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What do solar panels have to do with affordable housing? A lot.

A worker installs solar panels on a home

The Channel Square apartments are getting green retrofits thanks to the DC SEU


Here, "being green" means more than just feeling good about recycling; it can mean helping a family make their rent.
Home values in D.C.  nearly doubled from 2000 to 2010, while income for the bottom 40 percent of the city’s population barely budged. A minimum-wage worker would have to clock in 137 hours a week to afford a two-bedroom apartment at fair market rent. The District’s New Communities Initiative – a plan to turn four public housing communities into viable mixed-income neighborhoods – is years behind schedule and widely considered a failure.
 
The list of affordable housing crises in the nation’s capital goes on. But there is at least one bright spot, and it comes in the form of an institution you are helping fund but may not have even heard of: the DC Sustainable Energy Utility (DCSEU).
 
“As an organization, we can’t control the rents that are going to be charged,” said Ted Trabue, the managing director of DCSEU. “But for the second largest bill that the tenants will receive we can have a large impact -- and that is their utilities.”   
For several years, the city helped thousands of qualifying low-income residents pay their bills at a once-a-year-event called joint utility discount day. As the number of people applying for assistance steadily increased, the city realized it needed to do something to reduce energy consumption and found that programs run by utility companies and the D.C. Energy Office didn’t go far enough, according to Trabue.
 
In 2008, D.C. passed the Clean and Affordable Energy Act, which called for an independent company to run the city’s sustainable energy programs. The contract, which was won by the non-profit Vermont Energy Investment Corporation, included some very specific and forward-thinking mandates that go beyond simply reducing the city’s energy consumption. The DCSEU was born.
 
The DCSEU isn't a traditional energy utility. Instead of generating power, it's charged with reducing the city's energy use through energy efficiency and renewable energy services, and it is funded through a surcharge on electric and gas ratepayers. For example, one program helps homeowners reduce their utility bills through rebates on energy-efficient appliances. It also must create "green collar" jobs for District residents and spend 30 percent of its funding in low-income communities.

That last mandate is critical because unlike commercial building owners, which are often already pursuing green measures on their own, “in the low income community, this work doesn’t happen absent our intervention,” said Trabue. “And, quite frankly, on a lot of levels it doesn’t happen absent our paying almost for the entire array of installations.”
 
But the savings for residents already struggling to make ends meet – as well as developers trying to keep costs down to maintain affordability – can be dramatic. Of the ten programs DCSEU runs, five are specifically aimed at affordable housing in the low-income community.
 
Under its “small-scale solar initiative,” the utility installs solar PV systems on the homes of low-income residents; those customers typically save about 40 percent on their energy bills.
 
Under a “home performance” program, DCSEU will go into residents’ homes and performs an energy audit before undertaking several improvements (adding insulation, installing more efficient lighting, replacing doors, and others).
 
“The work proves itself out,” said DCSEU’s public relations manager, Hanna Grene. “People are comfortable in their homes, people who were afraid to turn up the heat or the air …  [for them] being able to afford the bills is a big deal.”
 
On an even simpler level, DCSEU gives high efficiency lighting to low-income residents free of charge. Last year, it distributed more than 46,000 CFLs through the non-profit Bread for the City – resulting in $265,000 in annual electricity savings.
 
The utility also works to improve the energy efficiency of low-income multifamily buildings – both as they are being built and as developers upgrade existing complexes – by providing technical assistance, offering incentives to buy LEED-certified appliances and equipment and directly installing more efficient lighting and faucets.      
 
Last year, DCSEU provided technical assistance and incentives to help a developer upgrade Southeast’s Bass Circle Apartments. The 119-unit affordable housing complex is projected to save $65,000 in reduced energy costs.
 
That kind of aid also helped the non-profit National Housing Trust and its partners make even more extensive energy efficiency upgrades to Channel Square, an affordable housing complex the group purchased last year in collaboration with a tenants' association.
 
For example, a financial incentive from DCSEU made it possible for NHT to purchase a more expensive, but more efficient boiler system, according to Jared Lang, NHT’s sustainable development manager. He estimates that the work NHT is doing to improve energy efficiency in the building will save around $80,000 a year – on the conservative side.
 
DCSEU was “really great to work with,” said Michael Bodaken, NHT’s president. “It took a little bit of time, but we were happy with the results.”
 
Bodaken also stressed the importance – and value – of the kind of work that DCSEU is doing to improve the efficiency of multi-family housing. He cited a recent report that found that multi-family housing has twice the energy-efficiency potential of any other building type in Montgomery County. “There is no reason that the District is any different,” he said. “And we need to make sure low-income people are getting their fair share.”

Read more articles by Rachel Sadon.

Rachel Sadon is a freelance journalist based in Petworth with an interest in politics, culture, urbanism, and new ways of telling stories, especially when they intersect.
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