The Greensboro Housing Authority (GHA) is the largest provider of affordable housing in Greensboro, North Carolina, housing more than 10,000 individuals in 19 separate communities. The agency implements and maintains programs that promote education, homeownership, youth achievement, wellness, and self-sufficiency as well as implementing sustainability initiatives. But money is tight.

“The housing authority has to find creative ways now to be viable in the future,” says James Cox, vice president of real estate development. “With economic conditions as they are, we have to think outside the box.”

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James Cox is the vice president of real estate development at the Greensboro Housing Authority.

Cox initially came to GHA in the late 1990s as a project developer for Urban Atlantic (UA), a private Maryland-based developer at the forefront of implementing sustainability initiatives in urban areas. When GHA received funding from HOPE VI, the HUD program that funded the revitalization of public housing projects across the country, the agency hired UA to leverage the Greensboro funds. Cox’s job was clear: “If we got $20 million,” he says, “I had to turn it into $100 million.”

Today, with support from HOPE VI having ended in June 2011, GHA has to work even more diligently to find the necessary funds. The agency created an in-house development office; Cox applied and was hired to stay on permanently. He says private equity is increasingly one of the creative solutions GHA considers. In 2011, GHA extended its federal Energy Performance Contract (EPC) with Ameresco through 2019, which allowed the agency to leverage private capital for more than $3.9 million of project financing at Ray Warren Homes, a 236-unit development. With those funds, GHA installed new furnace and HVAC systems, water-conservation retrofits, and roof replacements.

The same year, GHA partnered with the City of Greensboro to perform a comprehensive energy assessment for the all GHA properties. The agency now has a profile for each community and is formalizing a sustainability plan so that when funding becomes available, GHA knows exactly where it can go. “In development going forward, we have a checklist that goes into the design process,” Cox says. “Green initiatives are simply part of the culture here now.”

In 2012, an American Recovery and Reinvestment Act competitive grant funded apartment renovations and the construction of a new community center at Stoneridge, a 50-unit senior housing community. The center is the first GHA facility to be constructed to LEED Silver certification standards. “Energy-efficient design made good business sense long before it got sexy,” Cox says. “Conservation strategies caught on because they had to, especially for non-profits.”

Public housing has a very different face than it did 50 years ago. GHA operates 2,203 units of public housing throughout the city with communities ranging in size from 11 units to 430. As in the past, tenants’ rents are based on income, but being eligible is defined differently now. Based on entry-level salaries in the current economy, professionals like schoolteachers and firefighters might qualify for rent subsidies where they would not have before. And with mixed-income housing, amenities are standard regardless of income, so one’s ‘bracket’ is not immediately apparent. “Everybody’s living together in one big happy community,” Cox says.

Cox approaches his job as aggressively as a private developer to make sure it stays that way. “Our properties don’t ‘make money,’” he says. “But when it’s all said and done, we’re still in the real-estate business.”