As California’s extreme weather events become more frequent and the housing crisis more pressing, building resilient and affordable homes is top of mind for residential developers. GreenPoint Rated (GPR)’s framework for new home multifamily construction offers recognition for designing with these concepts in mind, so we analyzed certified projects to understand how the affordability and resiliency measures have been used over the last three years.

For Californians, the risk of devastating wildfires is ever-present. According to the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), today’s wildfire seasons are three-and-a-half months longer on average than they were decades ago, and they’re only becoming more intense as forests continue to dry out. The state is also experiencing a series of major heat waves due to the drought; as soils lose moisture, the heat that would usually evaporate that moisture instead goes directly into the atmosphere. Having a resilient home one built to withstand extreme weather events like heat waves and wildfires—has become a critical adaptation in the face of the state’s changing climate.

At the same time, California has another major problem: a lack of affordable housing, particularly when it comes to rentals. According to the California Housing Partnership’s housing needs report from last month, Alameda County renters would need to earn approximately $42 an hour almost three times Oakland’s minimum wage to afford average rent prices of $2,195 a month.

So long as these problems persist, it is essential that residential developers especially those in the multifamily housing sector—build with resilience and affordability in mind.

GreenPoint Rated (GPR) currently offers recognition and guidance for developers who pursue resiliency and affordability measures, something not commonly seen in green certification programs. Just by including these measures as options, GPR broadens the definition of what green building encompasses and encourages building design that adapts to the realities of climate change and the housing ecosystem.

To identify trends in how these measures have been utilized over the last three years, we looked solely at projects certified in the new home multifamily (NHMF) category.

A chart showing how many NHMF projects were completed between 2019 and 2021, organized by region.

The measures

All told, GPR offers ten resiliency measures and three affordability measures. The resiliency measures are split into four categories general resiliency, fire resistance, extreme heat, and flooding while affordability is a category all its own.

  • Fire resistance: Three measures. Category focuses on outdoor air filtration and building with durable, non-combustible, and fire-resistant materials.
  • Affordability: Three measures. Offers recognition for renting and selling a certain percentage of units multi bedroom or otherwise at income restricted rates.
  • General resiliency: Two measures. Category focuses on determining a property’s potential climate change susceptibilities and developing strategies to address them.
  • Extreme heat: Three measures. Encourages builders to incorporate passive cooling strategies, plant trees, and use landscaping materials that reduce the heat island effect.
  • Flooding: Two measures. Offers recognition for using overhangs and rainwater capturing systems to avoid water damage.

In general, the fire resistance and affordability categories had the highest attainment across all NHMF projects. You can see the complete list of measures and attainment breakdown in the following chart:

Bar graph showing the percentage of NHMF projects that attained each measure, with measures arranged by category.

Five key observations from the data

From studying the data, we were able to identify five key trends. Here are our observations and some possible explanations for them:

  1. The top way that NHMF projects are pursuing resilience is through two fire resistance measures: non-combustible cladding and fire-resistant roofing.
    • While these measures aren’t mandated by California’s building code, they are both options for compliance in their respective categories, which may explain the high attainment.
    • 31% of all projects attained both of these measures, but only 5% attained all three fire resistance measures. This is likely because outdoor air filtration, the third measure, isn’t mentioned in the building code at all.
  2. Most of the projects that attained the first affordability measure dedicated 50% or more of their units to households making 80% Area Median Income (AMI) or less.
    • The remaining 11% dedicated at least 25% of their units to these households, but did not reach the 50% threshold.
    • The high attainment for this measure is probably due to the federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program, which offers developers a tax incentive for renting a certain number of units at an income-restricted rate.
  3. A little over half of the projects allocating units for affordable housing made sure that a portion of them (15%+) have three or more bedrooms.
    • 60% of the people who rely on federal rental assistance to afford housing are families with children. Ensuring that a range of unit sizes is available at a lower price point is a way to accommodate different household types and open up more affordable housing options for families.
  4. Across the board, NHMF projects could take greater advantage of the general resiliency, extreme heat, and flooding measures offered by GPR.
    • Wildfires and affordability may feel like more pressing issues, which would explain the lower engagement with the other resiliency categories. That being said, heat waves are expected to increase in frequency, and 80% of the state population lives within 30 miles of the Pacific Ocean, making most people vulnerable to intense flood events.
    • Additionally, while attaining the general resiliency measures may not seem critical, doing so acknowledges these climate change susceptibilities and ensures there is a plan in place to address them, which is just as important.
  5. Thanks to the rigor of California’s building code, these projects are happening all over the state; the NHMF projects that achieved any number of these measures seem to be well-distributed geographically.

Project spotlights

Two projects in the past three years have gone above and beyond with regards to attainment: the Embark Apartments project in Oakland and the Metro Crossing – Warm Springs Apartment project in Fremont, both of which attained all three fire resistance measures and the first two affordability measures.

The exterior of the Embark Apartments, a complex built to provide affordable housing to veterans—especially those who are homeless—and their families.

The Embark Apartments, completed in February 2020, were created by affordable housing development organization Resources for Community Development (RCD) and partially funded by the CA Veterans Housing and Homeless Prevention Program (VHHP). The complex was developed with affordability as a key focus, with the overall goal of providing veterans and their families with affordable rental options. Exactly half of the units are set aside for veterans who are homeless, and to comply with the LIHTC, both eligibility and rent are determined by income.

Jennifer Love, the GreenPoint Rater for the Embark Apartments, spoke about how the focus on veterans drove the project to prioritize affordability.

“The two go hand in hand. This was a decision made at the developer level—that that was the community that they wanted to serve for this project,” she said. “Once you’re serving a certain population, you have to meet the affordability criteria for that funding source.”

The Embark Apartments project is also the only one to offer 20% of its units for sale at 120% AMI or less—something rare given the high median sales price of condos and townhomes in California. According to the California Association of Realtors (CAR), the median sales price for condos in Alameda last month was $727,500— almost 6 times greater than the area’s median family income.

With regards to the fire resistance measures, Love noted that building apartments to be resilient is always a logical move.

“In terms of durability, I would say that those are measures that [raters] just always push for It’s pretty straightforward. These materials are widely available, they’re largely cost-effective in some cases, it’s not even necessarily pushing [developers] too far beyond what they’re already planning.”

The Metro Crossing project represents a much more standard multifamily housing development, but still meets the criteria for all fire resistance measures and two of the three affordability measures: offering at least 50% of its units at an income-restricted rate and making sure 15% of those units have at least three bedrooms. While almost entirely different from the Embark Apartments in its approach, this development demonstrates how easily affordability and resiliency can be integrated into a project’s design, even without being essential to the overall concept.

As more and more multifamily projects incorporate these measures, adopting them will become increasingly routine, and other green certification programs will start to work similar measures into their frameworks. This will be one of the key ways that we are able to bring resiliency and affordability into the residential building mainstream, allowing us to meet the climate and housing needs of the moment.

Wondering if there are any GPR-certified homes in your area? Check out this map to see projects by location, including the other multifamily projects we analyzed for this blog post.