Often only pricey homes benefit from energy efficient and environmentally friendly technologies such as solar panels and completely non-toxic materials, but that kind of green technology is finding favor with non-profit groups that provide affordable housing.
The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Shawn Allee looks at why many non-profits are trying to do good by building green:
Often only pricey homes benefit from energy efficient and
environmentally friendly technologies such as solar panels and
completely non-toxic materials, but that kind of green technology is
finding favor with non-profit groups that provide affordable housing.
The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Shawn Allee looks at why many
non-profits are trying to do good by building green:
Holly Denniston’s got a tough job. She’s the real-estate director for a
non-profit housing agency. Denniston’s got not one, but two, bottom
lines to watch. On the one hand, she’s trying to build affordable housing
for thousands of low and moderate-income families in Chicago. On the
other hand, it’s not enough to develop a cheap house and walk away.
As a nearby commuter train rolls by, Denniston explains she’s got to
make sure families can afford to stay in these homes.
“We want affordable housing in the long run. When heating costs rise, when
electricity costs rise, we don’t want our homeowners to have to move
out. We want them to live in these houses for thirty years or for as long
as they want and be able to raise a family here without spending all of
their dollars on housing.”
That means the best fit for struggling families are homes that are cheap
to buy and cheap to live in.
Denniston leads me up the stairs of a nearly-finished town home she says
fits that bill.
(Sound of steps and door)
Inside, it’s not much different from high-priced town homes sprouting up
in most cities, but Denniston says I probably missed the most notable
feature of the building: a roof made of solar shingles.
“If you would take down the ceiling from the second floor, you would
see a spider web of lines coming down, leading down to the back of the
house, and then leading to an inverter in the basement.”
The shingles and power inverter generate electricity. The system’s
simple and needs almost no intervention by the occupants, but more
importantly, it’ll save the family thousands of dollars in power
bills in the next few years, and Denniston says this isn’t even their most
Some of their homes consume less than three hundred dollars worth of
energy per year – even with cold Chicago winters, but building homes
like this isn’t cheap.
The solar shingle system added thousands of dollars in up-front building
costs. So, how do groups like Bethel build green while trying to keep
their own costs down?
Well, usually, they get help.
“Basically I think we can say that all of the affordable housing projects
that are doing this are doing it because they’re subsidized by either state
or utility programs.”
Edward Connelly is with New Ecology Incorporated, a group that studies
and promotes green affordable housing.
“The up-front cost is generally not in within the budget of an
affordable housing developer for photo voltaics, because they tend to be
Reliance on government or utility company subsidies can cause
problems. Connelly says some states make these subsidies available to
everyone, not just non-profits.
That means non-profits have to compete with traditional homebuilders
for the money to build green, and the subsidy programs sometimes
run short of demand.
“The utilities this year have run out of money for the energy star rebates
in Massachusetts because so many people took advantage of them, and
that’s not just in the affordable realm.”
Affordable, green housing faces other problems, too.
These projects sometimes move at a snail’s pace. That’s because
agencies often have to juggle several funding sources. Each government
agency or utility adds its own requirements, and managing all of them
consumes a lot of time. That means people who need affordable housing
have to wait longer, but when these groups do get the required funds, the
long-term benefits for low-to-moderate income families are impressive.
Chicago architect Susan King’s developed several green affordable
housing projects. She says non-profit projects benefit from energy
efficient technology, but their social missions push them even further.
They include features that go beyond just saving money.
“It’s an easy sell because they really do care for the life of the building,
whereas the for-profit developer just cares about that bottom line.”
She saw that attitude develop in her latest building.
It’s energy efficient and has solar power, but the non-profit also wanted
paint that wouldn’t pollute indoor air. King says, for now, housing
groups build more environmentally friendly homes than market rate
homebuilders with similar budgets, but she predicts that gap will narrow.
Average homeowners will soon demand more environmental amenities.
“I think the not-for-profits are setting an example that the for-profits are
going to follow, but they’re not going to follow it because they’re shamed into it.
I think they’re going to follow it because in the end, it’s going to make economic sense.”
Back at the energy efficient and environmentally friendly town-home,
Holly Denniston says some day, most of the features here will be
standard in the home industry, but she says non-profits will keep adding
additional value to homes even if that means spending more money up
“To non-profits, that’s alright; we’re not looking for the highest return,
we’re looking at sustainable community.”
So, Denniston says a project like this shows affordable housing isn’t
about cheap housing. It’s about building homes where people can afford
For the GLRC, I’m Shawn Allee.