Creating More Sustainable Housing through the Commonwealth Green Low-Income Housing Coalition

There is a "fourth way" emerging for housing organizations serving homeless and low-income people to sustain their buildings and organization beyond charitable giving, grants, and government funding we all struggle for. New breakthroughs in energy efficiency and production, coupled with one of the nation's best solar and efficiency state programs, allow agencies who are paying attention to reduce their utility costs and redirect any savings into the programs and services for their primary mission. In fact, any development team who is not taking advantage of Massachusetts' generous and free energy incentive for low-income housing is not fully engaged in the cost side of running an agency, and in some ways is wasting donor dollars. According to data from community action councils, we have the second oldest housing stock in the United States - small surprise given that some homes date back to the 1600s here! This translates into grossly inefficient housing by modern standards. Thankfully, state programs such as LEAN and the Clean Energy Center offer a wide array of products for low-income housing so we can leapfrog past our inefficient old boilers, lack of insulation, and dinosaur electric grid and build more sustainable and cost-effective housing. Amazingly, many of these improvements are no cost, yet year after year, agencies hold their hands out to donors for help paying for utilities while ignoring no cost heating upgrades, insulation, and solar power!  

We learned through hard-earned experience that energy programs were a way out of the recession for our agency and the people we served. In 2009, we were forced to shutter a program serving former offenders, and we scrutinized every line item to look for ways to reduce costs as we worked hard to preserve our other projects and initiatives. Year after year, we slowly replaced our heating systems with super efficient systems and biomass, while insulating and replacing wiring. We held a capital campaign and, with a number of private and public funders, established our own solar systems. Years of painstaking work by our development team resulted in savings of tens of thousands of dollars annually. Currently, our residential Farm program, the Dismas Family Farm, is entirely renewable. It was the site this year for the kickoff of the statewide 100% Renewable Energy summits, an effort to build on our energy success in Massachusetts. As a result of our work with energy, we formed a coalition, the Commonwealth Green Low Income Housing Coalition, and have helped coach many other housing nonprofits through energy improvements, from complicated heating system replacements, to simple options for purchasing community based solar electricity. Our coalition's mission is to help the social safety net become more sustainable through our work, while advocating for better energy policy. Since we began our coalition work, we have served on Governor Baker's Affordable Energy Efficiency Initiative, working to develop new low-income housing programs and access for low-income. We presented our model to the HUD Renew 300 national conference in 2016, showcasing a pathway to sustainability.  

As we all look past the brutal cold wave that recently hit and wait for the rising cost of natural gas to hit our agencies hard and reduce our capacity to operate this winter, consider insisting that your development team include energy in your portfolio for the new year. We are happy to help, and anyone interested in learning more can contact me directly at davemcmahon@dismasisfamily.org​ or visit our work at www.wglihc.org.  

-Dave McMahon
Co-Executive Director
Dismas House of Massachusetts, Inc.

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