Stewards of Affordable Housing for the Future’s Big Reach: Accomplishments and Key Strategies

By Better Buildings Beat Team on Jul 28, 2021

Since 2013, all member organizations of Stewards of Affordable Housing for the Future (SAHF) have joined the inaugural cohort of multifamily partners taking part in the Better Buildings Challenge to reduce their energy usage by 20% over ten years, while also committing to SAHF’s “Big Reach,” an initiative to reduce their collective energy and water usage by 20% portfolio-wide by 2020.

These affordable housing sustainability leaders recently released a report on their accomplishments (see graphic) and identified three key strategies that drove these outcomes:

  1. Prioritizing performance and utilizing green building standards in new construction and major rehabs;
  2. Undertaking discretionary retrofits to upgrade equipment outside of a capital event using state- and utility-funded efficiency programs, pay-from-savings programs, and government and foundation grants; and
  3. Incorporating renewable energy such as solar panels or geothermal, particularly in states with supportive clean energy policies.

The report emphasizes the important decision to adopt a time-bound, numeric target, which drove organizational culture change and was an impetus for SAHF and its members to influence the policy and program environment in which affordable housing operates. The goal pushed SAHF to go beyond the opportunistic, property-by-property approach typically taken in resource-constrained affordable multifamily housing. Instead, the Big Reach required substantial organizational change, including investments in sustainability staff as well as data infrastructure and benchmarking capacity. These efforts are helping to pave the way for sustainable development and property operations to be embraced as a norm—and a key preservation strategy—in the multifamily affordable housing sector.

Other key takeaways from these Better Buildings partners:

  • In planning for new construction and rehabs, SAHF/Challenge partners found success in achieving high building performance through Passive House principles. The Community Builders and Preservation of Affordable Housing (POAH) have built or are currently building properties that adhere to the five performance principles of the Passive House standard: airtightness, ventilation, waterproofing, heating and cooling, and electrical loads.
  • To finance and implement solar PV, National Housing Trust created a separate legal entity called NHT Renewable. The arrangement allows NHT to overcome regulatory and administrative barriers to solar installations, take advantage of tax credits for affordable housing, and become its own solar developer, manager, and owner. NHT has assisted several other Better Buildings Challenge affordable housing partners to do the same: to date six Challenge partners have installed 8.4 MW of solar PV using the same financing model.
  • Part of SAHF’s Big Reach approach was to shift organizational cultures in affordable housing, moving sustainability from a side project to a process integrated into all aspects of housing development, ownership, and management. SAHF/Challenge partners employed green operations and maintenance practices to proactively monitor for energy or water waste and evaluate whether systems were performing efficiently. They also used resident engagement strategies from SAHF’s resident engagement toolkit to empower residents to make sustainable choices. Community Housing Partners, for instance, developed a process for involving residents in decision making for a property rehabilitation.


Read SAHF’s The Big Reach report here. Learn more about these partners and the Better Buildings Challenge on the Better Buildings Solution Center’s multifamily page.