Group Builds Energy Smart Affordable Housing in Texas

Creating the First LEED-Silver Housing Development in Rio Grande Valley

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Amber Arriaga-Salinas is director of public relations at Proyecto Azteca.

Marianella Franklin is chief sustainability officer at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

Posted: Wednesday, April 20, 2016 10:30 am

Fighting poverty in one of the poorest counties in the United States takes a comprehensive and multi-faceted approach. It’s more than affordable housing units. It’s more than creating jobs. It’s more than educational opportunities.

It’s about drastic changes that impact future generations.

One Texas nonprofit organization is working to reduce poverty among the poorest residents of the Rio Grande Valley through its Lynchburg Estates, an Edcouch neighborhood made up of affordable and energy-efficient homes where future homeowners use sweat equity for their down payment.

“Every single family that is there is a success story,” said Amber Arriaga-Salinas, director of public relations at Proyecto Azteca. “It’s amazing to hear how much their lives have been changed by moving into these homes.”

In 1991, the United Farmworkers of America, Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid and the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service supported the creation of Proyecto Azteca as a solution to the ongoing problem of poor migrant families living in colonias.

Colonias are “homes that are put together haphazardly,” Arriaga-Salinas explained. Families who live in colonias typically do not have potable water, a stable roof or paved roads in their neighborhoods.

“We knew we needed to do something about it. We needed to build something affordable and decent for our families,” Arriaga-Salinas said.

And they did. Proyecto Azteca has built more than 700 homes and currently has a waiting list of 4,000 people.

Then they decided to take their mission a step further.

The idea for an entire neighborhood of sustainable affordable homes to enhance the quality of life for low-income families was the result of a natural disaster.

Proyecto Azteca Executive Director Ann Cass was attending the first South Texas Hurricane Conference when she began to explore the idea of weather resistant homes for low-income families. This initial thought gained traction when several Proyecto Azteca families vocalized the need for weather resilient homes following Hurricane Dolly in 2008.

Then Cass read a commentary written by Nancy Andrews, president and CEO of the Low Income Investment Fund, and David Erickson, director of the Center for Community Development Investment of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. The opinion piece was published on Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity, a leading nonpartisan forum on poverty and it supported the idea that an affordable housing neighborhood could facilitate the upward mobility of low-income families.

This 2012 opinion piece encouraged a "coordinated, holistic approach" to attack poverty in neighborhoods and highlighted successful efforts throughout the country.

"What these approaches have in common is that they tackle poverty on many fronts at once – health, housing, education, transportation, crime, jobs – which is exactly what we believe the community development sector must do moving forward," this commentary said.

This holistic approach influenced the plan for the 32-home neighborhood of Lynchburg Estates, Cass explained. She said that moving people “from poverty to prosperity is not just a matter of building them a house.”

"We have had to have frequent community meetings to work with the families on how to care for their houses, and are throwing all the resources from jobs to health care to education into the neighborhood," Cass said.

Arriaga-Salinas explained how the features of these homes meet the organization’s goal for weather resistant housing.

“Our Lynchburg homes have 9-inch thick concrete walls that provide both sturdiness and fire resistance. Their metal roofs can withstand hail damage and resist heavy winds while keeping homes cooler in the sun. And the insulated foam used in the walls prevents cooler air from leaking outside and makes it through floods better than traditional insulation,” Arriaga-Salinas said.

The attractive homes also feature rainwater harvesting, solar panels and Energy Star appliances.

“All of that for a price tag of around $86,500 for the four-bedroom home, bringing house payments, taxes and insurance down to about $500 per month on a 40-year mortgage,” Arriaga-Salinas said.

Proyecto Azteca’s homes are subsidized through public and private funds. In the past, the organization has received funding from the Hidalgo County Urban County Program, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Housing Assistance Council and the Marguerite Casey Foundation.

Another aspect of this affordable housing development is the sweat equity down payment. Future residents provide 550 hours (about 69 work days) of labor in the construction of their own house or someone else’s home. That’s the only down payment required at Lynchburg Estates.

“That sweat equity is their down payment,” Arriaga-Salinas said. “Through that residents are learning how to keep their home sustainable. They learn how to install a ceiling fan or fix a broken toilet and they feel proud that they built their home with their own hands.”

Arriaga-Salinas said Proyecto Azteca didn’t set out to build energy-efficient homes but it naturally happened as they collected input from their future residents.

“As we were building it, we were taking cues from our families about what they would like to see in these homes,” Arriaga-Salinas said. “We put together a list of those needs and started the blueprints. Once we inspected that list of needs we said ‘hey, we’ve got an energy-efficient house here.’”

Twenty-two homes have been built since 2011 and the final 10 homes are currently in various stages of construction. Solar panels have been installed at six houses.

“Every family that gets to move into a new home after coming from a colonia and dilapidated housing conditions is a success, but for Lynchburg I think one of the biggest success stories is that a family of four who was used to paying high electricity bills (is now) earning $350 a year from the light company because of the solar panels,” Arriaga-Salinas said.

Because of these energy-efficient features, officials at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) Office of Sustainability encouraged Proyecto Azteca to apply for LEED certification.

The homes have registered to become LEED certified but have not completed the certification process, said Rachel Gilbert, media and communications specialist for the U.S. Green Building Council. The housing development is aiming to become the first neighborhood south of Austin comprised of all LEED-Silver homes.

“We wanted to show people that for around $80,000 mortgage you could build a LEED home. It is possible,” Arriaga-Salinas said. “If we can do that here, you can do it in any other part of the country.”

Marianella Franklin, chief sustainability officer at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, said she is “really proud” of Lynchburg Estates.

Last January, volunteers planted 35 trees in the Lynchburg Estates neighborhood as part of an Arbor Day Foundation award.

“The trees provide a thermal value as well as an aesthetic value,” Franklin said.

Arriaga-Salinas said the residents planted the trees alongside the university student volunteers.

“The kids were really excited to come out and help with this project. They were excited to see the trees lining their sidewalks,” Arriaga-Salinas said.

An unintended consequence of the Lynchburg Estates project is the influence it’s having on its youngest generation.

“The kids are learning about sustainable living and are encouraging others to be more Earth conscious, like recycling at school,” Arriaga-Salinas said.

The neighborhood has walking and biking paths.

“We encourage our families to do things like gardening and recycling and will provide training for those who need help starting a community or home garden with the help of Texas A&M Rural Health,” Arriaga-Salinas said.

There is a plan to build a community center at Lynchburg Estates, but it hasn’t been constructed yet. Proyecto Azteca’s priority is to get those 32 families into their homes and then the organization will start to gather ideas from the residents concerning their community center, Arriaga-Salinas said.

“We want our 32 families to have a role and a voice in what they want to use the community center for, what would serve them best,” she said.

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