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Solar, Celebrity & Affordable Housing

What do movie actor Edward Norton and low-income, single moms have in common? They’re both driving the renewable energy and green building industries. While celebrities are able to easily pay the price for homes equipped with the latest in solar and energy efficiency products, now low-income families are also receiving the benefits of healthier, greener home environments in which to raise their kids — and policy makers are awarding funds to developers who can provide just that.

This topic was addressed by Jeffery Lesk, a partner at the Nixon Peabody law firm in Washington, DC, during the Green Homes & Sustainable Communities 2007 conference held last week in San Francisco, California.

According to Lesk, affordable housing offers a unique opportunity “because the entities getting the assistance are typically required to own and operate the property for at least 15 to 20 years.” This allows owners to benefit from the payback on renewables, while many merchant builders who “build and flip” their properties in short periods of time would not.

Marty Keller, director of Construction Management at First Community Housing in San Jose, California, a non-profit Housing Corporation known as a pioneer in “greening” affordable housing, explained “affordable housing and high-end residential are where green is coming from—and it is moving to the middle.”

One of First Community’s successful projects is Murphy Ranch in Morgan Hill, California, which boasts 100 townhouses on approximately 7 acres. Designed for low-income families and single parent households, the townhouses are arranged in 4-plexes and 5-plexes around a central spine that includes two play structures, a solar heated swimming pool and solar heated shower and a recreation building. Photovoltaic panels on the carports and recreation building supplies 95% of the common area/recreation building’s electricity. The development exceeds California’s Title 24 Energy Requirements by 25%.

On the other extreme, high-end residential property owners and celebrities like Norton, Daryl Hannah, Danny Devito and Leonardo DiCaprio are able to pay up front for solar installations—along with other sustainable and green building technologies—even if it takes decades for the investment to pay off. But celebrities like Norton have been instrumental in helping bring renewable energy to those who might not otherwise be able to afford it.

Norton is a trustee of the Enterprise Foundation, which was founded by his grandfather and is the largest non-profit developer of low-income housing in America. The Institute co-sponsored the Green Homes & Sustainable Communities 2007 with IPED.

In addition, when Norton first started “shopping” for solar panels for his own home a few years ago he proposed to BP Solar that the company create a program whereby celebrities, or public figures of any sort, purchase a solar system for their homes that BP would donate a matching system to a low-income family. From there BP’s Solar Neighbors’ program was born. Now, every time an invited celebrity purchases a BP solar system for their home, BP donates a similar system to be installed on a low-income family’s home in South Central Los Angeles.

The solar system donated through the program helps eliminate most, or all, of a family’s electricity bill, freeing up income for maintenance, home improvements and other necessities for successful, long-term ownership.

And the energy costs savings are not trivial. According to F.L. Andrew Padian a housing specialist with Steven Winter Associates, a building systems consulting firm, a low-income, single family home uses about three times the energy as an average income, single family home, when looking at multi-unit homes the difference can be as high as seven-fold.

In low-income housing the utility costs often come out of the operating budgets of the owners. And as the cost of natural gas, fuel oil, and electricity go up, so does the operating budget as a percent of the total budget. Theses high energy cost often lead to foreclosures and occupant abandonment. 

From low-income rural housing on scattered lots in central Massachusetts, to urban-dwelling seniors in Seattle, an industry accustomed to working with government incentives, grants, and tight building operating budgets is showing the renewable energy industry just how well the two fit together. Guaranteeing roofs over the heads of America’s low-income, elderly, developmentally disabled, etc., has always been the domain of the affordable housing industry but now they are fighting for a roof with PV on top.