The Challenges and Opportunities of Decarbonizing Affordable Housing

1616 Ocean Ave. in Santa Monica, converted from natural gas-power to all electric, zero net energy.


Nonprofit affordable housing providers play a unique, multifaceted role in our cities. Community Corporation of Santa Monica makes it our mission to help lower income residents live more stable, dignified lives, and we also partner with cities to meet their affordable housing requirements and help create more diverse, inclusive communities.

Our industry often galvanizes the development community by creating innovative buildings, inspiring award-winning designs, and pushing the boundaries of environmentally sustainable communities.

Within our industry, one of the most critical contributions we can make is leading the way to decarbonizing the built environment. The 2021 publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group report, an international briefing of the human-induced climate crisis, stated the planet will likely reach or exceed 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) of warming within the next two decades. Climate change experts have labeled the report’s findings as a “code red for humanity.” The built environment plays a key role in climate change, and we can change this trajectory. But we must act quickly.

Since our inception in 1982, Community Corporation of Santa Monica has focused our work on environmental sustainability. Recently, we expanded that focus to include decarbonization and have implemented several strategies on this front.

             1616 Ocean Ave., exterior, before conversion.

We own close to 100 buildings, many of which are older properties, with natural gas systems for heating that we rehabilitated. While many of these buildings now have green elements such as solar panels and drought-tolerant landscaping, our next priority is to systematically eliminate natural gas from our buildings. This will require an addition of 50-amp breakers for each unit, as well as overhauling water and heating systems.

In our older buildings, we are considering upgrading electrical panels to also accommodate EV charging stations to help our residents move towards electric vehicles. This is a significant investment, but one that we must prioritize to do our part to decarbonize our portfolio, promote a cleaner, greener lifestyle, and combat climate change. We decided to start with a few pilot projects to best understand how to scale decarbonization across our portfolio.

Our first pilot property was completed in June 2021 at 1616 Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica. The 19-unit building was converted from natural gas-power to all electric, zero net energy. The cost was approximately $300,000 per unit, which also included American Disabilities Act additions, seismic retrofitting, and cosmetic upgrades. We used the Southern California Edison Multifamily Solar Housing rebate program to decrease the cost of the solar panels. We plan to complete more zero net energy retrofits to gain a better understanding of cost drivers and find opportunities for efficiencies.

For building owners that aren’t sure where to start on this journey of greening your portfolio, we suggest looking at upgrading items such as roofs or windows on their replacement schedule, or doing small efficiency measures in batches, such as drought-tolerant landscaping or LED light replacement. Moving to pilot projects after that makes sense.

The role that our lenders and utility partners play also makes a difference in our ability to green our portfolio. The City of Santa Monica, for example, offers rebates to multifamily residential owners for energy and water efficiency upgrades, including for EV chargers, toilet replacement, turf replacement and fuel switching. Southern California Edison and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power are set to offer more rebates in the near future, and throughout California, the Solar on Multifamily Affordable Housing (SOMAH) program offers low-cost solar panels to affordable housing providers as long as tenant utility load is offset.

Affordable housing often has the job of addressing multiple public policy goals in each development. While we must address climate change, we must also address the inequities within communities as we continue to build affordable housing buildings. Lower income families are often the most subjected to environmental injustices, whether by freeways built through underserved neighborhoods or housing being positioned next to oil wells, gas facilities, and polluting factories. Our homes can provide a higher standard of healthy living to communities that have been systematically disadvantaged.

The path to decarbonization and environmental justice will not be easy. But if we come together as an industry and recognize the urgency of this work, we can make an impact for generations ahead.

Building photography:  Courtesy of Community Corp.  Headshot photo credit:  Phil Cass Photography.   

Related News

Stay connected.

Find out first about industry news, upcoming events and updates by signing up for our newsletter.