POWAY, California - Mary Jane Jagodzinzki nervously anticipated the arrival of a busload of building professionals. As it turned out, she needn't have been too concerned.
Forty or so camera-toting architects, project managers and contractors arrived en masse in the bedroom community of Poway, north of San Diego, part of a green building tour showcasing a pioneering apartment complex that's saving money and helping the planet: the green-themed Solara.
Energy experts tout Solara as being the largest energy efficient -- and affordable -- housing project in southern California, if not the United States. The apartment complex represents the merger of two building trends: the desire to design eco-friendly homes, and states creating financial incentives for energy conservation.
In the United States, the average home emits about four metric tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent per person per year -- about 17 percent of all U.S. emissions -- according to research by the Environmental Protection Agency. "It's not just a matter of engineering, it's a sustainability issue," said Jagodzinski, senior project manager for Community Housing Works (CHW), a nonprofit organisation dedicated to providing affordable housing for low-income families.
Developers face numerous challenges integrating current green technology with the long-term needs of the residents and community. At Solara, the premises are eco-friendly inside and out. Photovoltaic solar panels affixed to the building's rooftops and carports generate 141 kilowatts of power, enough electricity to meet each unit's energy needs.
Ample natural light floods the walkways. Energy efficient appliances, tank-less water heaters and other eco-friendly amenities drastically reduce the apartment complex's carbon footprint.
The 56 units, located on 2.5 acres, give a whole new meaning to the term "low-income housing". The project is no drab concrete tower reminiscent of the fortress-like public housing projects erected during the 1960s. Instead, Solara is a site acclaimed urban planner Jane Jacobs might have been proud of.
Residents live within close walking distance of Poway's shopping district. The cluster of buildings is edged with an edible landscape composed of sage, wildflowers and lemon trees. Many of the two-story units also share a 129-metre boundary with a creek bed and a public park, creating a green space that links the bucolic with the commercial.
Aside from eye-pleasing architecture, Solara's low-impact design also serves the needs of the tenants. Utility bills are non-existent, relieving low-income families of energy bills that can crunch a tight budget.
Given Community Housing Works' mandate to improve the quality of life for low-income households, Solara also comes with an element of social engineering some might call indoctrination. To keep the premises green, the maintenance staff and residents are briefed on maintaining the property consistent with an eco-friendly ethos. Cultural enrichment programmes conducted in English and Spanish instruct children on ways to help heal the planet.
Envious neighbors won't be able to move in anytime soon. Solara's apartments were fully leased within days of becoming available. There are 400 prospective tenants currently on the waiting list. In addition, every applicant is means tested in order to qualify for housing; their incomes must not fall below 30 percent or exceed 60 percent of the region's median household income.
San Diego's housing market is expensive by any standard, having a cascading affect on local residents. Soaring housing costs coupled with low wages puts home ownership out of reach for many people, placing a premium on apartments that families can afford to live in.
U.S. Census data indicate the median monthly housing costs for mortgaged owners was 2,243 dollars, and renters pay 1,154 dollars per month. While the median cost of renting a home increased nationwide by 6.7 percent from 2000 to 2005, San Diego's shot up 27.2 percent, among the highest increases in the country. The average rent in the area is now 1,237 dollars.
While Solara does not offer tenants the option of buying the units outright, rents are much less than on the open market, ranging from 557 dollars for a one-bedroom to 807 dollars for a 304-square-metre three-bedroom, two-bath apartment.
Community Housing Works' own lack of expertise in green building construction didn't prevent them from moving forward. Instead, they hired U.S. Global Green, a Santa Monica nonprofit organisation focused on global warming and nuclear non-proliferation, to provide technical assistance. Global Green helped them keep costs down and obtain the best available technology.
According to Walker Wells, a programme manager for Global Green, they "tried to define what the future might look like", assisting in the design of a building that's very much on the cutting edge without looking as though it belongs on the set of a sci-fi movie, he said.
According to their calculations, Solara's carbon footprint is 95 percent, or 1,880 tonnes, less than a similarly sized, conventionally powered development, equivalent to removing more than 300 cars a year, or planting more than 5,400 trees.
That said, "Going green added 2 percent to Solara's overall budget," Jagodzinski said. And according to her calculations, CHW can expect to recoup the extra expenses in four to seven years, thanks in part to energy savings and subsidies that offset the cost of construction.
Apparently, building it green and affordable has had its advantages. The California Energy Commission, for example, paid for much of the 1.1 million dollars associated with the installation of Solara's photovoltaic solar panels, and an additional 12 million in tax credits and subsidies made completion of the 16-million-dollar project possible.
It's Wells hope that Solara becomes a catalyst for what the future of public housing looks like. Global Green has consulted on 15 similar projects slated for construction or near completion in California. So far, they've partnered with developers in 20 states to build 8,500 hundred eco-friendly homes for low-income families, as part of a 555 million dollar initiative.
According to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, there are currently 1.2 million households living in publically-subsidised apartments around the country.
If advocates for low-income housing have their way, green buildings won't just be a novelty for well-heeled and affluent homeowners but a ubiquitous part of the landscape.
(This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS and IFEJ - International Federation of Environmental Journalists.)
© 2007 Inter Press Service