Poway’s Clever Twist on Green, Affordable Housing

The City of Poway won the Award for Excellence in the Housing Programs and Innovations category of the 2008 Helen Putnam Award for Excellence program. For more information about the award program, visit www.cacities.org/helenputnam.

Green and sustainable affordable housing is taking front stage in Poway. Through a partnership with local nonprofit Community HousingWorks, the City of Poway and the Poway Redevelopment Agency created Solara, the first affordable apartment complex in the nation to be fully solar powered.

Solara is Poway’s fifth multifamily affordable housing development. Situated on a 2.5-acre site, the development includes 56 rental apartment units and a 2,100-square-foot community room equipped with a computer learning center. Since opening its doors in March 2007, Solara has received local, state and national recognition for establishing a new standard in sustainable design.

The Road to Success

This project faced many challenges, including high housing costs, community resistance, limited vacant land zoned for multifamily development and how to incorporate green and sustainable technology in a cost-effective manner.

The 2.5-acre project site — comprising the last underutilized multifamily-zoned properties remaining in Poway — originally consisted of four blighted parcels that often attracted illegal dumping, loitering and homeless encampments. Yet two factors made this site an ideal location for an infill project: first, the area is served by local transportation; and second, it’s close to essential goods and services, local and state government offices, schools, and recreational and community amenities, including two large public parks and a community library.

While its location offered accessibility, the topography presented a challenge. A portion of the site was located in a flood zone and adjacent to a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) floodway. The solution was to build a 425-foot landscaped retaining wall, which raised the site above the floodway greenbelt and allowed for the development of 12 additional units.

Garnering Community Support

The City of Poway has a population of 50,542 and is nearly built out, with little land available for new development. Although initially residents were concerned about the development of additional affordable housing within the city, it was critically important to provide housing opportunities for very low- and low-income individuals and families in the community. Residents’ annual incomes at Solara range from $29,000 to $45,000 for households of one to five people.

Ensuring that Solara’s design was consistent with the neighborhood character and had community support were the top priorities. To maximize the opportunity for input, area residents, citizen advisory committees and numerous local associations were invited to participate in Solara’s design process through a community workshop. This participation resulted in strong community support for the project.

Poway launched a citywide outreach effort to inform the community about the benefits of affordable housing, which also helped build support. As part of this effort, the city completed a study of affordable housing impacts, which analyzed the demographics of Poway’s affordable housing developments and areas of concern, including crime rates, property values and schools’ test scores (see “Affordable Housing Study Results” in sidebar). The study became a valuable tool for demonstrating how affordable housing contributes positively to the community.

Choosing to Go Green

When Solara was conceived, the green movement was in its infancy, and the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards had not yet been established. As part of the redevelopment agency’s green vision, Solara was planned as a California Energy Commission (CEC) “Zero Energy New Home” with maximum energy efficiency and a renewable energy supply. During development, every aspect of green building was considered, including energy and water efficiency, recycled materials, indoor air quality and renewable energy.

Solara is equipped with a photovoltaic system that uses available sunlight to generate energy. To maximize energy generation and screen the equipment from view, the solar panels were located on carport roofs and hidden by rooftop parapets. These panels not only generate enough energy to support Solara, they supply electricity to the power grid during non-peak hours when demand is low. “Solara broke new ground in being the first zero-energy apartment development in San Diego County, and the City of Poway broke new ground in assembling the team to make it happen. If Poway can do it, other cities can — and should — too,” says Community HousingWorks President Sue Reynolds.

Solara’s construction incorporates energy-efficient windows and appliances, many recycled materials and lush native landscaping that requires little or no water. Flooring and carpet with recycled content were installed in the units, wood composite decking was used in shared outdoor spaces, and public art made from recycled materials can be found throughout the development.

Going green required a financing package to cover the additional costs associated with using green and sustainable materials. The total cost to build Solara was $19.8 million. The redevelopment agency contributed the land and provided some financing for the project. Additionally, the project was successful in securing energy rebates, highly competitive 9 percent federal tax credits and more than $1 million from the County of San Diego.

Producing Results

The Solara development eliminated blight, increased the supply of permanently affordable housing in Poway, stimulated economic vitality and provided a model of smart growth and energy efficiency.

Solara exceeds California’s Title 24 Energy Efficiency Standards by 17 percent, and its carbon footprint is 95 percent smaller than that of a traditionally built complex. This is the equivalent of planting 5,400 trees or removing 300 cars from the road each year. Based on Solara’s success, Poway plans to incorporate green and sustainable elements in all future affordable housing developments.

Solara has also dramatically improved the lives of its residents, who have access to many successful on-site programs. Adults are encouraged to participate in Community HousingWorks’ financial fitness, homeownership, savings-matching and work force development programs. Youth programs include after-school homework assistance, a Junior Leader mentor program, a Summer Learning Retention program to improve math and reading skills and a Youth Financial Fitness program focused on teaching kids about money management.

“Living in a development with zero utility costs allows me to set aside additional funds toward my dream of one day being a Poway homeowner,” says Solara resident Eddie Lopez. Solara has given Lopez and his son a fresh start in life. In 2000, Lopez lost his job and his home and became his son’s primary parent. Since then, Lopez has been working hard to rebuild his life.

With the help of affordable rent at Solara, financial fitness courses and a savings program sponsored by Community HousingWorks, Lopez is preparing to buy his own home this year.

Contact: Ashley Jones, management analyst, City of Poway; phone: (858) 668-4554; e-mail: ajones@ci.poway.ca.us.

Affordable Housing Study Results

A study of affordable housing residents’ demographics 
revealed that:

  • 72 percent have family in Poway;
  • 49 percent lived in Poway before moving into their current homes;
  • The average length of time in their current residence is 4.5 years;
  • 92 percent of working-age and capable individuals are employed;
  • 50 percent of those working have jobs in Poway;
  • 62 percent are adults, 38 percent are children; and
  • Household sizes are typical (3.1 persons per household).

This article appears in the March 2009 issue of Western City
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