood, where street levels can be 6 feet to 15 feet higher than the foundations of houses. Some of the newly constructed infill homes maintain that tradition.

Entering its fourth phase of construction—which will result in 23 new homes—New Homes for South Chicago still offers the lion's share (more than 90 percent) of its new homes to low-income buyers, many of whom qualify for up to $40,000 in municipal down-payment assistance from the City Department of Housing. But the neighborhood's rebirth has also begun to capture the interest of individuals in higher income brackets, and two of the new homes in phase three were sold to market-rate buyers. Single-family homes start with a base market price of $195,000, and duplex homes featuring twin stacked flats start at $265,000.

Next up: The developer is now preparing to build 28 LEED-certified, two-flat condos on neighboring city lots. But sustainability also has a social component, notes Hurlock, whose organization provides not just housing, but also classes on financial literacy, credit, identity theft, how to qualify for a home, and how to choose the best mortgage, as well as community leadership training and after-school programs for kids.

“We've learned that you can't just do housing and then move on to the next neighborhood,” Hurlock says. “We are rooted here in the community, and we're in it for the duration. A lot of families need education to move from the renter mindset to the homeowner mindset and to become assimilated. We had one purchaser who literally had $15,000 in his mattress because he didn't trust banks. Education is a necessary part of the process.”

HIGH PERFORMANCE: Homes built in the program's early stages were monitored for one year to gauge  the efficiency of their HVAC, plumbing, and electrical systems. The assessment  was made possible through HUD's PATH (Partnership for Advanced Technology  in Housing) program.
HIGH PERFORMANCE: Homes built in the program's early stages were monitored for one year to gauge the efficiency of their HVAC, plumbing, and electrical systems. The assessment was made possible through HUD's PATH (Partnership for Advanced Technology in Housing) program.

Project: New Homes for South Chicago, Chicago; Size: 4.2 acres; Total units: 30 built; 23 more under construction in phase four; Density: 7 units per acre; Price range: $195,000 to $265,000 (market-rate, not including down-payment assistance); Square footage: 1,500 to 1,700 square feet; Builders: South Chicago Workforce, Chicago; Fragoso Construction, Chicago; Architects: Sam Marts Architects and Planners, Chicago; Landon Bone and Baker, Chicago; Developer: Claretian Associates, Chicago; Building Science Consultant: Steven Winter Associates, Norwalk, Conn.; Funding Sources: City of Chicago (donated land), City Department of Housing (housing subsidies), Illinois Housing Development Authority and Federal Home Loan Bank Affordable Housing Program (down-payment assistance); Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs, Chicago Department of Environment, ComEd Production and Incentive Program, and Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation (photovoltaic systems)

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Chicago, IL.