By Jorge Losoya, Jennifer Walker, and Jonathan Seefeldt, National Wildlife Federation: Texas Living Waters Project

June 15, 2022

In the shadow of a snarling interstate exchange just a few blocks south of downtown Minneapolis, a patchwork of gardens grows around a set of colorful buildings. The greenery is, in fact, a rain garden system, capturing and filtering rainwater from the surrounding roofs.
Built atop a former brownfield site long associated with urban blight, Minneapolis’ Rose Apartments may seem an unusual setting for onsite water reuse—a growing suite of technologies often associated with commercial or niche development projects. Yet localized capture, treatment, and re-deployment of water is simpler and more affordable than it may seem, and its broad benefits have the potential to make a significant positive impact on a critical area many water-reuse advocates have so far overlooked: the nation’s growing affordable housing crisis.
Onsite reuse is certainly playing a transformative role for the residents of the mixed-income Rose development. Three rain gardens filter up to 26,000 gallons of rainwater captured from the eastern side of the apartments. An underground retention system stores and filters a further 48,500 gallons of stormwater. Captured rainwater is stored in cisterns and used to irrigate a central 5,000 square-foot community garden that offers food production programming on site. Water-efficient fixtures throughout the property help reduce the development’s water footprint even further.
Residents thus benefit from lowered water bills and access to extensive, productive green space while the city gains popular affordable housing stock, vastly improved runoff filtration from a formerly contaminated site, and an added degree of climate resilience.
Our team at the National Wildlife Federation spent the past year analyzing projects like the Rose in cities across the country. We interviewed developers, housing advocates, and city officials, while also analyzing academic, policy, and funding conversations that touch on this under-explored nexus.
Our conclusion? Strategic integration of onsite water reuse can provide lasting financial and quality-of-life benefits to affordable housing residents and owners. Reuse can also help spread a degree of climate resilience to urban populations often passed over in commercial water reuse and green infrastructure initiatives.
In short, affordable housing developments represent an ideal opportunity to put One Water’s equity principles into immediate, productive practice.
How should cities and developers begin to integrate onsite reuse into their planning and projects? Here are a few key recommendations we’ve gathered from our analysis:
Take advantage of abundant funding opportunities
Federal and state initiatives to help fund and incentivize water reuse are now plentiful. Financing opportunities like CDBG-DR, BRIC, and PACE are just some of the many new avenues of funding that can support integrating resilient water technologies into affordable housing projects. Leveraging these opportunities can help developers address the additional upfront costs of onsite water reuse systems.
Reduce regulatory barriers
Affordable housing projects are often developed with tight timelines and budgets, presenting a unique set of challenges. To encourage the integration of onsite reuse components, cities should consider facilitating co-learning among affordable housing developers and onsite water reuse professionals. Utilities can waive development, processing, and permit fees to lessen the costs associated with affordable housing development. They can further assist by providing technical assistance and a clear pathway for integration and permitting of these systems.
Integrate One Water into funding criteria
Inclusion of One Water should be incentivized to nudge developers into including onsite water reuse systems in their designs. A prime target for One Water incentives should be states’ Qualified Allocation Plans. These are used for Low-Income Housing Tax Credits and are one of the main sources for subsidizing affordable housing
Proactively address displacement risk
As with most green infrastructure, building projects incorporating reuse can lead to neighborhood gentrification. Community-based anti-displacement strategies—such as Right to Return policies, property tax freezes, and workforce initiatives that prioritize BIPOC and low-income communities—can lay the groundwork to limit such displacement.
Reconceptualize costs and benefits
We need to recalibrate traditional cost-benefit analyses in order to understand the long-term savings and multiple benefits associated with onsite water reuse systems. From lowered utility bills to expanded green space access to deepened climate resilience, a longer-term perspective provides a far clearer picture of the impressive return on investment that onsite reuse can offer.
Back in Minneapolis, the Rose draws on many of these strategies. For example, the developer—a nonprofit developer, owner, and manager of affordable housing called Aeon—worked with local nonprofit organization Hope Community to leverage a variety of funding sources including Low-Income Housing Tax Credits, energy rebates, private capital, and funding from state and local sources. They also engaged local community members to document concerns over gentrification and sustainability. The process led to a commitment to the Living Building Challenge—a certification that includes commitments to both water conservation and affordability.
Minneapolis is far from unique in this regard. Communities across the country face mounting challenges around both affordable housing access and clean, resilient water supply. Cities, water utilities, and developers need to come together to maximize the capabilities of onsite reuse in the affordable housing space by providing regulatory clarity, increasing incentives, and capitalizing on the many federal and state funding opportunities now available for reuse. For both new and existing affordable housing supplies, One Water strategies have great potential to alleviate financial and environmental pressures burdening vulnerable communities. Our study, Ensuring One Water Works for All: Opportunities for Realizing Water Reuse in Affordable Housing, is a small but important step in this direction.
Historic, indeed millennial, drought is fast becoming the norm for more than half the country. Housing costs are reaching previously unfathomable levels. Increasing access to affordable, resilient, livable spaces needs to be a driving goal of every community moving forward. Integrating onsite water reuse into affordable housing development can help us get there. Everyone deserves to reap the myriad long-term benefits of the One Water approach.