Energy-efficient construction requirements in affordable housing are paying off for Virginia renters, according to a first-of-its-kind study in the state.

Spearheaded by Housing Virginia and conducted by Virginia Tech’s Center for Housing Research, the yearlong study found that the average resident of an energy-efficient affordable housing unit saves $54 per month on his or her electricity bill, amounting to $648 annually.

“To some households, that might not be a lot. But to these households that are low-income or very low-income, that’s a very significant savings that they can use for other critical needs that they have in their budgets,” says Robert Adams, executive director of Housing Virginia.

In 2007, Virginia Housing Development Authority implemented a set of green standards into its low-income housing tax credit program to reduce long-term energy usage. One of the incentives required in its qualified allocation plan was for developers to receive third-party testing and inspection from EarthCraft Virginia or LEED on their new developments.

“There was a lot of discussion and speculation in the tax credit industry about whether we were really achieving savings,” says Adams, explaining why the statewide nonprofit decided to undertake the study, which was funded in part by Capital One.

The energy-efficient Somanath Senior Apartments in Richmond was one of the 15 developments that participated in the study.
Courtesy Housing Virginia The energy-efficient Somanath Senior Apartments in Richmond was one of the 15 developments that participated in the study.

Virginia Tech analyzed 312 units at 15 properties built or rehabbed around 2009 and 2010. It also received 12 months of usage data and conducted full behavior surveys for 220 households.

One of the key findings is how energy efficiency can help improve affordability. The study found that for the average household at 30% of the area median income, $23,250 per year for a family of four, their ability to afford rent is increased by 10%, thereby expanding the options available to them.

“We are living in an environment where resources for affordable rental housing has been in decline. Everyone is trying to get more creative in ways we can sustain affordability,” says Adams. “We can achieve a 10% improvement in affordability simply by making the units more energy efficient.”

Andrew McCoy of Virginia Tech’s Center for Housing Research, principal architect and author of the report, says another interesting takeaway is how most of the units outperformed forecasts.

“In the past, people have been able to look at the technologies involved and estimate what the savings would be,” he says. “What we’re seeing is on average in these units that people are considerably below that in their energy usage.”

Energy usage for the projects that were part of the study was found to be 16.6% less than estimated and approximately 30% less than new standard construction.

McCoy says it is also interesting to see the variability in energy usage, depending on if households are families or seniors and if the housing is new construction or rehabs. “If we can reduce that variability, we have even more opportunity for savings,” he adds.

Education could be key to reducing that variability. The team discovered during its research that there has been a mismatch between what the property managers thought had been adequately conveyed about the energy-efficiency features and what the residents described of the energy usage advice they had received.

“It does occur to us that a very important and significant next phase of this work is to look at the best ways to have that information communicated in ways that it will really connect with residents,” says Adams.