Reduce, Reuse, Rehab: Historic Preservation and the Green Rehabilitation of Affordable Housing

The concept of a historic home often conjures up images of pristine columns, sweeping vistas, and exquisitely detailed facades, as seen in famous properties like Mount Vernon or Monticello. While many historic homes in the United States do in fact feature intricate decoration and grand swaths of land, the predominant concepts of historic homes often overshadow the significant number of simpler, smaller historic properties in urban environments.

With the advent of the United States Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design (LEED) program, and other such programs, urban historic properties are being recognized not merely in terms of their architectural or historical value, but also in their sustainable design potential. In particular, historic and existing properties are given points in LEED and other rating systems for their proximity to public transportation and in the reuse of the building exterior and interior walls, as well as the reuse of existing infrastructure, such as sewage, electricity, and gas lines.

In efforts to green residential structures, there has been a particular focus in assisting lower income families in retrofitting their homes for energy efficiency. By weatherstripping older windows, adding insulation, and using energy efficient appliances, people living in historic or older buildings can save money on monthly energy bills and create healthier living environments.

In many parts of the U.S., the preservation of affordable housing is the preservation of historic architecture. According to the 1999 American Housing Survey, 32 percent of households below the poverty line and 34 percent of renters whose household income is less than $20,000 per year live in older and historic homes.

Many projects and programs involving the greening of urban affordable housing do not focus on historic preservation, but because many of the properties being retrofitted are historic, preservation issues and benefits arise in the process. Developers interested in retrofitting affordable housing, like the Montana-based homeWORD, find that their properties are eligible for federal Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credits, credits they can use with federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits to offset the various costs of green retrofits.

These intersections of affordable housing, sustainability, and preservation frequently encounter complicated and potentially frustrating milestones, but often achieve exciting results. One recently completed project, the R Street Apartments in Northwest Washington, DC, show that these types of projects can be successful, both in terms of the building’s historical and sustainable features, and, more importantly, in the benefits they can bring to the building residents.

R Street Apartments

The R Street Apartments Project maintained affordable housing, preserved historic architecture, and achieved energy efficiency retrofits.

The R Street Apartments Project maintained affordable housing, preserved historic architecture, and achieved energy efficiency retrofits.

On April 17th, 2009, residents, neighbors, developers, and elected officials gathered at the 1400 block of R Street, NW, to celebrate the reopening of five green-rehabilitated historic buildings. Through the use of Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credits, Low Income Housing Tax Credits, a Department of Housing and Community Development acquisition loan, a Green Communities Initiative grant, and owner capital, the existing 124 affordable units were retrofitted for improved energy efficiency, and six new energy efficient market rate apartments were built.

Built in 1912 by real estate developer Harry Wardman, the R Street apartment buildings had been used as affordable housing for the past forty years. Knowing the buildings were located in a gentrifying neighborhood, the residents were concerned that their affordable units would be lost to market rate condominium developers when the former owner put the buildings up for sale. Fortunately, the residents came together and used their rights through the Tenant Opportunity Act, also known as the “first rights of purchase”, to ensure the new owners made commitments to meet the residents’ needs for renovations, services, and continued affordability.

With the help of the Hampstead Development Group  and the National Housing Trust-Enterprise Preservation Corporation (NHT-Enterprise), a collaborative group that works to preserve affordable housing, the residents were able to retrofit their homes while keeping them affordable.

As the cornices and door surrounds demonstrate, the elegant architectural details of the historic R Street buildings remain intact after their green rehabilitations.

As the cornices and door surrounds demonstrate, the elegant architectural details of the historic R Street buildings remain intact after their green rehabilitations.

In efforts to make the R Street Apartments energy efficient, NHT-Enterprise and the Hampstead Development Group followed the criteria of the Green Communities Initiative. These criteria encourage the rehabilitation of existing structures by giving points related to a building’s complete life cycle, building on developed land, the use of existing infrastructure, and the reduction of building waste associated with rehabilitation versus new construction.

While preserving the buildings’ historic character, the R Street Apartments were outfitted with rain barrels for harvesting water; newly renovated kitchens and bathrooms featuring low-flow water fixtures and energy efficient appliances; an energy efficient HVAC system; and a solar reflective roof. In addition, the project upgraded the buildings’ security system, created Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)-compliant units, built open spaces for community projects and meetings, and made available free high-speed wireless internet access for all residents.

Due to the interest of the residents and the efforts of the developers, the R Street Apartments project achieved three separate goals: maintenance of existing affordable housing in a gentrifying neighborhood, energy efficiency in an existing building, and the rehabilitation of a historic structure.

While preservationists in the U.S. continue to work with grand estates in the country, the preservation community’s interest in urban historic properties and the people living within them has little waned. The ever-expanding interest in sustainability and the continuing effort to combat the negative effects of gentrification have only increased preservationists’ interest in urban communities and affordable housing. This strengthened focus on urban historic properties creates exciting opportunities for projects that concurrently involve issues of sustainability, affordable housing, and historic preservation.

Photos by Marvin T. Jones

For more information on the green rehabilitation of R Street Apartments, please see:

Reuters, April 16, 2009:

Links from Enterprise Community Partners, including a YouTube video of the April 17, 2009 ribbon cutting:

For more information on affordable housing in the United States, please see:
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD):

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