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Michigan’s Need for Affordable Housing and Reduced Carbon Emissions Met Through Net-Zero Housing

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Governor Gretchen Whitmer has announced plan’s for the State of Michigan to go carbon neutral by 2050. Meanwhile, there’s a crisis in affordable or workforce housing. The two issues, seemingly different, have the potential to be solved with net-zero housing.

The Depot Neighborhood in Traverse City was first conjured up nearly a decade ago by . The homes essentially create the same amount of energy that they use, through the power of smart design and the solar panels atop the ten homes’ roofs.

Trisha Lardie wasn’t familiar with the term net-zero before signing up for a Habitat home for her family of six.

“I didn’t really fully understand how that all really plays out, like what it really looks like,” says Lardie. “But it’s it’s absolutely amazing. It’s something that I wish every household could have, especially up here in Traverse City.”

Access to affordable housing in Traverse City is there, says Yarrow Brown, Executive Director of Housing North. It’s difficult to find with the demand for year-round workforce housing in an area where the population is increasing, rapidly.

“Impacts are already starting to happen where business owners are are worried about how they’re going to fill and keep their doors open when they don’t have housing for their employees,” says Brown.

Brown says any way we can reduce utility costs and create housing that is more “green” will benefit everyone. She says can pre-fund qualifying energy upgrades on buildings.

Habitat has taken the lead on creating more energy-efficient affordable housing in Traverse City. At the time the project was being explored, the concept was still  “cutting-edge.”

“We felt it was leading in the community. And Habitat always wants to be a leading organization, and obviously it benefits the families,” says Depot Neighborhood’s Project Manager, at the time, Ryan McCoon.

Cutting-edge meant the solar panels and the source of energy was rather expensive at the time. But McCoon says the investment was going to be cost-saving for the homeowners in the long-run, so worth the investment.

The solar panels weren’t the only consideration for designing net-zero.

“It really comes down to the techniques of construction,” says McCoon. “So I use the analogy of a Styrofoam cup, from a builder perspective, we have a minimum that we’re supposed to build to whether it’s Habitat for Humanity or from my perspective as being a private builder. And it’s technically like a Styrofoam cup. Styrofoam cups work well. They hold heat. You put your coffee into it, does a pretty good job. But if you haven’t drank that coffee in ten, 15 minutes, it becomes a room temperature cold. We focus more on like a thermos bottle. We’re trying to hold heat longer, so you’re putting less heat into it.”

The homes are built with 14 inch thick walls, densely insulated and the windows and attics are sealed tightly so air isn’t passing through.

That keeps homeowner’s, like Lardie’s, energy costs low. Lardie says her husband calculated their energy and heat costs from last year and it averaged about $17 per month for their family of six.

So why aren’t more people getting behind this building style? There could be several reasons. The cost and accessibility to renewables, building code requirements in place, and the housing market.

Brown says there needs to be more options for homeowners to choose their energy source. She is one example of a homeowner that doesn’t have a choice.

“Where I live, we we don’t have an option to sign on to natural gas,” she says. “So any way we can create more options in the home by using wind, solar or electrical or creating energy efficiency is going to be a benefit because the cost of propane just continues to rise. ”

There’s also a misconception that building net-zero is only for people in a higher tax bracket as solar can cost thousands of dollars. But McCoon says the cost has gone down as its become more popular. There’s also tax credits and and that can incentivize people to go renewable.

“Renewables in general have come down in cost to make it more affordable,” says McCoon. “I think it’s become more consumer driven.”

He also says building codes requiring a certain minimum does not encourage builders or homeowners to go renewable or build above code.

“It’s not required to build net zero. So many builders look at it as an extra expense,” he says.

Finally, the housing market controls the value of the house. The “above” standards of a net-zero house can be hard to calculate and the homeowner can risk losing their investment.

“When you do try and generate a house value, you don’t get the full value back in it. So it becomes more of a luxury item that the renewable does,” says McCoon. “But that being said, there’s more buyers that are asking for this. So at the end of the day, the builders are required to do it. So I think it’s just a matter of time, whether it’s driven by code, by state or federal requirement or just the market in general, asking to have this type of technology added to their home [we’ll] eventually get there.”

It will require innovators like Habitat for Humanity to help popularize the idea of building net-zero housing as we look to solve two crises in Michigan – climate change and affordable housing. More consumers “buying-in” can help to reduce the costs and help shape the housing market.

“We wanted to become innovative in the way that we wanted to overcome and combat some of the rising costs and challenges of affordable housing,” says Habitat for Humanity Grand Traverse Region CEO, Wendy Irvin. “With that sort of neighborhood and energy efficiency, and renewable energy was a conversation for us as a way to create fixed costs for our homeowners so that they would have stability in their future.”

Irvin says the rising interest rates, now, the cost of housing and other inflated costs is creating a crisis in the community and even makes it difficult for Habitat to continue to build.

But they are forging ahead on current projects such as the energy-efficient New Waves Community, a partnership with the New Waves United Church of Christ on M-72 in Leelanau County, which is already in development.

Irvin says Habitat will continue finding ways to make affordable and energy efficient housing in the region with the help of partnerships.

“They love the neighborhood this pocket community, the energy efficiencies and the opportunity for renewable energy.” she says. “And we hope that we’re able to find a donor that can come alongside us and help us with that.”

You can read more from Chelsea Dickens about net-zero and affordable housing in other states by .

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