POWAY, CA. - If you think it’s technically or financially infeasible to build a project that draws all its electric power from the sun, you have not seen Solara, a 56-unit family project completed earlier this year in this San Diego County community.

As the name suggests, this project meets its electrical power needs from a series of photovoltaic panels on its roofs. The developer, Community HousingWorks, incorporated many other “green” features to make the project energy-efficient and environmentally friendly, said Anne B. Wilson, director of housing and real estate development.

The $16.3 million project has mostly two- and three-bedroom units, with eight one-bedrooms. They range from 659 square feet to 1,023 square feet. All units are affordable, with 23 percent at 60 percent of the AMI, and the balance serving people with incomes as low as 30 percent of the AMI and below.

Rents range from $557 for a one-bedroom to $807 for a three-bedroom.

How did this small development firm cover the $1.1 million hard cost of the solar energy system? By tapping several state and federal financial incentives rarely used for multifamily projects.

Equity was syndicated by the National Equity Fund. The equity proceeds from the LIHTCs totaled $11.3 million. NEF raised an additional $208,000 from sale of the federal investment tax credits for the use of solar power. The credit is for 30 percent of the amount spent on eligible solar systems.

Permanent mortgage financing came from Union Bank of California, which agreed to loan $13 million. The Bank agreed to a 40-year amortization schedule to help defray the portion of the cost of the solar installation not covered by other sources.

Solara also received a rebate of $409,000 on the cost of the solar energy panels from the California Energy Commission.

Additional soft financing was provided by the city of Poway and San Diego County. The city also streamlined its project review to help start construction within one year of the initial plan.

The building is the first in California and possibly in the entire country to use solar power for all residential and common areas. The building is still linked to the public utility power grid, so that it can feed in electricity during peak solar generating hours and draw power at night. The projects first monthly electric bills have been negative.

Space heating is done with a tankless hot water system that also generates hot water and is gas-powered.

The project’s energy efficiency helps tenants primarily by protecting them from the increases in utility costs, especially for electricity, that developers are expecting.

Tenants pay no utility costs and no utility allowance is applied to rents. However, tenants must take training in conservation, and “green” provisions are included in leases.

Additional project information, as provided in application by the nominator.

Q. Why does the nominated project deserve to be recognized based on the award criteria of this contest?

A. Solara is a 2.5-acre development of 56 units in six residential buildings, and a 2,100-square-foot community building, including a seven-computer learning center, in Poway, Calif. Solara is a large family apartment computer that pioneers sustainable development in multifamily affordable housing, including being the first apartment complex in California to be fully powered by the sun.

Community HousingWorks began construction of Solara in November 2005, and completed construction (“placed in service”) on Mar. 29, 2007; the project is 100 percent occupied. CHW envisioned Solara as a “green” development prior to site planning. As part of this vision, we made an early, decisive choice, supported by the City of Poway, to build Solara as a California Energy Commission “Zero Energy New Home” with maximum energy efficiency and renewable energy supply.

We achieved energy efficiency through both passive design features, such as orientation on the site, balcony, and shade overhangs, as well as in our selection of materials and systems, including the building envelope that has ENERGY STAR Low-E windows and radiant barrier. Central air conditioning compressors, necessary in this hot, Climate Zone 10 location, exceed even California’s energy code efficiency, and we chose compressors with Puron, the new refrigerant that is kinder to the ozone. Heating is powered by gas-fired, central, high-efficiency, tankless boilers.

Community HousingWorks planned for water conservation, a crucial goal in arid Southern California. We respected the adjacent floodway greenbelt, treating all our storm water on-site before releasing it to the greenbelt through filters and a bioswale. We use a high percentage of native plants, and preserved a city-required lush green landscape without any mown grass onsite. Unit interiors include low-flow tap and shower devices, and dual-flush toilets. A central Laundromat with ENERGY STAR appliances saves energy and builds communitu.

Solara uses photovoltaic solar panels on the roofs and carports to supply the electrical demand from all the common areas and apartment units. Tied to the utility grid, Solara feeds the grid during peak daylight hours, and draws from the grid during off-peak times. As the first affordable Zero Utility Allowance development in San Diego County, Solara’s utilities are included in rent, providing residents certainty in their household budgeting and allowing them to save for future goals, such as first-time homeownership and higher education.

Resident services also include financial fitness training and credit readiness, to help residents learn how to manage their finances and save to they can “move up in the world.” We offer post-purchase counseling for those first-time homebuyers who continue education in household budgeting and home maintenance, and loans through our affiliation with NeighborWorks.

Solara uses recycled materials throughout, and the landscape is composed of low-allergy plants and trees. We designed excellent indoor air quality by choosing elements such as formaldehyde-free insulation; bathroom fans tied to light switches that stay on for a period of time after the light is turned off to prohibit mold; and passive design of cross-ventilation in almost all units.

Community HousingWorks’ green advisor, Global Green USA, indicates that Solara is designed to reduce our carbon footprint by 95 percent. This is equivalent to planting almost 5,500 trees per year, or removing 300 cars from the road each year.

Q. How does this project represent an innovative solution to a specific development challenge?

A. Community HousingWorks (CHW), the owner and developer, partnered with the city of Poway in recognizing the potential to transform an abandoned, previously commercial, blighted infill site, into desperately needed smart-growth affordable housing. Beginning in 2001, CHW got control of two parcels of land within Poway’s redevelopment district—a vacant residential parcel, and an adjacent commercial parcel with abandoned structures. Over the next several years, CHW worked closely with the city to assemble two additional parcels that were critical to the revitalization goals for a buildable site of 2.5 acres. The site was uniquely situated for smart growth: it sits on a major arterial—across from a commercial center, adjacent to a public park, on the best public transportation lings, and within walking distance of shopping, services, the library, and schools.

These parcels were one of the last three sites zoned for multifamily housing in the entire city of Poway, where housing is very unaffordable: a family earning the average living wage of approximately $25,000 per year cannot afford market rent for a two-bedroom apartment, and would need an annual income of $132,000 to purchase an average home priced at over $539,000.

CHW actively worked with the city of Poway to overcome neighborhood and community resistance to an affordable housing development. As a founding member of the local business-government-housing coalition Housing Solutions, CHW created support for Solara through a strong partnership with city officials and redevelopment agency staff, holding joint neighborhood planning meetings, and working with the chamber of commerce, civic, and business groups.

Another challenge was the city’s need to meet state affordable housing responsibilities by breaking ground in less than a year from initial site plans, a highly accelerated schedule for California entitlements that is rarely achieved. Working with the city, which created an interdisciplinary municipal department to accelerate review, Community HousingWorks completed construction ahead of pro forma.

Community HousingWorks designed Solara so that residents will be able to walk to shopping and other services, and not require an extra vehicle. We studied parking-space usage at our four affordable housing complexes in Poway, and obtained a city variance allowing parking at approximately 1.7 spaces per unit, and another to increase density, to maximize the number of units that can fit on the limited land. We worked to overcome any feelings of being cramped on the site by thoughtful landscape and hardscape design, and use of the floodway greenbelt as an amenity.

Finally, we designed and built the first Zero Energy New Home in California, with affordable housing finance challenges. Community HousingWorks led a design and construction team that had experience creating award-winning energy-efficient developments, but were not “green,” and had not worked on fully sustainable developments or photovoltaic energy. We selected a green advisor, who worked with our consultants and the California Energy and Utility regulators develop new financing models for affordable housing to achieve complete photovoltaic power, as well as sustainable features.