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Going Green Can Help the Poor — and So Much More

Meet the people working to apply the principles of sustainability to poverty.

The concept of sustainability is a large, lumbering, complicated beast with tentacles reaching out into every corner of society. It touches transportation, the economy, development, energy, and on and on.

But there is one area where many of the concepts of sustainability collide — poverty.

After all, it’s the poor who shoulder the biggest burden of the practices collectively called “unsustainable": a reliance on single-vehicle commuting, perhaps, or energy from fossil fuels. A number of organizations have found that low-income people tend to put more of their income toward utilities and transportation than higher wage-earners. And some have asserted that the impoverished are also disproportionate victims of negative side-effects — U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, for example, has shaped his agency’s work around the concept that infrastructure work in the past has isolated the poor. Others have spoken up against polluting power plants, saying they represent a health hazard for the often disadvantaged residents living nearby.

So government is changing its tune. Aside from funding programs aimed at directly helping the poor, public officials are increasingly looking at ways to lower their bills for things they can’t afford not to buy, like transportation and electricity.

And it just might wind up being a benefit for transportation, the economy, development, energy, and on and on.


Economically speaking, rooftop solar panels are an investment — pay up front, and over time they offer some form of payback. Depending on local regulations, that could either mean the panels reduce utility costs over the long term or that their owners could literally make money by selling power back to the grid.

It’s that up-front cost that might make solar panels hard for low-income people to reach. That was one conclusion a report from George Washington University found in 2015. Another factoid from that report: Households earning less than $40,000 per year make up just 5 percent of solar installations.

Energy efficiency, while cheaper, might also be tough for low-income people — especially if they rent apartments in older multi-family complexes featuring outdated heating and cooling systems and wasteful appliances.

But a group of organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area want to show that on-site power generation and energy efficiency are not only possible for low-income people, but that they can reach net-zero energy — a concept where a structure produces as much or more energy than it uses.

The William Penn Hotel in San Francisco's Tenderloin district is specifically used to house formerly homeless people and “at-risk” adults. Photo via the Chinatown Community Development Center.

The project, according to the organizers, appears to be unprecedented. Which is, in itself, evidence of the difficulty low-income people face in reducing their power bills.

“What’s unique about this particular building is that it’s a multi-story retrofit for net zero, which is extremely rare,” said Rafael Reyes, deputy director of project organizer Prospect Silicon Valley. “And no other multi-unit building in the state has been retrofitted to net zero to date.”

Prospect Silicon Valley (Prospect SV), along with several other groups, announced in May the beginning of the renovation of the William Penn Hotel in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. The hotel, featuring single-room occupancy apartment for 91 residents, is specifically used to house formerly homeless people and “at-risk” adults. To get the building to net zero, Reyes said the group is considering solar panels — or perhaps even an emerging concept combining solar photovoltaic with solar water heating — efficient air systems, LED lighting and more. Prospect SV is aiming for a 50 percent improvement in efficiency when all is said and done.

The concept fits into a wider context of aggressive climate change policies in the state. Last year the California Legislature voted to increase building energy efficiency standards, as well as the renewable energy portfolio for utilities. One of its targets is to see all new residential and commercial construction meet the definition of net zero by 2030. It also wants building owners to start retrofitting existing commercial buildings for net zero.

While the Penn building’s net zero project is a retrofit, Reyes said the demonstration will serve to test and show off concepts that will help the state meet its climate goals.

“We’re at the earliest stages right now with net zero,” Reyes said. “I would say many of these projects, particularly retrofits, are highly challenging. So we wouldn’t necessarily expect building owners to turn around tomorrow and say, ‘OK, on our own dime we’re going to go to net zero.’”

When it comes to the cost of living for its tenants, Penn will be something of a special case. That’s because its owner is the Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC), a nonprofit that uses Penn and several other buildings as housing for those who might have the most trouble finding it — those with mental health issues, for example.

So CCDC pays the power bill, and any cost savings will be realized by the organization instead of the tenant. CCDC Deputy Director Cindy Wu said that will translate into reduced costs for the organization, which it can then use to shore up the guarantee of shelter that building provides to its residents.

“The way the budgets work is every building has its own operating budget,” Wu said. “So using energy efficiency upgrades, or in the future maybe even producing energy on-site, I think it all makes the building operating budget work better. So those are additional dollars that can be put back in the building for maybe capital upgrades, or if we were really fortunate then … it could go toward programming for the tenants.”

And then there’s always the most tangible, immediate positive for the residents — simply making the building nicer to live in.

“Benefits to tenants will be primarily in the form of comfort,” Reyes said. “So right now, it’s actually very difficult to do temperature management in the building because it’s drafty, the heating systems are extremely old, the systems are fighting each other because they haven’t been upgraded in years.”


The tone of growth in baby boomer America was one of expanding outward from the center: As the population swelled, it was the suburbs that took on new people. And the government built highways to connect those people to the cities.

The scramble nowadays is in the opposite direction: Those thinking about city planning and transportation want compact systems. They want to fill in the empty spaces rather than pushing people out to the edge and asking them to drive in.

And in California, the Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities (AHSC) program is looking for that concept to benefit low-income people. The program, funded by cap-and-trade dollars that essentially come from taxing carbon emissions, matches state money with development projects that are located close to public transit, designed for shorter commutes, and built to make walking and bicycling more attractive.

One of the things the program’s staff looks for in applications is proposals to improve nearby mobility options.

“It can be as simple as adding a transit stop in front of the development, or paying for upgrades for real-time transit data for arrival times of the bus,” said Ben Metcalf, director of the California Department of Housing and Community Development. “It could be … making sure there’s a pedestrian path that leads to the transit, or providing for bicycle lockers on the site.”

The collective impact of those actions, Metcalf said, could be very big. A low-income person who suddenly spends twice as much on transportation due to a spike in gas prices, for example, would have to find other places to make cuts. Research into spending habits has shown that those cuts will go things like health care, savings — even food. Things that can take a hit in the short-term, but might have big impacts later on.

“Not only is that then very bad for the families in terms of their larger incomes, it can actually spill over in cost to society as a whole because, in fact, those are families that are going to be more likely to need health care and use the emergency room, those are the people that aren’t going to be able to support themselves in retirement,” he said.

The AHSC isn’t that large in itself — in fiscal 2014, it funded about 30 development projects in a state of nearly 40 million people. The hope, Metcalf said, is to support a much wider effort to change the way that government thinks about planning, development and growth. If public officials can emphasize infill development over sprawl and public transit over highways, it just might lead to a system where transportation is cheaper and easier for everyone involved.

That means influencing local master plans as well as zoning and codes, it means regional cooperatives, it means finding funding and it means connecting different aspects of government service together.

“We are planning for millions of new residents in the decades to come,” Metcalf said. “So the question becomes: Where are we going to be supporting the development that has to accommodate that group?”

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.