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Neighborhood Inroads

January 03, 2012
January/February 2012
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2012 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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In many ways, Deloris Wells is a pretty average resident of New Orleans. In other ways, she’s a remarkably accomplished woman. Her family moved from rural southern Mississippi to the outskirts of urban New Orleans in the late 1950s, when Deloris was about 15. They were looking for opportunities to better themselves. When Deloris and her brother graduated from high school, her father insisted that she continue her studies, and she became the first college graduate in the family. For most of her working life, she worked for the Social Security Administration, evaluating and accepting or rejecting disability claims. Over time, she worked her way up the organizational ladder to supervisor and eventually, to assistant area manager.

As we talk, it becomes clear that Deloris Wells loves to nurture close relationships with a wide range of "youngsters," from nieces and nephews to members of her own staff. It comes from her upbringing, Wells says, which is why she signed up to be a block captain in her neighborhood. "I've always felt that I've just been given so much that it's only right to give something back. I don't mind helping out at all, especially if it means I can help my neighbors come back, because I know so many of them still want to, and if I can help, that's what I’m going to do."

I've come to talk with Deloris Wells about a program that installs radiant barriers in the attics of homes belonging to people who are rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina. I'm accompanied by Tracy Nelson, executive director of the Lower Ninth Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development (CSED), a post-Katrina extension of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association, which stepped in right after Katrina, formulating plans for rebuilding and restoration, and engaging partners nationwide to find ways to implement those plans.

Right now, the CSED is focused on three problems: the post-Katrina lack of grocery stores in the immediate area; the restoration of adjacent wetlands; and need to create a more sustainable built environment by influencing decision makers about preserving housing stock, and by working to make the neighborhood carbon neutral. Hence, the CSED's radiant-barrier program.

Affordable, Easy, and Immediate

Recognizing that it could draw on the labor of volunteers who had come to help with rebuilding, the CSED began by installing radiant barriers in the attics of homes being rebuilt. The work was done by volunteers under professional supervision and was financed with a $12,000 seed grant from the Sierra Club. "Radiant barrier is affordable," explains CSED Resiliency Coordinator David Eber. "It's great in hot climates, and it's easy to install. We know residents need other things to really achieve energy efficiency, but it shows how a simple change can make a huge difference, because it makes the house feel obviously cooler from day one. We can say to returning residents, 'Hey, radiant barrier is just one thing you can do; we can also help you with an entire array of other weatherization and energy efficiency options.'"

We’ve come to talk with Deloris Wells not only because she was one of the first to participate in the CSED radiant barrier program, but also because she’s a neighborhood block captain. Block captains serve as communications links between the CSED and local residents, and also act as hosts for visiting volunteers.

Recruiting Challenges

As an early adopter, Wells is also a living advertisement for the benefits of radiant-barrier installation, especially in the hot, steamy Gulf Coast region. The day we visit, the temperature outside is in the high 90s, but inside, protected by the thick barge board walls, the drawn curtains, and the heat-reflecting barrier in the attic, we couldn’t be more comfortable. "Oh, I noticed it right away," Wells tells us, "from the day they installed it. I haven’t had an electric bill over $100 since then. I'm the envy of all my friends. And I can keep my thermostat at 80°F all summer long, and never even notice the heat."

But she hasn’t been quite as successful in encouraging others to give the program a try. Currently, the CSED covers all labor costs and asks homeowners to pay about $300 toward materials. While the CSED has installed radiant barriers in more than 100 homes so far, that’s little more than 10% of the whole neighborhood, estimated at about 1,000 homes six years after Katrina. Wells says she’s approached every one of the six or seven families living on her block and has had success with only one. The major hurdle, as she sees it, is the $300 cash outlay, a major investment for cash-strapped, working-class families.

However, the program has just received new funding from an anonymous donor. Tracy Nelson explains that the new funding may make it possible to extend financial assistance to residents who want to participate in the program but can't afford to put $300 cash into it right now. As we’re preparing to leave, I ask Wells whether she ever gets discouraged. "No," she says with a faint smile. "Now that I know there’s more funding available, I'll just go right back at it."

A Focal Point for Recovery

Like the world-famous French Quarter, Holy Cross is a unique New Orleans neighborhood. It fronts the Mississippi, 2% miles downriver from the French Quarter’s Jackson Square. Unlike the very cosmopolitan French Quarter, however, Holy Cross is unmistakably rural in character. Mostly middle- and working-class African American families—an unusually high percentage of whom own their own homes—who are deeply rooted in the neighborhood, inhabit it. All this gives the one-mile-square Holy Cross neighborhood the feeling of a country village.

But Holy Cross resembles the French Quarter in another way as well. It is located at approximately the same elevation as the French Quarter. Holy Cross stands about 3 feet above sea level and probably would not have flooded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina if a nearby canal levee hadn’t burst, sending a torrent of white water flooding through the streets of the Lower Ninth Ward. A few minutes later, Holy Cross was drowned in water 3–5 feet deep.

While not all homes were badly damaged, the entire Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood, including Holy Cross, was deemed off limits by city authorities, and utilities were not restored for about nine months; this left homes vulnerable to all kinds of weather-related problems. Sheetrock walls that had soaked up 1 foot of floodwater were subject to extreme summer heat, and the houses were soon heavily contaminated with mold.

But the unique character of the neighborhood gave the people who lived there a strong sense of place and communal concern. Thirty years ago, activist residents had created the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association to lobby for neighborhood improvements. Within months of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, members of the association began meeting in far-flung locations to restore a semblance of unity to the scattered community and to spearhead a movement to restore the neighborhood.

In short order, they pleaded their case before university officials, state government administrators, and nationally recognized city planners, all of whom contributed resources and leadership to the June 2006 creation of a highly detailed and all-embracing restoration plan emphasizing energy efficiency measures and sustainability strategies. The plan gave city and neighborhood leaders a foundation for prioritizing goals and organizing restoration efforts; but it also demonstrated the residents' ability to organize meaningfully, act decisively, and think progressively. And this, in turn, attracted a steady stream of recovery support—a stream of support that continues to this day in the form of funding, expertise, and the labor of many volunteer organizations.

One of the most prominent of these volunteer groups is known as Historic Green. Members of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Emerging Green Builders network of college students and young professionals created this group in fall 2007. Members of Historic Green are attracted by the possibility of marrying sustainability with historic neighborhood restoration. The organization sponsors a Spring Greening event for two weeks in March, during which teachers, students, and young professionals gather in New Orleans to engage in a wide variety of cultural, educational, social, and volunteer labor activities.

learn more

To download the succinctly written and clearly organized Holy Cross Neighborhood Sustainable Restoration Plan, go to http://davidrmacaulay.typepad.com/SustainableRestorationPlan.pdf.

Driving Demand

Thinking about my visit with Deloris Wells, I decided that hers is a classic example of the challenges now being faced by thousands of frontline persuaders in the energy-efficient home-building industry. The challenge that those frontline persuaders face is how to develop a market for home energy improvement materials and services.

From that perspective, Driving Demand for Home Energy Improvements, a key report issued in September 2010 by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), also provides a clearly delineated examination of the context in which those challenges have now become the primary barriers to translating several decades-worth of gradually accumulated knowledge, expertise, and lessons learned into a fully realized energy-efficient future. (For a summary of the report, see "Driving Demand for Home Energy Improvements," HE Sept/Oct '11, p. 24. To download the full report, see "learn more" at the end of this article.)

Relying on an extensive literature review, industry-expert interviews, and residential-contractor surveys for background, the ultimate purpose behind the Driving Demand report is a comprehensive summary of best practices and lessons learned from case studies describing the design, implementation, and evaluation of what the report characterized as 14 first-generation residential energy-efficiency programs. But simply by employing the phrase "first generation," the LBNL report implies the energy-efficient homebuilding industry has reached a critical juncture in its evolution and expansion, having completed an initial phase while still struggling to make sufficient progress, even as the availability of resources has grown significantly.

Deloris Wells’s experience provides a potential solution to that problem. In fact, I was inspired to visit Wells and to get a firsthand look at the CSED radiant-barrier program by a case study conducted by the Institute for Sustainable Communities (ISC) and published in its Gulf Coast Sustainable Economies—Resource Guide for Local Leaders. This case study, "Residential Energy Efficiency in the Lower 9," describes a partnership between CSED and Global Green USA, the U.S arm of Green Cross International (GCI), a global network with 31 affiliates around the world. Global Green USA focuses on promoting green affordable-housing initiatives; a national green-schools initiative; and national and regional green-building policies, advocacy, and education.

After the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, Global Green made a dedicated commitment to promote sustainable building in New Orleans. To that end, it opened an office in the city and set up three programs: a Green Schools Initiative; a Build It Back Green consumer outreach and education initiative; and an ambitious energy-efficient, affordable-housing project targeted for a single square block in the Holy Cross neighborhood. In many ways, Global Green’s experience with its Holy Cross project could serve as a case study of grand ambitions meeting occasionally stubborn obstacles.

As of this writing, the organization has built five single-family homes, broken ground for a community center, and has plans to develop an 18-unit apartment building as part of this project.

One of these single-family homes serves as a LEED Platinum, zero energy model green home and resource center, while the other four have been put up for sale, but have found no buyers so far. (See "Phoenix Rising—Lessons Learned from Katrina," HE July/Aug '10, p. 36.)

Making Adjustments

Certain snags in the construction process were perhaps unavoidable. The first house was planned for modular construction, but the modular manufacturer backed out at the last minute. Other problems arose from a misplaced idealism in Global Green's construction of its model home. For every contractor and subcontractor that it hired, Global Green also contracted with a nationally recognized expert as a consultant, applying national standards for best practices to local home-building customs. It wasn't long before all hell broke loose. Global Green's New Orleans Director Beth Galante told me that for a long time she felt like a sitting duck surrounded on all sides by spirited professional crossfire.

"There were just a lot of really talented people involved," she says, "and every one of them believed in their heart that they were the one that was right."

The final four homes, finished in pairs, were built above all to be affordable. The second pair, built where a massive geothermal unit had been planned before it became obvious that the project was impractical, were built on a significantly smaller scale than the first two: one versus two stories; 900 versus 1,100 square feet. The smaller homes are being offered for $120,000–$130,000; the larger ones for $130,000–$140,000. Global Green claims that both versions reduce energy use by 80–90%.

Adjusting the Focus

In and of itself, Global Green's entire post-Katrina tenure in New Orleans would make an interesting case study. Such a study might examine the role played by an intermediary organization in translating ambitious goals into genuine achievements to build a sustainable local market for energy-efficient goods and services. With a primary focus on influencing policy at the national, state, and local levels, Global Green’s national staff has worked hard to position the organization as a prominent nonprofit with international ties and a major stake in the Hollywood celebrity game. They are impressively adept at generating publicity by pumping out press releases, staging celebrity visits, and soliciting media coverage.

A Missouri native, Galante came to New Orleans to study law at Tulane University and earned her J.D. in 1991. She has on her resume service as a district attorney in New Orleans and as the deputy director of the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, an activist support organization whose successes eventually drew down the wrath of the state's governor. While she had zero experience in energy-efficient homebuilding, an extremely strong attachment to New Orleans plus years of experience in high-level advocacy and negotiation made her an attractive candidate for her present position. She began with Global Green in early 2006, just months after Katrina struck the Gulf Coast.

Now instead of representing the interests of local residents in class-action lawsuits, she has become an advocate for local consumers of who want to adopt green and energy-efficient home-building goods and services. But from the very start, she said, the constant emphasis on maximizing publicity seemed counterproductive. "It just seemed frivolous," she is quoted as saying in the ISC case study, "when we had so many serious things we were trying to accomplish." Eventually she convinced the home office to turn down the volume where major publicity was concerned. She also learned to live with Global Green's deeply ingrained reliance on celebrity power. Now she compromises; she is quoted in the study as saying, "Identify anyone who's on the short list of people the community respects and would be inclined to listen to. Then get them to be a spokesperson for what you're trying to accomplish."

Even before I sat down with Galante, the still improvisational nature of Global Green's effort in New Orleans became apparent. The organization had set itself up in a storefront office on the fringes of a neighborhood that was slowly becoming chic—with warehouse condo developments and a healthy sprinkling of art galleries. But the block where Global Green’s office is located was not yet gentrified.

When I sat down with Galante, in an office overlooking an alley and a crumbling brick wall, I naturally asked about the accommodations. "You just have to adapt," Galante told me. During the course of our conversation, I learned that the local office had successfully adapted Global Green’s original six-year game plan into something more open-ended, with projects currently in the pipeline that should engineer an organization reset just in time for its own sixth-year, post-Katrina anniversary.

Global Green has already made plans to move the office to a better location—one that will unite the group with a cluster of other local nonprofits. Construction documents are in place, and a contractor has been selected, for the new Holy Cross neighborhood community center adjoining Global Green's five new single-family homes. The organization is sponsoring an Energy Efficient Home Makeover Contest to announce its participation in a low-cost loan program called WISE, for Wise Investments Save Energy. This program is being administered by the Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance and funded through the current round of DOE Better Buildings program grants.

learn more

To learn more about ongoing recovery activities in the Holy Cross neighborhood and to get the latest news from the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association, visit www.helpholycross.org.

To learn more about the CSED and its wide array of activities, including energy efficiency efforts in general and the radiant-barrier installation program in particular, visit www.sustainthenine.org.

To learn more about Global Green USA’s New Orleans-based activities, go to www.globalgreen.org/neworleans.

To read a wide range of case studies, including the CSED/Global Green collaboration that inspired this article, download the Gulf Coast Sustainable Economies—Resource Guide for Local Leaders, sponsored and created by the ISC, at www.iscvt.org/who_we_are/publications/GCLA_Resource_Guide.pdf.

For a free download of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory report Driving Demand for Home Energy Improvements, go to http://drivingdemand.lbl.gov To learn more about the ISC Gulf Coast Sustainable Economies Leadership program, download an overview at www.iscvt.org/resources/documents/
Gulf_Coast_Sustainable_Economies_
Project_Overview.pdf
.

For a more-complete picture of radiant-barrier options and installation-related materials go to www.fifoil.com. For more information on do-it-yourself radiant barriers, visit www.atticfoil.com.

Mixed Results

When it comes to funneling money, knowledge, resources, and program administration from national and regional sources to local consumers, Galante is hopeful. "Where we can add value is in refining the process for local residents," she says, "by identifying and minimizing obstacles, for example, or eliminating unnecessary paperwork and finding economies of scale to lower costs. Our job is to make energy efficiency and home improvements as simple and cost-effective as possible. And by adding access to low-cost loans, we hope to create a one-stop shopping model, offering consumers resources for everything from simple weatherizations to large-scale retrofits and whole-house transformations. "Basically," she says, "we want to provide a soup-to-nuts experience."

But Global Green’s decision to take a lead role in promoting and implementing what it dubs the NOLA WISE program also signals a shift in the organization's socioeconomic focus. When Global Green decided two years ago to partner with CSED in the program that became the subject of the ISC case study, it was responding to what it saw as a significant gap in its outreach and education efforts. "It became very apparent [after four years of operation] that we were missing the low-income, disadvantaged populations most in need of our services,” Beth Galante candidly admitted to the ISC interviewer.

"If we come in by ourselves, there’s no particular reason to trust that we’re sincere or that we’re going to stay," she told the interviewer. "So by partnering with trusted neighborhood allies, we get immediate access to get a more receptive audience... Those organizations not only help host local events and meetings, they also help us tweak the information and variety of services we offer to make the presentation of both more relevant to their own client base. And finally, they help facilitate direct contact with specific clients they know are in need."

The Global Green/CSED collaboration, however, proved only moderately fruitful. As of September 2011, Global Green had provided one-on-one energy improvement counseling to nearly 350 residents citywide and had conducted about 125 walk-through assessments. But just 35 counseling sessions and 30 walk-through assessments had taken place in CSED's Holy Cross neighborhood. Of the residents contacted, according to CSED records, just 20 had opted for formal energy audits using blower door and Duct Blaster testing. And of those 20, just 8 had taken the next step and signed up for basic weatherization.

Tracy Nelson believes that the CSED’s constituent population is unlikely to participate in the NOLA WISE program. She says that very few Holy Cross residents qualify for the scope of improvements, and the size of the loans, that this program offers. Program guidelines require improvements that will lead to a minimum 15% energy savings, and the program encourages participants to make further improvements—specifically, to install solar panels. "Those kinds of improvements are significant and important," Nelson says, "but most of our residents just can't afford them."

Neighborhood Success: Planning, Commitment, Dedication

Although they occupy different levels of the bureaucratic landscape and operate with different levels of resources, Global Green and the CSED have quite a bit in common. Both have ambitious long-term goals; both benefit from highly dynamic leadership; both continue to refine their operations; and both have a long-term commitment to post-disaster, energy-efficient rebuilding. And if Global Green enjoys international stature, Hollywood connections, citywide focus, and a multipronged agenda, the CSED brings to any collaboration its own set of unique—and perhaps crucial—advantages.

The first of these is a long-term sustainability plan, created with input from a wide variety of perspectives. This input comes from national leaders in sustainability resources; representatives of local and state government; national and local nonprofits; and a handful of academic institutions, as well as passionately engaged local residents. This thoroughly researched and highly detailed sustainability plan has provided CSED with organizational guidance and a set of operating priorities, and it will soon generate a carefully prescribed set of long-term carbon- and energy-reduction goals. (See "A Focal Point for Recovery.")

The passionate engagement of local residents—channeled through the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association—was inspired in part by residents’ response to an early post-Katrina planning draft issued by city government that tentatively designated the neighborhood as one that might be abandoned or converted to nonresidential uses. This passionate engagement has contributed heavily to the CSED’s ongoing motivation and long-term vision.

Equally critical has been the role of skilled and fiercely dedicated leadership. In the beginning, CSED benefited from the insistent passion and community organizing skills of Pam Dashiell, who served as a catalyst to post-Katrina rebuilding in her neighborhood and in the city at large. When Dashiell died of a heart attack in December 2009, the position of CSED executive director passed to Tracy Nelson, who served on the front lines of the post-Katrina response. Nelson brought to her position with CSED an academic training in architecture, historic preservation, and sustainable design, as well as hands-on experience in both carpentry and the preservation and management of historic landmarks.

Operating out of a tiny three-room office located in the back of a local Baptist church, with scant funding and a small but growing staff, Nelson has cross-trained CSED staff to maximize resources, making each staffer responsible for at least two functions within the organization. Nelson personally embodies the kind of grassroots dedication needed to spread the gospel of energy efficiency, and make it part of a viable neighborhood culture.

Community Organizing

The perspective of both Nelson and Wells has, in fact, altered my way of thinking about the challenge of motivating individual residents and scaling up the consumer base for energy-efficient goods and services. For all the good that national, regional, state, and local funding can do, the piece that's missing, it seems to me, is the grassroots/neighborhood perspective, where outreach, education, funding, the availability of skilled personnel, and cost-effective project management all make a difference. So it may be that what the energy-efficient movement needs right now—more than technical knowledge, large-scale funding, innovative program design, or academic insight—is just more good old-fashioned community organizing.

Roger Hahn is a freelance writer and editor based in New Orleans. His work has appeared in Civil Engineering, Historic Preservation, and Next American City.

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