Making Multifamily Affordable Housing More Resilient

Posted by on Dec 10, 2015

Affordable housing projects in New York City. Photo: New York Housing Authority

Affordable housing in New York City. Photo: New York Housing Authority

We all know that it’s more challenging to make existing buildings energy efficient or resilient than it is to achieve those goals with new construction. Because of the preponderance of existing buildings, though, this is where the heavy lifting needs to happen. A large majority of our existing buildings in the U.S. will still be occupied in 50 years.

It is also well-known that when it comes to natural disasters and other disturbances, the greatest impacts often befall those least able to afford the needed fixes.

This became abundantly clear in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy in New York City. Hundreds of multifamily affordable housing facilities were severely affected by flooding, extended power outages, and inoperable mechanical equipment.

Cover of the new Enterprise Community Partners manual on making multifamily affordable housing more resilient.

Cover of the new Enterprise Community Partners manual on retrofitting multifamily affordable housing for enhanced resilience.

Enterprise Community Partners

It is with this context that Enterprise Community Partners set out in 2012 to improve the resilience of multifamily affordable housing. By way of background, Enterprise is a nonprofit organization, headquartered in Columbia, Maryland with 18 regional offices around the country, that works with hundreds of local affordable housing developers to make affordable housing better and more available. Since its founding in 1982, Enterprise has invested over $18 billion in affordable housing.

Enterprise’s New York City office saw the tremendous impact Superstorm Sandy had on affordable housing in the City, and the organization began a multi-pronged effort to address resilience.

First, in-depth assessments were done of 58 storm-damaged multifamily affordable housing buildings in New York City and the surrounding region. These assessments were carried out by leading engineering and architecture firms, including Arup, Steven Winter Associates, MAP Architects, and P.W. Grosser Consulting, providing a wealth of information on measures that would be needed to repair the buildings and enhance their resilience.

Second, Enterprise’s widely respected Enterprise Green Communities Criteria (Rating System) was updated to address resilience much more directly. The revised, 2015 version of Enterprise Green Communities was released in April, 2015.

And third, Enterprise spent over a year developing a 145-page manual, Ready to Respond: Strategies for Multifamily Building Resilience that focuses on retrofitting affordable housing facilities for resilience. This manual was released on November 30, 2015 and will be the focus of this article.

[Disclosure: I played a major role incorporating resilience measures into the Enterprise Green Communities Rating System and was a coauthor of the Resilience Manual.] The other authors of the manual included Jim Newman of Linnean Solutions, Mark Ginsberg of Curtis + Ginsberg Architects, and Laurie Schoeman and Tom Sahagian of Enterprise. Samantha Yost of Enterprise coordinated production and Worldstudio, Inc. handled art direction and design.

There are 19 strategies covered in the new Enterprise manual

There are 19 strategies covered in the new multifamily resilience manual; applicability of these strategies varies housing type.

New manual helping to achieve resilience in multifamily affordable housing

Strategies for Multifamily Building Resilience was written to be clear, concise, and full of practical information that multifamily building owners or operators can put to use right away.

The manual begins by addressing why resilience is such an important issue with affordable housing—and becoming more important with global warming and rising sea levels. In this introductory material, six guiding principles that provide the underpinnings of the manual are presented, and clear information is offered on a) identifying your hazard exposure, b) assessing the risks, and c) determining your resilience strategies.

The hazards focused on in the manual are particularly relevant to New York City, but applicable in much of the country: flooding, extreme temperatures and winter storms, severe wind events, fire, and explosions.

Elevating the living space in a multifamily building is one of the resilience strategies covered in the manual.

Elevating the living space in multifamily building is one of the resilience strategies covered in the manual.

Much of the manual consists of 19 different resilience strategies. With each of these strategies, there’s an introductory graphic to help the reader zero in on what is being covered; a Description & Function section that describes the strategy and explains how it works; a section called Strategy Into Action that covers specifics on how to implement the strategy; implications on Operation & Maintenance; relative information on cost ($ through $$$$); Supporting Strategies that provide links to other content in the manual that should be considered at the same time; Resources; and a detailed, real-world Case Study.

I can tell you that finding case studies for the strategies was a huge challenge. Many of the measures are so new that there simply aren’t examples of their implementation yet. There are almost no affordable housing projects, for example, that have addressed access to potable water, or have added exterior shading to reduce overheating in the buildings should power be lost.

In five years, if a new edition of this manual is produced, I expect that we’d find a very different situation.

The manual is peppered with explanatory illustrations, and there is cross-referencing to the specific criteria in the Enterprise Green Communities Rating System.

For each strategy there's a case study showing how that strategy has been implemented—usually in a multifamily affordable housing project.

For each strategy there’s a case study showing how that strategy has been implemented—usually in a multifamily affordable housing project.

Putting it all together

Following the 19 resilience strategies is a section with useful information on integrative design, preferred sequencing of the design process, who should be at the table with such work, and the thorny issue of regulations and compliance.

Not surprisingly, there are some big hurdles faced in implementing many of the strategies outlined in Strategies for Multifamily Building Resilience. Among these are bureaucratic red tape and sometimes-conflicting regulations. Installing sump pumps is an important strategy for removing water from basements, for example, but where to dump water being drained from a basement during a flood when storm sewers may be overflowing is not clear; regulations often prohibit simply dumping that water onto the sidewalk.

Another of the strategies is to elevate living spaces above the base flood elevation (BFE), converting first-floor space into other uses for which flooding is less of a problem. But in New York City, regulations prohibit building owners from eliminating affordable housing units in a building. If apartments on the first floor should be removed because they can flood, building owners are caught between a rock and a hard place; rarely is it practical (or affordable) to add another floor to make up for the lost apartments.

While most of the strategies relate to the building and infrastructure, four of the 19 strategies address community. Building a strong sense of community in a multifamily building—and strong ties between residents and the larger community—are critical in enhancing resilience.

While most of the strategies relate to the building and infrastructure, four of the 19 strategies address community. Building a strong sense of community in a multifamily building and maintaining strong ties between residents and the larger community are critical in enhancing resilience.

The manual at least touches on some of these challenges.

There is also useful information on how to finance resilience improvements in multifamily affordable housing projects.

The manual concludes with an Appendix on Enterprise Green Communities and the relationship between the criteria in that rating system and the strategies in the manual, and finally, a listing of various resilience resources, especially federal references.

Final thoughts

Strategies for Multifamily Building Resilience provides a good balance between in-depth, technical information and readability that is unusual in manuals. There is plenty of detail, but you can also sit down and read through the manual with relative ease.

The manual can be downloaded for free at this page on the Enterprise website, though you have to set up an account or log in to do so.

If you work with multifamily affordable housing, this is an important resource. Check it out, and please let me know if you have any feedback. Either post that feedback as comments, or send an e-mail to me directly.

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Along with founding the Resilient Design Institute in 2012, Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. To keep up with his latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed. To receive e-mail notices of new blogs, sign up at the top of the page.

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