Christmas week is a reminder that few words trump "green" for happy associations — holiday wreaths to greenbacks to the new cause of renewable energy. But does it make any...

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Christmas week is a reminder that few words trump “green” for happy associations — holiday wreaths to greenbacks to the new cause of renewable energy. But does it make any sense to associate “green” with affordable housing for low-income Americans? Aren’t those the folks we spent a good chunk of the last century stuffing into stark concrete housing projects?

Yes — but get ready for some intriguing changes if the big “Green Communities” initiative recently launched by an unusual housing-environmental alliance scores the breakthroughs it has in sight.

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Leaders of the effort are the Enterprise Foundation, a premier national affordable housing provider founded by the late developer-urbanist James Rouse, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the country’s top environmental organizations pushing green building initiatives.

These groups aim to inspire and lead the building over the next five years of 8,500 environmentally friendly affordable homes, using the $550 million they’re already well on the way to raising and another half billion dollars they expect the project to leverage. Just as significant, they expect to provide a wave of training, encouragement and technical assistance to help developers across the country “go green.”

“Our grand design is to lead the way and make ‘green’ criteria the normal way everyone builds affordable housing, because it makes so much sense, both economically and environmentally,” says Bart Harvey, the Enterprise Foundation’s chairman and CEO.

But isn’t there a premium price to the construction of “green” buildings? Isn’t “green” a frill?

It’s true, Harvey acknowledges, that the average cost of building low-income housing to green standards currently runs 5 percent higher than normal projects. But the new expenses are expected to decline with practice. Costs of environmentally sensitive materials are already sinking sharply.

Then come the benefits. Starting with better health, low-income families who are able to move into green housing may expect dramatic improvements in their lives — far less exposure, for example, to factors that cause lead poisoning and asthma.

And then dollars to live by. Every family’s real income (and cash for food or other needs) should increase by hundreds of dollars a year because Green Communities homes will be built with standards based heavily on a green building rating system that assures at least 30 percent greater energy efficiency.

Smart growth plays heavily in the Green Communities filter: The housing will have to be compact and land-efficient, close to transit, and in neighborhoods with ample sidewalks and pathways and shops within walking distance. With less auto dependency and easier access to public transportation and work sites, low-income families’ massive transportation outlays (40 cents of every dollar at the poverty level) will likely drop. Fewer will be forced into long commutes to work; more will be encouraged to walk, thus fighting obesity and improving health.

The magic of the Green Communities formula is thinking across boundaries — of finance, construction, siting, health, affordability, town quality, living conditions. Jonathan Rose, a member of the Enterprise Foundation board and himself an imaginative developer of closely planned, mixed-income and environmentally sensitive communities, came up with the concept. A small foundation interested in mixed approaches to human problems — delightfully named the Blue Moon Fund — put up the first money to check out the idea.

Today the partner-backers of the effort have expanded beyond Enterprise, the NRDC and Blue Moon to include the American Institute of Architects and the American Planning Association as well as such heavy-hitter corporate and philanthropic partners as BP America, Fannie Mae, Bank of America, and the Home Depot and Kresge foundations.

And the green tide seems likely to spread, perhaps quite quickly. The majority of today’s low-income housing production is done by community-based groups or private developers who utilize the much-in-demand low-income tax credits that the federal government allots to each of the 50 states.

But for would-be low-income housing developers there’s a problem: The federal government has clear limits on the number of tax credits it allows. The credits are seriously oversubscribed — on average, three times more requests than states have available.

For Enterprise’s Bart Harvey, that math looks like an auspicious equation. He’s encouraging states to encourage healthy, efficient standards for the tax credits they issue, in the hope that developers seeking to compete successfully will think and act green.

“Our aim,” says Harvey, “is to have the development community in the United States think differently about how it builds, sites and designs affordable housing. And I think we can get there.”

In a national climate hardly hospitable to poor people’s interests, that could be the best (green) news of the year.

Neal Peirce’s column appears alternate Mondays on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is