Solar Helps Keep Eastside Homes Affordable

Thanks to neighborhood-based nonprofit Blackland CDC

The front house of the Harden-Solar Duplex is a simple 1930s bungalow, with a few modern enhancements – like the white rain barrel – visible.
The front house of the Harden-Solar Duplex is a simple 1930s bungalow, with a few modern enhancements – like the white rain barrel – visible. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

The little pink house at East 22nd and Leona looks like most of the others in the area – a simple 1930s frame bungalow – except for the kooky-looking, solar-panel-laden addition jutting off the back. Known as the Harden-Solar Duplex, the property's two living spaces will soon house a struggling family as well as a grad student and her husband. More than just a residence, the duplex is a study in the power of the grassroots to provide low-income housing solutions, plus a living lesson in the real-world challenges of making residential solar power work and proof that rooftop renewable energy can make sense for everybody. On a recent Saturday evening, about 100 neighbors and volunteers gathered in the back yard over beer, barbecue, and live R&B to celebrate the activation of the duplex's sizable 8-kilowatt solar system.

Named for the original longtime residents of the property's historic front house (saved from demolition and moved from a lot three blocks away), the Harden-Solar Duplex is a project of the nonprofit Blackland Community Development Corp. Formed in 1983 to combat the University of Texas' eastward annexations, which were gobbling up older homes, the group's mission has been to preserve property for low-income households in the Blackland neighborhood, bordered by Comal and Chestnut streets to the west and east, MLK Boulevard on the south, and Manor Road on the north. Today, Blackland CDC owns 37 units of housing on 34 lots, including the six-cottage Robert Shaw Village on Salina. There, a 3-kW solar array installed in 1992 provides about a third of the electricity for the village's six elderly residents. Harden's solar array is expected to provide most of the electricity for the duplex and occasionally earn cash by pumping excess energy back into the power grid.

The Harden Duplex's angular back half, where graduate student Stephanie Perrone will live, has quite a backstory. Called the Snap House for the way its prefab walls are designed to snap into place, it was UT's 2005 entry in the U.S. Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon competition in Washington, D.C., an international contest in which colleges compete to design the best self-sufficient solar home. After the competition, UT donated the house to Blackland CDC, which paid to have it shipped back from D.C., to its current location, less than a block from where it was first assembled by students. On its west side, East 22nd separates the duplex from seas of UT parking lots. From that vantage, some of the duplex's other sustainable features are visible, such as two wheelchair-accessible, raised-bed gardens and two 400-gallon rainwater-capturing cisterns. East 22nd was the final battle line drawn before Blackland neighbors and UT called a truce in 1992, agreeing that the university's empire would advance no farther east if Blackland agreed to buy no more properties to the west.

Bo McCarver was one of the generals in the neighborhood's war with UT. A retired state employee with a doctorate in social anthropology, the 30-year neighborhood resident co-founded Blackland CDC with four other residents and serves as its board president. Last week, while he sat on the back porch waiting for a city of Austin building inspector to arrive, two grade-school-aged neighborhood boys watched intently as he showed them how to make miniature eucalyptus trees out of newspaper. "This [duplex] project was their summer camp," McCarver said, adding that the brothers, Jesus and Christian Martinez, learned how to operate a cordless drill while working on the house.

"We have kids in the neighborhood about to start school who have one pair of ragged shoes," said McCarver. "Eating out is a middle class myth for many of our families." In a nutshell, McCarver said, folks who are living on the margins are hit hardest when there is a general rise in expenses, be it fuel, food, or medical care. For that reason, Blackland CDC has made energy efficiency a key feature in its projects, in addition to including solar power whenever possible, which McCarver sees as a crucial tool in helping low-income folks combat rising utility rates. "For a struggling family, a $30 hike in monthly expenses means something very important in the budget must go."

The Harden project was initially designed to be two separate homes that shared solar electricity. When volunteers realized city code prevented sharing electricity across lot lines, Blackland CDC architect Joel Martinez suggested joining the two lots with a restrictive covenant and building a 15-foot breezeway between the two houses, thus creating a duplex (which Austin Energy allows to share electricity). The maneuver also allowed the two units to share hot water from a giant solar water heater, as well as sewer and water lines, saving thousands in development costs. The experience, McCarver says, highlights the need for policy reforms to allow "more flexible and creative ways of distributing energy to better serve low-income households."

A breezeway connects this back portion of the duplex, known as the Snap House, with the front.
A breezeway connects this back portion of the duplex, known as the Snap House, with the front. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Carver believes nonprofits should be allowed to share energy between homes of residents earning 60% or less of the median family income. In addition, he said, excess energy fed back into the grid should be bought back at full value minus utility infrastructure and maintenance costs (the city buys solar energy back at 3.65 cents per kilowatt hour but retails electricity for around 10 cents). "It would be such a big help for the residents, like the nine homeless families the organization has taken off the streets," said McCarver. Austin Energy spokesman Ed Clark says the price is fair because of AE's solar installation rebates – which he claims are the nation's largest – that subsidize up to 70% of the upfront costs of virtually all solar systems installed in town and because solar users already get a free kilowatt of power to use when the sun is not out for every kilowatt their home or business generates with its solar panels. If costs were not recovered for the electric system and generating plants, which solar users depend on at night, Clark said, it wouldn't be fair to other customers. Current state policies – which McCarver believes AE is afraid to challenge, fearing Austin-bashing legislation from the state Legislature – discourage full development of an urban area's solar potential. "In the Blackland neighborhood," he said, "there are roofs over churches and municipal buildings that could yield huge amounts of energy, but misnamed state 'deregulation laws' keep such ventures from happening."

"Blackland has helped quite a few to get back on their feet, to get off drugs, and to get into starter homes," said 77-year-old Evolia Givan, a 15-year resident of Robert Shaw Village. The retiree, who says she went from working as a maid to a nurse's aide, said her complex's solar system helps keep bills down and that more homes with solar systems will benefit people. "I couldn't have found a better place to live in Austin. Everyone gets along with everyone like a family, and we just have fun," Givan said.

Working to keep low-income Blackland residents in the homes they already inhabit, McCarver is critical of City Council's hesitance to implement the Homestead Preser­va­tion Act, passed by the state Legislature in 2005 (a version giving the city more discretion was passed in 2007). The measure would allow for the reinvestment of a percentage of rising property taxes, via land trusts and nonprofits, to create and preserve affordable housing in the area bordered by I-35, Airport Boulevard, the Colorado River, and 381/2 Street. "Blackland and most of East Austin needed the tax breaks it provides 10 years ago," he said. "It should have been enacted when the law was passed four years ago, but the City Council members have sat on their hands and let developers of high-end housing run rampant as the marginal homeowners are taxed out of the city."

Council Member Mike Martinez, who worked with state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez to craft the legislation, said that a January council resolution directed the city manager to work with the county to begin the steps necessary to implement the policy. "I am frustrated we haven't completed those efforts yet," he said. "I anticipate an implementation timeline in the next two weeks."

A large condo-related land deal on 22nd threatens to hyperinflate neighborhood property values, with potentially disastrous effects on many residents, McCarver said. "The New Urbanist hype is largely running interference for the high-end developers who chant the mantra of 'density' along with the city planners. The vertical mixed-use ordinance sprinkles a few units of affordable housing in the upscale complexes; however, the increased taxes on surrounding residential units will wipe out far more affordable units than the token numbers provided by the condos that VMU fosters."

Though Blackland now houses eight elderly individuals and 29 families, McCarver says it's unlikely they'll acquire any additional property due to sky-high prices and the scarcity of financing for neighborhood-based rehabilitation projects. He said Blackland has embarked on its final housing project on 22nd Street – the Stewart House at 1902 E. 22nd – where they've moved four donated houses onto vacant lots with the intent of remodeling them on a room-at-a-time basis using donated time, materials, and money.

"The neighborhood has been committed to Blackland work Saturdays," he said, which are open to anyone who wishes to volunteer (see "22nd Street Volunteer Opportunities," below). This grassroots approach, he says, "fosters full community participation, allows residents to 'feel' how the project is progressing," and helps Blackland offer more homes to low-income families without assuming debt. The Stewart House will eventually have gardens that accommodate disabled people in addition to community spaces for canning, quilting, sewing, bike repair, and domestic arts and crafts for people of all ages. The site, says McCarver, "will provide a community conservatory where the local culture can be expressed and preserved."


22nd Street Volunteer Opportunities

From 9am to 4pm every Saturday (and some weekdays), work is happening somewhere along four blocks of 22nd Street between Leona and Poquito, weather-permitting. "If you can swing a hammer, clean-up or 'gopher' materials," Blackland CDC says it can use you. No skills are necessary, but any are appreciated, and tools are helpful. Plumbers and electricians are extra-handy, as are the following materials: l umber, cement, nails, electrical wiring and switches, and a thesaurus of effective cuss words. Tax-deductible donations are needed for inspection fees, permits, and licensed contractors required by the city. Donations can be sent to Blackland 22nd Street Project, 2005 Salina St., Austin, TX 78722. Interested volunteers can call Bo McCarver at 474-6009 or e-mail at bmccarver@austin.rr.com.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Blackland Community Development Corp., Bo McCarver, Harden-Solar Duplex, snap house, solar energy, Austin Energy

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