LEED-ND and Affordable Housing: Can the Two Go Together?

Sustainable Neighborhood Development Isn't Just for Luxury Developments

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Posted: Tuesday, May 1, 2012 11:55 am

Envision a green neighborhood and you might think of energy-efficient buildings, bike lanes, parks and open spaces. Creating a green neighborhood means implementing some of these sustainable design concepts from the very beginning.

New neighborhoods – or those with at least half the square footage of their buildings undergoing major renovations – can look to the criteria outlined in LEED for Neighborhood Development. And, hitting those benchmarks can mean getting officially certified as a green neighborhood.

LEED, or Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design, is an internationally recognized green building certification system. As a similar concept to LEED for buildings, LEED-ND is a rating system for neighborhood development. Aspects include location, alternative forms of transportation, pedestrian-friendly streets, compact development, as well as building energy and water efficiency.

More than 125 developments have been registered under LEED-ND (2009 version) so far, with a third of the projects located abroad, according to the U.S. Green Building Council, which developed the program with the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Congress for the New Urbanism.

That might not seem like a lot, but the rating system is gaining traction, including in affordable housing.

LEED-ND and Affordable Housing

For the first time, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is requiring applicants to secure LEED-ND stage one (conditional approval) for neighborhood revitalization projects considered for the HUD 2012 Choice Neighborhoods Planning Grants program.

“...It's time that federal dollars stopped encouraging sprawl,” said HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan during a speech in 2010, “and started lowering the barriers to the kind of sustainable development our country needs and our communities want.”

While all developments – including luxury – can work towards LEED-ND certification, using it to measure sustainability in affordable housing may raise an eyebrow or two.

“A lot of green building is perceived to benefit the wealthy,” said Walker Wells, editor of Blueprint for Greening Affordable Housing and a program director for nonprofit Global Green USA.

But, in fact, about a third of the dwelling units certified as LEED (for homes) are affordable housing.

Wells has assisted the first two projects highlighted below in meeting LEED-ND criteria. All three projects received $25,000 each to help defray certification costs from the 2010 Affordable Green Neighborhoods Grant program.

The Village at Market Creek (San Diego, four miles east of downtown)

• A project of the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation to revitalize a formerly blighted area, with plans to transfer full ownership of the marketplace, which includes a Food 4 Less, to resident stakeholders;

• 60 acres includes 400,000 sq. ft. of open space, including parks, amphitheater and river parkway;

• future phase to develop about 1,000 affordable homes;

• restoration of brownfield and wetlands;

• centered around a transit hub;

• LEED silver certification in 2012 - only third in the U.S.

The development was just 4 points short of achieving gold-level certification.

Charles Davis, director of project development for the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation, said the team considered the following:

Reduced parking. LEED-ND criteria conflicted with the City of San Diego’s parking requirements, so this would have required a change in municipal code.

Bicycle amenities. The transit center, operated by the Metropolitan Transit System, would have needed improvements with bike racks, bathrooms and signage. Those changes would have required additional costs and time to comply.

Jordan Downs (southeast Los Angeles, Watts neighborhood)

• A project of the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles to turn a public housing complex into mixed income housing with commercial/retail and light industrial;

• about 118.5 acres (including streets) designated in the Specific Plan, including 21 acres purchased adjacent to the public housing complex, and a high school;

• one-for-one replacement of 700 public housing units with an additional 900 to 1,100 affordable and market rate units;

• post-war block housing which has not changed in appearance in 50 years;

• plans to apply for LEED-ND certification in future; level to be determined.

The City of Los Angeles does not have a policy on LEED-ND. However, the Cornfields Arroyo Seco Specific Plan achieved Stage 1 certification through the earlier LEED-ND pilot program. The Specific Plan has been criticized for not providing sufficient incentives to encourage additional affordable housing. Staff are currently looking at additional strategies and incentives to facilitate the development of affordable housing in the area.

The New Wyvernwood in Boyle Heights is also a redevelopment project aiming for LEED-ND standards. The development includes up to 4,400 dwelling units (660 affordable) of town houses, flats and high rises. Two existing elementary schools are on the 70-acre site. The draft environmental impact report is expected to be available for public comment this summer. The Draft EIR was circulated in late 2011, and the Final EIR should be released this summer.

Paseo Verde (Philadelphia, near Temple University)

• The City of Philadelphia selected Jonathan Rose Companies and Asociación de Puertorriqueños en Marcha for the brownfield site;

• mixed-use, standalone infill development is located within the APM Redevelopment Area;

• 1.9 acres is just under the size of a city block located adjacent to a train station near Temple University;

• 120-units of low-to-moderate income housing;

• 30,000 sq. ft. of ground floor retail, community services and commercial office space;

• project broke ground in February;

• project aims for LEED-ND stage 2 certification, as well as LEED for Homes gold level.

The development aims to be the first LEED-certified neighborhood development in Philadelphia. The city already has a policy on new construction and major renovations, requiring new large city government buildings to meet LEED Silver certification for buildings. In addition, all new construction must meet or exceed Energy Star standards for cool roofs.

Getting Started

Start early in the planning process, recommends Joanna Cuevas of Jonathan Rose Companies, the project manager for Paseo Verde.

“I highly recommend hiring a consultant who can walk you through the requirements with the architect,” she said. “And involve your local planning office.”

"The earlier you can start, the more you can integrate the green strategies, minimizing hard costs," said Walker Wells of Global Green USA. For example, choices, such as picking a high-density location, can be made early on without necessarily costing more money.

The book, Blueprint for Greening Affordable Housing, explains that the architect and the developer often make fundamental decisions about the project in the early stage before other professionals on the design team are brought in. The suggestion is for a more integrated process, having the team set clear goals and coming up with green strategies before the initial concepts are presented to local officials and the community.

Cities and counties can also set priorities to use LEED-ND principles.

"Planners need to know about LEED-ND, but local commissioners need to ask for it," said Wells. He suggested, for example, asking for LEED-ND in the request for proposals.

An Overview of the Point System

LEED-ND uses a scale of 100 points (plus 10 bonus points) to determine the level of certification – certified, silver, platinum or gold. The minimum points needed is 40.

Affordable housing planners may be interested in the following features that earn LEED-ND points:

Mixed-income housing. Units for sale or rent to residents who earn below the area median income (AMI) threshold.

Proximity to jobs. Full-time equivalent jobs within a half-mile walking distance of the project’s geographic center.

Food production. Options are to dedicate permanent space for a garden, or be located within a half-mile of a farmers' market, or purchase shares through Community-Supported Agriculture.

Proximity to neighborhood schools. Where at least half of the dwelling units are located within a half-mile of an elementary or middle school, or one mile from a high school.


While there is no minimum acreage required for LEED-ND certification, but there are other prerequisites. For example:

Location. The site needs to fit one of the following criteria: infill, transit-served, walkable to diverse places, or be connected to a multi-modal street network.

Density. A minimum of 7 dwelling units (DU) per acre.

Connectivity. 140 intersections per square mile.

Green building. A minimum of one LEED-certified building.

Energy reduction. 10 percent above ASHRAE Standard 90.1 (2007) or meeting Energy Star criteria.

Water reduction. 20 percent below Energy Policy Act.

There are also three stages of accreditation. A project is allowed to skip a stage and apply for certification at a later stage.

Stage 1 - conditional approval

Stage 2 - certification of an approved plan

Stage 3 - certification of a completed neighborhood development

The project needs to be certified under the most current version of LEED-ND. The 2009 version is currently being updated through the public comment process, and is expected to be implemented in November 2012.

Public comments so far have favored both lower and higher densities, as well as giving more points for historic preservation, and more requirements related to transit, according to Jeffrey Lovshin, neighborhood development associate at USGBC.

Criteria did change from the LEED-ND pilot project to the 2009 version. Primarily, it included a requirement for a green building, the addition of minimum energy and water reduction prerequisites, and a walkable streets prerequisite. Other major changes included how transit is accounted for, stormwater calculations, additional flexibility in water body and agricultural land prerequisites, and higher density thresholds for projects near transit.


The certification fee for the LEED-ND initial stage is currently $18,000 for the first 20 acres with an additional fee per acre after that. The subsequent stage review fee for the first 20 acres is $10,000.

A consultant is usually hired to prepare the certification documents to submit to the U.S. Green Building Council. The consultant is estimated to need 150-200 hours, but shouldn’t require extending the project’s timeline or delaying the schedule.


LEED for Neighborhood Development (US Green Building Council)

A Local Government Guide to LEED for Neighborhood Development (US Green Building Council)

A Citizen’s Guide to LEED for Neighborhood Development (Natural Resources Defense Council)

Comparison of Enterprise Green Communities and LEED for Neighborhood Development (Enterprise)

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