10/04/2010 07:06 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Public Housing: A Model for Smart Government Investment

Kudos to Dan Froomkin for his recognition that government investment plays a key role in boosting the economy. (Joys of Retrofitting; Reasonable Stimulus Spending)

When it comes to retrofitting, he is absolutely right: Investment in green essentially costs the government nothing over the life cycle of the improvement even though it immediately creates jobs and improves the economy. He is also right when he talks about the value of stimulus spending, a point underscored by the latest White House report showing that Recovery Act funds are being used effectively and efficiently.

Some of the best and most concrete examples of both can be seen in the innovative work public housing authorities are doing across the country. Awarded $4 billion in capital funds, housing agencies are saving and creating thousands of jobs and homes at a time when both are sorely needed.

A significant reason that agencies received such a substantial award -- essentially double the average annual capital funding -- is research demonstrating the measurable impact this spending has on its communities. Every dollar in direct capital investment results in double the amount in local spending; every $1 million creates about 30 jobs.

In addition to saving homes and jobs, authorities are using recovery funds to green their buildings inside and out, to increase services to seniors, and to expand services for residents and neighborhoods. Here are just a few examples:

  • Camden is building a mixed income development with 68 family units in nineteen two-story buildings. Residents will have access to a new community center being built in the neighborhood, where the authority will hold workshops and educate residents on energy conservation. The authority is also significantly expanding community and supportive office space at its John F. Kennedy Tower, providing room for social and outreach workers and additional education courses.

  • In Charlotte, the housing authority is completely renovating individual units and common areas in an 11-story high rise that is home to seniors and persons with disabilities. When finished, it will provide 125 efficiency and 36 one-bedroom apartments. They are pursuing LEED silver certification, with changes that will provide an almost 37% reduction in energy and water consumption. The plan also includes significant non-energy related renovations to provide a wide range of services on-site, including medical offices, supportive services and a library.
  • The Chicago Housing Authority will be able to build a new mixed-income, mixed-finance development on what is now a vacant site. The new housing will include 32 public housing units, 31 affordable units, and 21 market rate units; it is part of a larger public-private development effort to revitalize the Ogden North neighborhood. Funds will also be used to finish the transformation of the 18-acre Cabrini-Green development. The first two phases produced 391 units, including 107 public housing units. The final phase will provide 112 new rental units that include 39 replacement units for Cabrini residents and 53 affordable units.
  • Denver is starting work on the first phase of a 17.5 acre mixed-use, mixed-income, transit-oriented community intended to serve as a national model. The community is designed to deliver exceptional environmental efficiency and energy performance, including better access to fresh fruits and vegetables, and bike and pedestrian-friendly routes.
  • The District of Columbia is turning a former public housing site into a green, transit-oriented, mixed use, mixed finance development. It will include a solar power array, a green roof and Energy Star appliances.
  • El Paso is using its award to finance its Paisano Green Project, redeveloping a 4.2 acre parcel that has stood vacant for 10 years. The development will include a range of green improvements, including connections between neighborhoods and green space and improved surface water management techniques.
  • Newark is using its funds to jumpstart development of a new green, compact, and sustainable mixed-income community that is a five minute walk from a central transit station. A key element of the new neighborhood will be Baxter Park, envisioned as a "gracious public outdoor room" that encourages pedestrian activity and connectivity with the city.
  • Portland has a grant for its Resource Access Center, the cornerstone of the city's 10 year plan to end homelessness. The center will provide housing, employment, and treatment counseling; hot showers; storage; and communication services to help with job and housing searches. It is designed to be a LEED Gold certified development, incorporating a number of cutting edge sustainability design elements.
  • (More examples here.)

    It is not just Recovery Act funds. Using innovative programs like Energy Performance Contracts (EPCs) and HOPE VI, agencies are revitalizing neighborhoods, building service enriched environments, and leading the way in sustainable, green, development. They are also generating significant long-term energy savings, key when you look at the size of the bill: PHAs spent about $2 billion on 2008, more than 25% of actual operating expenditures. We know that older buildings that make up most of the public housing stock are less energy efficient than residential households, which means there are a lot of potential savings to be had.

    • The Boston Housing Authority's current energy performance contract -- 63 million of water and energy conservation measures -- will save more than 56 million over the next 20 years and create an estimated 600 jobs.

  • In Minneapolis, a 33.9 million EPC will upgrade hundreds of buildings and save the housing authority more than 3.7 million in annual utility costs; local contractors will do a majority of the work.
  • Milwaukee's Convent Hill is a vibrant home for low income seniors that incorporates extensive green features, including six green roofs and Energy Star appliances.
  • Seattle used its HOPE VI grant to build Breathe Easy Homes, housing that cut asthma-related emergency room visits for families by 60%.
  • With criticism of government at an all-time high, it is essential that we continue to highlight and learn from programs that work. Public housing is a model for smart government investment and public housing authorities are leading the way in strengthening our communities in ways that can -- and should -- be replicated.