VOL. 128 | NO. 228 | Thursday, November 21, 2013
Flipping the Switch
By Amos Maki
Tim Bolding, executive director of United Housing Inc., had become increasingly interested over the years in energy efficiency, sustainability and alternate energy sources when he saw homes in New Orleans being rebuilt with solar panels.
United Housing Executive Director Tim Bolding, left, with Crye-Leike Vice President and Broker Jimmie E. Hopson Jr. outside one of the new homes at Wolf River Bluffs.
(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)
As the head of United Housing, the nonprofit affordable-housing agency that helps families in Memphis, Shelby County and elsewhere in West Tennessee, Bolding has been acutely aware of the impact utilities can have on homeowners.
So after Bolding saw the Hurricane Katrina-ravaged homes being rebuilt in the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans with solar panels, he wanted to build similar homes in Memphis.
“I thought, ‘This looks really good, and if they can do it, we can do it,’” Bolding said.
He met with officials from Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division and Memphis-based Sharp Manufacturing Co. to create a unique solar-power system for homes in United Housing’s new Wolf River Bluffs subdivision.
“As far as I know, this will be the first energy-producing community in the city, maybe even the state,” Bolding said.
The first phase of Wolf River Bluffs, which is situated on 113 acres around James Road and McLean Boulevard in Frayser, is now well underway. United Housing has completed eight homes in the development – a ninth is nearly complete – with five of those being occupied. The four unoccupied homes are the first market-rate houses to be built in the neighborhood.
The 1,500-square-foot homes start at around $140,000 and feature designs that focus on owner mobility and making everything in the homes – from entrances to cabinets and fixtures – more accessible.
Each home in the first phase is being built to meet MLGW EcoBuild standards, which can save homeowners as much as 37 percent on their utility bills, and includes a small array of solar panels.
The inclusion of the solar panels took some time to develop. Most solar panel installations are investor- and incentive-driven, Bolding said. The main incentives for installing solar panels is a federal tax credit and programs such as TVA’s Green Power Providers, which actually buys the energy produced by the panels. So Bolding and officials from Sharp and MLGW had to adapt and create an economically feasible solar panel system for single-family homes.
“To switch this over and make this a system for a house is very, very different,” said Bolding. “That’s been a huge lesson for us, learning how to make that work.”
“It’s been a learning process because of the existing orientation towards investors as opposed to owner-occupants,” he said. “Here, the homebuyer owns them and benefits from them directly.”
The homes include two MLGW meters, one that measures energy consumption and another that measures how much energy the solar panels produce. Homeowners receive a bill for the net amount of energy used.
Bolding said he hopes Wolf River Bluffs could lead to a broader rollout of solar panels to homes across the Memphis area.
“If we can prove this works, think how many thousands of houses are out there that could be retrofitted,” said Bolding.
Wolf River Bluffs was very attractive to officials at SRVS, a nonprofit that helps people with disabilities by providing job training and placement programs, community participation efforts, and residential living and occupational support services. SRVS obtained a $690,000 grant from the Tennessee Housing Development Agency for the development of Wolf River Bluffs, and the first four homes at Wolf River Bluffs are occupied by SRVS customers.
“They can get out and meet their neighbors, enjoy the parks and recreation that are there and shop in the neighborhood,” said Tyler Hampton, executive director at SRVS. “The idea is they can enjoy their community and be a part of that community as it grows.”
Wolf River Bluffs, built on a rolling, wooded site, has been on United Housing’s drawing board for years. When the local housing market bottomed out, United Housing, which helped 284 families purchase a home and saved 257 homes from foreclosure during the 2013 fiscal year, was able to maintain the property until the market improved enough for construction to start.
“It’s been a long time in the making,” said Bolding. “We weathered the storm and stayed the course and made it work.”
The original idea behind the development of Wolf River Bluffs was sustainability.
United Housing got its start acquiring and rehabilitating foreclosed homes, including many in the Frayser area, but Wolf River Bluffs is different, consisting of market-based homes built from the ground up. Bolding and Memphis officials wanted to build “move-up” homes inside the city, giving potential homebuyers a Memphis alternative to the suburbs, one that would help expand the Memphis tax base in the long run. To help make that vision a reality, United Housing received $1 million from the city’s Housing and Community Development Division for site development.
“The intent of that program was to provide higher-cost living so people could move up while staying in the city of Memphis and not moving to the suburbs,” Bolding said. “There is a group of folks who want to be homeowners and would like a move-up market in Memphis.”
“The rationale was, ‘If we invest in this, we expand the tax base and it pays for itself over a seven- or eight-year period,’” he said. “The only solution for our tax situation is we must expand the tax base. Hopefully, this will be beneficial to the city as a whole.”