Green Building Incentives that Work: Follow the Roadmap

Every American city, town, and county is unique, but across the United States many have used green building incentives to improve building quality, advance equity, and take action on climate change. Why? Because incentives work.

Yet making them work is tricky. Many have tried and failed when trying to navigate the extremely complex web of markets, regulations, and jurisdictions related to buildings, not to mention all the building types and sizes! That’s why Shift Zero developed the Zero Carbon Buildings Policy Toolkit (Toolkit), which is filled with insights and resources to help cities, towns, counties, and communities understand and navigate this tricky business.

The Toolkit provides a “road map” and a policy design tool that can be used by local government staff (and even green building advocates) to tailor policy proposals to each community’s unique local context and circumstances. No two communities are the same, but there are case studies and model ordinances to adapt and learn from, many of which can get you on the right path — and with a running start.

Why Focus on Buildings?

In communities across Washington, buildings represent the first or second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change, the increasing impacts of which represent a clear and present danger to everyone, especially our most vulnerable populations. Simultaneously we stand at the crossroads of a reckoning over racial inequity, the COVID pandemic, and unprecedented economic and political change. Climate change looms over all these — not just as an interconnected crisis — but also as an opportunity to take meaningful action on these issues by designing and implementing building sector policies that maximize energy efficiency and reduce emissions.

Fortunately, there are a range of options for green building incentives outlined in the Toolkit, including expedited processes, land use incentives, technical assistance, marketing assistance, and/or financial incentives to choose from. When tailored to the local context, these have proven to be an effective enticement to get builders to become “early adopters” of what will eventually be required — the design and construction of buildings that are more healthy, more efficient, and more resilient — all of which creates opportunities for a municipality to accelerate its transition to an equitable zero-carbon building future.

For example, the City of Seattle’s Priority Green Expedited program offers developers expedited permitting and density bonuses for certified green buildings, and now over 70% of new single-family homes in the city carry a Built Green certification.

To help communities across Washington we didn’t just look to Seattle for examples. In San Juan County, Orcas Power & Light Co-Op’s Switch It Up program offers homeowners on-bill repayment of the cost to install energy efficient equipment, with a tariff charge attached to their energy bill. At just a 2% APR, the program will finance a ductless heat pump, a heat pump water heater, an electric vehicle charging station, or fiber internet.

Healthy and Efficient, but for Whom?

Critical examinations over the past two years have shown that the benefits of healthy, efficient housing are not distributed equally, and the impacts of climate change disproportionately impact low-income and Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities. The Toolkit emphasizes the importance of equitable building policy. To this end, incentives tied to affordable housing and existing buildings, especially rental homes, can help improve equity.

The City of Bainbridge Island’s Housing Design Demonstration Projects not only requires builders to build green [see Bainbridge Island Municipal Code Sec. 2.16.020(S)], but also to include a diversity of housing types and commit to keeping homes affordable for 50 years. The builders can then qualify to receive density bonuses that allow up to 150% more units in a planned development. The result? More than 250 affordable homes have been built taking advantage of this policy.

Follow the Roadmap

In addition to incentives, the Toolkit offers a variety of other guideposts to help design integrated building policy that can leverage incentives with current and future mandates, financing tools, and green building certification systems. The underlying theme of the Toolkit is creating your own roadmap to a zero-carbon future. Following the roadmap, it provides a wealth of tools and resources that can help your community chart its own unique path and navigate the complex web of building policies in pursuit of our common goal — a more healthy and prosperous future!

Shift Zero encourages all types of communities to follow the roadmap, so they invite you to use their Zero Carbon Buildings Policy Toolkit and the Policy Design Tool (a downloadable spreadsheet) for free. If you do, please send your feedback to Shift Zero on how you used it so they can document and share your success and lessons learned!

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