Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Foreclosure Plan for a Green Future

The Heartache
The New York Times had a great article -albeit also very disheartening, in Sunday's paper (02.08) "In Florida, Dispair and Foreclosures." The article centered around Lehigh Acres, a once middle-class exurb of Fort Myers. Lehigh Acres was born on speculation, built on acres of farm land originally bought in the 1950's by a Chicago pest control baron and partners. The developers plotted out 100,000 lots but forgot about essential things like schools, open space, parks, and businesses. It was the quintessential car oriented suburb, forcing families to travel to reach these essentials. The lots sold however, through the 80's and 90's, and so did the houses. Eventually though, the boom started to bust. By the 2000's, lots sold remained unbuilt, and houses changed hands several times in a few months. This was not a community growing any longer, but a community floundering, as foreclosures rise, and the area sinks into oblivion.

Rebuilding Green Communities
Reading this article, I thought of all the unfinished houses which now exist all across the United States. I also thought about the great green housing movement, and the NAHB's Green Building Program. And I had an idea.

Instead of focusing on new homes, that is, homes which haven't even been built yet, why don't homebuilders get with communities such as Fort Myers and figure out how to make existing communities, which have existing infrastructure, work, as well as turning the communities into green communities? It would of course mean creating a master plan for communities such as Lehigh Acres. And it would mean demolishing many of the existing homes (all material being recycled of course) to make way for essentials such as schools, community centers, libraries, businesses, open space and parks, and more. But the process would rebuild communities, create jobs, and create an economy for the community. In addition, while many of the homes are empty as the result of foreclosure, they could be rehabbed to be more energy and resource efficient. Insulate the homes better, add PV and/or solar domestic hot water, incorporate natural ventilation strategies, create constructed wetlands in open space areas, and so much more.

Making Green Make Cents
You may argue with me that this isn't possible or that it's idealistic. But personally, I would argue that it makes sense -and cents. We cannot forge a green future focusing soley on what's new and shiny; we must also fix what is broken. And there is a lot that's broken. To let communities such as Lehigh Acres exist as they are is nothing short of us shutting the door to a closet and calling it junk. That may work fine for storing old clothes and toys, but it doesn't work for the built environment. This is an incredible opportunity for us to repair and restore -which is exactly what sustainability is about.

Image is from NY Times article "In Florida, Dispair and Foreclosures"

Friday, February 6, 2009

Making Tax Credits Make Sense

Because They Certainly Don't Make Cents
I spent the past few days wrapping up a sustainability report for a homeowner. Part of that involved some research into incentives, from state to federal. Being that for the majority of my career I have worked in the commercial sector, I needed to learn more about residential credits and incentives. Now, I knew that the tax credits for homeowners for home improvements were pretty paltry, but now that I REALLY know, in reality, they are nothing short of pathetic; they make no sense -or cents, at all.

Take the federal tax credit for window replacement as an example. The windows must be Energy Star qualified or meet IECC (the International Energy Conservation Code). The tax credit? Up to 10 percent of the cost, which at first seems like a great deal. Until you read the next part, that being a maximum cap of $200. Um, I'm sorry, but that credit barely covers the cost of one replacement window -maybe, let alone the installation and labor costs associated with it. My parents replaced the windows in their house 10 years ago, a 2,800 square foot home, at a total cost of $14,500.00. Two hundred dollars doesn't make much of a dent in that, and even a 10 percent credit on that amount is only $1,450.00. I asked them if they saw a drastic decrease in their utility bills as well, and their answer was a small drop, but nothing to jump and down over. And even if the drop was say, $50 each month, that's a payback of 24 years -minus the $200 tax credit. In all seriousness, a homeowner may not fancy that as much of an incentive.

Making Cents
It seems to me, with all our talk of reducing our dependence on foreign resources, and reducing CO2 emissions into our atmosphere, that we would want to make our existing homes more efficient. And in all seriousness, I know that's what we all DO want to do. So, you would think that incentives and tax credits to homeowners undertaking energy efficient improvements would make much more hard economic cents than they do. So why don't they? In addition, a higher tax credit on energy efficient home improvement measures could actually help with stimulate the economy by creating green jobs -or heck, just jobs, green or not. People would want to insulate their homes, want to replace their heating and cooling systems, want to purchase more energy efficient appliances, want to install domestic solar hot water systems, and so forth. And with a tax credit that made cents, it could reduce the payback time to something more viable to any homeowner. Twenty four years for a payback is too long, but 8-10, maybe even less? Now you've got my attention.