The St. Johns Housing Partnership An Experiment in Affordable Housing

In 2003, the St. Johns Housing Partnership (SJHP) launched their first community development project. Called Hancock Place, it is a full neighborhood of thirty-six affordable, Energy Star–certified, water-conserving homes for low-income families. It was SJHP’s first foray into new construction. “If you’re going to build new housing for working class families, it needs to be as energy efficient as possible because that electric bill is a big part of their monthly income,” said William Lazar, Executive Director of SJHP. “And if we don’t make it as efficient as possible, I think we’re doing everybody a disservice.”

Hancock Place is located near downtown St. Augustine, Florida, in the community of West Augustine, which was established in the 1920s as a thriving middle-class African-American college town near Florida Memorial College. Because of relentless persecution and pressure from the Ku Klux Klan, the college was eventually forced to leave, taking hundreds of jobs with it. The neighborhood quickly went into decline. Although a few new homes had been built on individual lots, no new neighborhoods had been developed in more than thirty years. West Augustine was officially designated a Community Redevelopment Area by St. Johns County, which asked local organizations and programs like the SJHP to do what they could to help.

Planning officially began in January 2003. According to Lazar, the biggest issue at this stage was choosing which energy improvements to include that would maximize efficiency without driving up the cost.

“Any improvements you make that add to the cost of the house, even if they’re ENERGY STAR improvements, becomes an impediment to certain people buying it. The problem with affordable housing is that every time you increase the price of the house by $100, someone is getting bumped out of the running for buying that house. So you have to be careful with the energy improvements you choose.”

In order to make these homes energy efficient while keeping them affordable, SJHP worked with an energy auditor to experiment with their plans using software provided by the Weatherization Program. With this software, they were able to try different things to see what would improve the score without raising the price of the home. If an energy efficiency upgrade was expensive, but didn’t improve their score by very much, it didn’t make sense to do it. For example, they saved money by only putting energy efficient windows on the south and west sides of the home, since these windows have the highest heat load. Putting windows on the North side would have increased the costs without lowering the ENERGY STAR score since the heat load on that side is not significant.

Photo by Tony Brown

“I was looking at it like a kind of science experiment. We were trying to figure out what we would have to do to make this work. The critical part was having an energy rater who was willing to sit down with us and play around with the software to get the rating we wanted at an price we needed.”

Along with a carefully planned design, the SJHP also kept the homes affordable with the hel

p and contributions from many different sources. One big contributor was World Island Builders, a custom homebuilder with experience meeting unusual construction demands. They discounted their builder’s fee on all thirty-six homes. They also discovered that if the homes achieved a home energy rating score in the low 70s, they would get a $2,000 tax credit. This tax credit allowed World Island Builders to cover half of the cost of the upgrades.

World Island began construction in 2005, building the homes in stages and learning more and more at every level. Now completed, with thirty-six homes priced between $117,000 and $150,000, all the experimenting, planning, and contributions have paid off, and the Hancock Place project is a stunning success. Each home is not only ENERGY STAR–certified, but also meets the St. Johns River Water Management District’s Water Star conservation guidelines. SJHP has sold all of the homes, and the sewer and water lines for another twenty lots of energy-efficient, low-income homes have been installed in a nearby area.

“That’s our brand. There’s no one else in the county building ENERGY STAR homes right now,” says Lazar. “That’s what led us in the beginning to say, ‘Let’s raise the bar. Let’s set a higher standard in workforce housing that no one else is doing. I think a lot of this is the future of our building industry. If you don’t understand air infiltration measures, the use of a blower door, the value of having someone do an energy certification on your home, you’re just going to get left in the dust.”

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