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Affordable Housing Sustainability Program Picks up Steam in Seattle

Fostering energy upgrades in affordable multi-family housing has been a priority for Emerald Cities Seattle since its inception, as affordable housing is the best way to have an impact on low-income communities and create family-wage jobs for their residents.

So approximately 18 months ago, EC Seattle began development of a program and resources to enable housing owners to move forward with energy-saving measures by convening more than 50 stakeholders to gain an understanding of the opportunities for energy and water efficiency upgrades in the affordable housing market. Those who gathered represented utilities, housing organizations, tenant groups, building owners, low-income communities, training programs, contractors and labor unions. 

The stakeholder process concluded that despite the current programs available to building owners, and available resources for them, two major barriers remained. First, the lack of time and expertise for building owners to navigate and manage the upgrade process; and second, the need for both project development and retrofit funding.

Affordable Housing Sustainability Program
“We realized that EC Seattle was uniquely positioned to help overcome both of these barriers,” said the program’s Director Steve Gelb. “That led to EC Seattle’s developing our Affordable Housing Sustainability Program.”

This program identified several key needs:

  • A Green Building Advisor to work with the building owner throughout the entire process;
  • A financial consultant to identify funding opportunities that work in the complex world of affordable housing finance; and
  • An easy point of entry to this process for the building owner. 

In addition, given the need to understand the energy and water use of buildings before assessments or upgrades can begin, helping building owners monitor their utility use was seen to be a great point of entry. To get started, EC Seattle partnered with WegoWise, an online platform to monitor energy and water use with a particular emphasis on affordable housing.

By gaining expertise in WegoWise implementation, EC Seattle could then provide this service to a building owner as first step on the road to efficiency improvements. As an additional value added, EC Seattle developed a utility analysis methodology that projects potential savings opportunities and gives a building owner the information needed to plan for building assessments and upgrades.  

Working with Plymouth Housing Group
Early in 2014, EC Seattle began setting up WegoWise to track energy and water use for Plymouth Housing Group, a nonprofit provider of supported housing in Seattle. Additional analysis determined that cost-effective upgrades could potentially save hundreds of thousands of dollars on utilities in the company’s 13 buildings.

EC Seattle then aligned support from the Seattle Office of Housing’s Homewise Program, Seattle City Light, Puget Sound Energy and Seattle Public Utilities to use two of Plymouth’s buildings as demonstrations for deep energy and water efficiency retrofits.

Plymouth has agreed to engage EC Seattle and its partner Obrien and Company to act as program administrator and Green Building Coach, respectively, to manage the entire project, up to potential construction, with assessments and potential retrofits planned for early 2014. 

EC Seattle is now in discussions to set-up WegoWise with another owner of 27 affordable housing buildings.  

Community Workforce Agreement Key to Success
Significantly for EC Seattle’s efforts to create high-road, career path jobs, the Plymouth Housing Group has agreed to require a Community Workforce Agreement (CWA) between building trades unions and the contractor on any potential projects. A model CWA has been developed with contractors, unions, community groups and training providers, based on the CWA implemented with the City of Seattle for large commercial building retrofits.

The affordable housing CWA includes targets for hiring women, people of color, apprentices and graduates of pre-apprenticeship programs, as well as a means to enforce compliance with these targets. It will provide pathways to careers for individuals from underserved communities who will perform work on the projects supported by the EC Seattle Affordable Housing Sustainability Program.

After the assessments are performed in conjunction with the utilities, the next step is for EC Seattle to scale this model for deep energy and water retrofits in affordable housing, as well as a suite of funding and financing tools that can be used to implement this program in many of the over 300 affordable housing buildings in Seattle and throughout King County. 

“We are pleased that our partnership with Plymouth Housing Group has been so successful to date,” said Gelb, “and we look forward to expanding our affordable, sustainable, high-road housing work throughout the metro area.” 

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