The rising costs of electricity and heat are a struggle for many low-income families to pay. So groups that build affordable housing are turning to energy-efficient homes to cut those costs, even down to nothing. A new project in the center of Traverse City could be a showpiece for this trend.
One of the recipients is Jenni Wagner a single mom who knows what it’s like to make tough financial decisions.
"I had to choose between making rent or making utilities and rent won," she says.
Luckily, that was during the summer months, so her family didn’t freeze. More than two years ago, she and her two teenage daughters moved into her parents’ basement.
The high cost of utilities is a persistent worry for people struggling to make ends meet, but that should come to an end for Wagner when she and her daughters move in to their new home in Traverse City’s Depot neighborhood.
Theirs will be one of 21 energy-efficient homes constructed by Habitat for Humanity and Home Stretch.
"Ultimately, our goal is for them not to have any electric bill," says project manager Ryan McCoon. "The house should produce as much energy as it consumes."
Solar panels on their south-facing roofs will produce that energy.
There will be no heating bills either, as the homes will have electric climate control.
The small houses are being designed with the latest in insulation and energy efficient appliances, and Wagner says the switches that turn off lights when nobody’s in the room will make up for some of her daughters’ habits.
“They like to leave lights on like all kids," she says. "I’m always going behind them shutting everything off.”
The two groups building the houses hope they show others just how green homes can be now. McCoon says it will also demonstrate that you don’t have to be rich to cut down energy consumption.
“What better project to do it on than something that is a low-cost project, versus a 6,000 square foot, million-dollar house?" he says. "We’re talking about something that is very compact and livable and sustainable.”
The solar panels alone cost twenty-four thousand dollars, which is a hefty sum for most people. But these homes are being built by charitable organizations, so the donated labor and discounted materials helps keep the price down.
McCoon estimates the houses would cost almost two-hundred thousand dollars for a contractor to build.
Still, he thinks these technologies are within reach for many homeowners.
"People are now starting to pay attention to the fact that they can throw solar panels on a house and not be strapped for the next 30 years making payments on it to get a zero energy bill," says McCoon.
He hopes to encourage people to incorporate whichever improvements they can to their homes. In any case, he says they all should make a noticeable improvement in utility bills.