The Daily Californian Online

New Energy-Efficient Units Offer Affordable Alternative for Tenants

By Kate Lyons
Daily Cal Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 9, 2011
Category: News > University > Research and Ideas

Karen Chapple, an associate professor of city and regional planning, owns this net-zero energy affordable housing unit on Delaware Street near San Pablo Avenue.

Eighteen blocks west of the UC Berkeley campus, a cottage standing in a professor's backyard exemplifies a new option for Bay Area affordable housing, consisting of a low-cost, energy-efficient dwelling strategically placed near a major transit corridor.

The net-zero energy affordable housing unit is located on a property on Delaware Street near San Pablo Avenue and is owned by Karen Chapple, an associate professor of city and regional planning at UC Berkeley.

Constructed by local company New Avenue Homes in 2010, the cottage consists of a heat-absorbing concrete foundation, a recycled metal roof, insulated walls and dual-paned windows, making it extremely energy efficient, according to New Avenue Homes founder and CEO Kevin Casey.

In 2009, Chapple was approached by Casey while he was a student at Haas School of Business. Casey was working on a group project on affordable housing, and Chapple, who was considering building another unit for financial reasons, offered to use her lot as a model. After Casey graduated and launched his own start-up company, he contacted Chapple about starting the building project.

"I was reluctant - borrowing $100,000 is a scary proposition, and though I knew it was an investment that would generate income, I was still nervous about it," Chapple said.

She said she decided to proceed with the project after Chancellor Robert Birgeneau's announcement of 8 percent salary cuts in August 2009.

According to Chapple, the typical affordable housing unit is constructed as part of a multi-unit complex project. Each unit usually costs $400,000 to build, and rent revenues are collected by the developer. Chapple's energy-efficient cottage took one-fourth the usual cost to build and is an example of an asset-building strategy for homeowners. Chapple currently rents out the unit to tenants who live there three weeks each month for $950 but said she would rent it out for $1,200 to full-time residents.

Cottage tenant Karen Kerr said the unit is perfect for her situation. A firefighter with the San Francisco Fire Department, Kerr stays at the cottage with her partner, a firefighter who works in Seattle, and their 2-year-old son. Kerr uses public transit to commute to her work in the Bayview neighborhood of San Francisco.

"We have another residence in Seattle and travel back and forth, but in a few years we will be living here - we are using this time to figure out where and how we are going to live," Kerr said. "We want to live close to friends and have a sense of community without buying an expensive house with a huge mortgage - it just doesn't suit our future."

Kerr discovered New Avenue Homes while searching online for small housing options. She said she and her family were considering building a similar small structure on a friend's property but saw this as an opportunity to experience living in an energy-efficient house sharing utility lines with a main house.

Soon after starting construction, Chapple decided to apply for a $60,000 grant from the UC Transportation Center to increase the scale of the project. Using the grant, Chapple is currently researching how these low-cost, energy-efficient houses can boost public transportation use.

"There is a great transportation angle," she said. "The main barrier to building these houses is the parking requirements. If you could tell homeowners they don't have to build a parking spot but have to rent to somebody that relies on walking, bicycling, car share or transit, that benefits everyone, including the environment."

Chapple said she is studying how to plan developments centered around major transit corridors such as University and Telegraph avenues, hoping to expand the scope to include cities across the Bay Area, from Marin to San Jose. This "localized housing production" would increase transit use, improve the local economy and decrease pollution, according to Chapple.

"If we do a pilot of 100 of these and show how much bus usage there is, how much water and energy is saved by using water recycling and solar panels - maybe put in a subsidy program to help homeowners get excited or transit passes for the renters - then we can build a market," Chapple said.

Chapple said she is also interested in looking at "home owner inertia" in Berkeley and finding ways to encourage home owners to consider a shared housing model that would use their existing space to generate housing and profits.

Kerr said she and her family will live in the Delaware Street house for a year as an experiment to see what they can do with the space and what they might change.

"All in all, it is a really lovely place to stay and an excellent alternative for people who aren't interested in buying a house just yet," she said.

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