Tassafaronga Village, a mixed-use housing development in pollution-challenged East Oakland, isn’t your average affordable housing project. Clearly visible columns of photovoltaic  solar collectors reach out to the sky from landscaped gardens in the development’s courtyard. Brightly-colored hues and contrasting earth tones on the exterior walls give a warm, inviting appearance to the development’s main building, while an asymmetrical row of vertical windows and wavy design lines add stylistic flair to the building’s ultra-modern aesthetic.

During a site visit, assistant Manager Wendy Ruiz and maintenance worker Edgar Valencia proudly show off the building’s roof to a reporter: Rows and rows of solar panels silently and efficiently collect energy from the sun; Valencia estimates there are about 145 panels in all.

Oakland Housing Authority workers install solar on an affordable housing development. (photo credit: Oakland Housing Authority)

Oakland Housing Authority workers install solar on an affordable housing development. (photo credit: Oakland Housing Authority)

The monthly energy cost for the entire housing project, Ruiz says, is about $25 for the 137 units in Phase I and $12 for the 20 townhouses in Phase II. The panels require “very low maintenance,” Valencia adds. Although residents pay for individual utility use, the bills are very low, about $10-$15 monthly, Ruiz says.

A green building that is the jewel in the crown of the city’s affordable housing, Tassafaronga serves as a model for sustainable development that provides benefits to residents and the wider community, while achieving carbon emission reductions and lowering energy grid consumption. While the model has proved effective—Tassafaronga has won numerous awards and was certified at the highest possible level of sustainability by the US government—budget cuts have derailed efforts to further green affordable housing stock in Oakland and other cities, leaving developers scrambling to find new funding sources.

The Case for Energy Efficiency in Affordable Housing

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Energy efficiency is particularly critical in affordable housing developments, says Jeremy Hays, Chief Strategist for State and Local Initiatives at Green For All, a sustainability advocacy group with offices in Oakland and Washington, D.C. According to Hays, apartment buildings built before 1970 use 55 percent more energy than those built after 1990, while low-income residents spend 400 percent more of their monthly income on utility bills than the average American. Furthermore, affordable housing owners—a segment which includes public housing agencies and non-profit real estate developers—are constrained by rising utility bills; energy consumption in the US has steadily increased nearly every year since 1985, a trend which shows no signs of reversing.

As utility bills continue to rise, “we’ll continue to lose affordable housing,” Hays says, unless the amount spent on utilities can be reduced. “Every time you reduce your energy bill, you build in some safety for yourself around increased cost,” he notes.

A 2013 study by the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) found that energy costs for federally-subsidized affordable housing are almost 40 percent higher than energy costs for private homes, and 10 times more expensive than government investment in energy efficiency. This leads, the study found, to “a terrible irony: affordable housing saddled with unaffordable energy bills.”

Grid Alternatives partnered with Laney College's Green Jobs training program for this solar installation in Oakland. (photo credit: Grid Alternatives)

Grid Alternatives partnered with Laney College’s Green Jobs training program for this solar installation in Oakland. (photo credit: Grid Alternatives)

According to the US Green Building Council, energy efficiency saves 30 to 40 percent of consumption at little to no additional cost – a significant number, considering that buildings account for 75 percent of US electricity use and 36 percent of natural gas use.

Because it creates a win-win situation—lowering utility costs while benefitting the environment—utilizing renewable energy and energy efficiency has become a growing trend in the affordable housing field.

“Utility costs are the highest percentage of [recurring] costs and the most susceptible to increasing on a yearly basis,” explains Bridgit Galka, Assistant Director of Real Estate Development for the Oakland Housing Authority (OHA), a city agency which administers federally-subsidized public housing programs and develops affordable housing throughout the city.

“Energy efficiency and green building will help the building and its systems last longer, which provides positive health benefits to residents and lasting benefits to the neighborhood in terms of blight reduction,” says Carlos Castellanos, Director of Real Estate Development at the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation (EBALDC), a non-profit affordable housing organization, which has developed more than 1,900 residential units.

Oakland has some 8,800 units of affordable housing, not including the 3,300 units of public housing overseen by the OHA. In both affordable housing and public housing units, tenants receive federal subsidies, known as Section 8 vouchers. Tenants generally contribute 30 percent of their monthly income toward rent and utilities, and pay utilities directly, receiving a utility allowance which is supposed to be adjusted annually or when rates rise more than 10 percent. (In practice, the adjustment doesn’t always work this way, and tenants are often forced to pay in excess of the 30 percent income cap, causing them “extreme hardship,” according to the National Housing Law Project.)

A view of rooftop solar installations performed by Grid Alternatives in Oakland's Bayporte Village. (photo credit: Grid Alternatives)

A view of rooftop solar installations performed by Grid Alternatives in Oakland’s Bayporte Village. (photo credit: Grid Alternatives)

Many of OHA’s properties were built decades ago, and are far from modern. In the affordable housing sector, properties typically undergo rehabilitation on 10-15 year cycles, but public housing can lag far behind that.

Built at a cost of $75 million dollars—a figure which includes not only building and construction costs, but environmental clean-up of neighborhood brownfields—Tassafaronga was the last large public housing development in the city to undergo what Galka calls a “complete rehabilitation.”

Building Affordable Housing to a Green Standard

Originally built in 1964, during the Johnson administration, Tassafaronga’s existing 87 units of low-rise public housing were dilapidated and run-down, exacerbated by jagged cracks and fissures which exemplified the term “concrete jungle” and created seismic issues to boot. On top of that, the site’s soil was highly contaminated by petroleum and pesticides. The neglected, blighted area became a haven for crime, prostitution and drug dealing.

After applying for a federal grant from the Environmental Protection Agency and creatively tweaking its financing model – leveraging Section 8 vouchers to qualify for a bank loan – OHA demolished the existing structures, with Galka serving as project manager for the revitalization effort.

In 2010, Tassafaronga opened, offering 157 mixed-income units – a combination of market-rate and affordable housing – covering 7.5 acres. The project has two major panel systems: rooftop solar (which powers common electrical systems), and solar water heaters. In addition to solar energy, Tassafaronga boasts energy-efficient windows, lighting, and boiler systems. Other green measures include recycled building materials, low-flow toilets, rainwater-catchment drains, and paint with low levels of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, meaning fewer toxic chemicals are released into the environment.

Tassafaraonga attained Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum status – the highest level possible – from the U.S. Green Building Council for Environmentally Sustainable Development, as well as LEED Gold for Neighborhood Development. Completing the project “really bumped up [OHA’s] status as far as being super energy-efficient,” Galka says.

Other green OHA projects include Chestnut Linden Court in West Oakland, Harrison Street Senior Housing in downtown Oakland, Lions Creek Crossing in East Oakland, and the currently-under-construction Cathedral Gardens project, also in downtown Oakland.

EBALDC, a co-developer of the Lions Creek Crossing development, a 22-acre public housing site which is the first phase in a transportation-oriented development project called Coliseum City intended to revitalize East Oakland’s Hegenberger Corridor, has developed eight other green buildings which provide health benefits as well as energy savings. For each project, sustainability features were designed to address specific environmental and residential needs.

Jack London Gateway, a senior housing unit, features solar-powered electricity in common areas, solar water heaters, and air filtered to hospital-quality standards. Cleaner air helps mitigate toxic emissions from a nearby freeway, which can cause respiratory illnesses.  Asthma rates in West Oakland are seven times higher than the state average, and many affordable housing developments lie within close proximity of freeways, industrial sites and diesel truck routes. Other EBALDC buildings boast photovoltaic rooftop panels, recycled flooring, low-toxicity paint, natural lighting, weatherization upgrades, and community gardens.

“All of our new construction is green,” Castellanos says. “Many factors, including cost, determine which green features we will include in a project.” For older properties, he adds, “we look for opportunities to install solar and other green features when we are doing building rehabilitations.”

Sustainability as a Community Model

Cotton is among the many crops grown at Acta Non Verba Urban Youth Farm.

Cotton is among the many crops grown at Acta Non Verba Urban Youth Farm.

The development of Tassafaronga Village highlights how sustainability features in affordable housing, can transform neighborhoods, when combined with holistic urban planning and community-oriented development. In 2011, the Acta Non Verba Youth Urban Farm Project, a youth-run sustainable urban gardening project adjacent to the redeveloped property, opened on a city-owned plot which was the formerly the worst hotspot for violent crime, drug dealing, and prostitution in the neighborhood.

Today, the farm grows sunflowers, cotton, and organic vegetables and produces cheese and spaghetti sauce, all sold onsite. In addition to mitigating the “food desert” syndrome common in inner-city neighborhoods by providing a source of fresh produce, revenue from the farm goes into an education fund for its youth workers.

Sunflowers flourish at Acta Non Verba Urban Youth Farms in Oakland.

Sunflowers flourish at Acta Non Verba Urban Youth Farms in Oakland.

As Acta Non Verba founder and Executive Director Kelly Carlisle noted, “on top of beautifying the community within the so-called bad part of town, we’ve also allowed elders and youth to consider what they’re eating.”

Further catalyzing the East Oakland neighborhood’s transformation, in 2011, a new public library opened up on 81st Avenue, just down the street from Tassafaronga Village. Rounding out the neighborhood is Acorn Woodland Elementary, an award-winning K-5 school also on 81st Ave., which opened in 2006 and houses a preventative care clinic onsite.

While the use of sustainability features in Tassafaronga Village isn’t solely responsible for the neighborhood’s transition from eyesore to community model, it’s unlikely the City of Oakland would have redeveloped the land used for the farm had the housing development not been rehabilitated and re-envisioned as the centerpiece of a uber-green urban planning project.

Budget Cuts Impact Future Green Projects

Despite the benefits of energy efficiency investments in affordable housing, financial hurdles hinder greater efforts on this front.  Even though sustainability and green living models have been established in the affordable housing sector, Galka says, budget constraints limit what agencies like OHA can presently do.

A photovoltaic panel on the roof of Tassafaronga Village in East Oakland.

A photovoltaic panel on the roof of Tassafaronga Village in East Oakland.

For instance, Tassafaronga’s funding included $12 million from Oakland’s Redevelopment Agency. Yet that sum was locked in prior to the statewide elimination of redevelopment agencies in 2012. After redevelopment funding was cut, developments in the pipeline required a larger percentage of OHA funds than in previous years. The federal Housing and Urban Development department has also slashed its public housing budget.

The affordable housing sector has also been heavily impacted by mandatory sequestration due to federal budget cuts. As the San Jose Mercury News reported, OHA faces $11 million in cuts due to sequestration in 2013, which could result in the loss of a significant amount of Section 8 vouchers. That’s critical to projects like Tassafaronga, which leveraged federal housing subsidies to qualify for some $23 million in bank loans – nearly one-third of the project’s total budget.

“The reduction of affordable housing funds makes it challenging to pay for energy-efficient features,” Castellanos says. In the past, federal funds have helped to defray up-front costs, but “The long-term savings over operations that sustainable features yield doesn’t always communicate well to politicians who are trying to reduce budgets at all levels.”

The challenges which lie ahead for affordable housing are clear: Although increased investment in energy efficiency lowers the financial burden on low-income residents, saves on power consumption, provides health benefits, and results in long-term cost savings for property owners, unless new funding sources are secured, the ability of affordable housing developers to provide future sustainability features remains in jeopardy

Editor’s Note: In Oakland, buildings are a major source of carbon emissions, representing 56 percent of the city’s total. That’s significantly higher than the state average of 50 percent. Nationally, buildings comprise slightly more than two-thirds of greenhouse gas emissions, making the sector a key area to achieve emissions reductions. In the past few years, several models have highlighted the benefits of bringing solar and energy efficiency upgrades to affordable housing, including public housing. Oakland Local reporter Eric K. Arnold explores the benefits of energy efficiency and renewable energy for low-income residents, as well as the challenges to more widespread adoption.


THANK YOU!! This work was supported by a 2013 New America Media Energy Reporting Fellowship in collaboration with SoundVision Productions’ Burn: An Energy Journal.

How Green Is the Hood series, Nov. 25 & 26, 2013

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