Public-private partnerships count among the projects most likely to have a pulse in the current economy, and Enterprise Community Partners is quickening the pace. The 25-year-old nonprofit has announced a commitment of $4 billion for affordable, green new construction, as well as green retrofits through its Enterprise Green Communities initiative. The funding, which is earmarked to support green makeovers or new construction of some 75,000 homes, community centers, and commercial buildings over the next five years, represents one of the largest private investments in green affordable housing on record.

Efforts on the new-construction front will focus heavily on mixed-use and transit-oriented communities, with capital available for land purchases that will eventually become affordable and workforce housing developments alongside existing or planned transit lines. Organizers noted that such projects will have the double benefit of mitigating automobile emissions while lowering commuting costs for low-income residents.

A considerable portion of non-residential funding will be allocated for community-building commercial enterprises such as core services retail, childcare centers, and healthcare clinics--the connective tissue that turns agglomerations of houses into thriving neighborhoods.  

But funding channels will also advocate sustainability at the house level. New homes must be built to specific Enterprise Green Communities criteria. The organization also has established “retrofit funds” in key markets to help owners of existing multifamily buildings finance energy and water reduction capital purchases and healthy living improvements.

“The time for this work has never been more urgent,” Doris W. Koo, president and CEO of Enterprise Community Partners, said during an Oct. 21 conference call, referencing the current foreclosure crisis, national healthcare debate, and concerns over climate change.

The good news? Green building may not be as prohibitively expensive as many builders assume it to be. A report launched in tandem with the funding announcement estimates the cost of going green at only about 2% higher than conventional development. Green does cost more, Koo said. But that investment usually pays for itself--and then some--over the life cycle of a project.

Specifically, the study evaluated 27 affordable housing developments (containing a total of 1,640 homes) that have been built in accordance with the criteria, which establish standards similar to LEED. Researchers found that while building to green specifications costs an extra $4.52 per square foot, or $4,524 per house, on average, the lifetime energy and water savings from such upgrades amounts to $5.43 per square foot, or $4,851 per house. In other words, green has ROI (Return on Investment). The eco-friendly projects in the study were estimated to have a 17% internal rate of return, with green building costs typically recouped within eight years.

Case studies highlighted in the report were also found to have had measurable impacts counteracting sprawl, protecting wetlands and greenfields, and improving indoor air quality. Koo specifically referenced the High Point neighborhood in Seattle (a 2007 Builder's Choice Award winner), where homes were expressly designed to reduce moisture, toxins, and allergens, all of which are major contributors to asthma. 

“In just one year, we found the children living there experiencing a 60% increase in symptom-free days, and a 67% reduction in the need for emergency clinical care,” Koo said.

That’s no small public health matter when you consider that one in four emergency room visits nationwide is asthma-related, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

A forthcoming report will quantify the carbon reduction benefits associated with building to Enterprise Green Communities criteria, which address issues such as integrated design, location, site improvements, water conservation, energy efficiency, environmentally responsible materials, healthy living environments, and maintenance operations of affordable housing.

“Green building offers tremendous opportunities to support all pieces of the triple bottom line: economic prosperity, environmental sustainability, and social equity,” Roger Platt, senior vice president of global policy and law at the U.S. Green Building Council said during the funding announcement. “These homes will protect the health of occupants and promote a better environment, but they will also stave off high utility bills. What that means for residents is literally more food on the table.”

The Enterprise Green Communities Initiative was launched in 2004. Since then, an estimated 16,000 units in 360 housing developments have been green built or retrofitted in accordance with its green development criteria.

The $4 billion in new funding to be dispersed over the next five years includes a $1.5 million grant from The Home Depot Foundation and two additional grants of $1 million each from the Kresge Foundation and the Kendeda Fund.

Jenny Sullivan is a senior editor covering architecture, design, and community planning for BUILDER.