BGE effort targets energy efficiency

July 15, 2008|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,Sun reporter

The rowhouses are boarded-up shells, roofs open to the elements. They're magnets for drug users, blights on their East Baltimore community.

Energy-inefficient as all get-out.

That's about to change.

Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. is giving $500,000 during the next five years to a nonprofit that will rehab the homes - 100 in all - for low-income buyers, complete with construction work and features designed to keep the cost down on monthly utility bills. The company plans to announce the donation, funded through the Constellation Energy Foundation, at an event today.

As the price of oil, coal and other energy sources rapidly mounts, nonprofit builders for the working poor have refocused their efforts - wanting to make affordable not only the purchase or rental cost of a home but also the long-term expense of heating and air-conditioning it. BGE estimates that people buying the rowhouses Chesapeake Habitat for Humanity is going to rehab will save $200 to $400 a year on utilities.

"It's a real legacy gift," said Mike Mitchell, executive director of Chesapeake Habitat, an affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International. "It's money that's going to be in that community for the next 30-plus years."

Low-income families pay a disproportionately high share of their money on utilities to begin with, and are more likely than other residents to live in drafty, older homes that leak air, said Dana Bourland, senior director of green communities for Enterprise Community Partners. Enterprise, the Columbia-based affordable housing giant, said the growing interest in energy efficiency nationwide is critical.

"When you think about affordable housing, it just makes sense," Bourland said. "It's more than just putting a roof over your head. The house has to be affordable to own and operate."

BGE's donation, for rehabbing in and around the McElderry Park neighborhood, is the largest in Chesapeake Habitat's 25-year history. BGE executives were quick to point out that the money comes from a foundation that's funded by shareholders of its parent company and not customers. The utility has faced criticism for its electricity rates, which are now 85 percent higher than they were when Maryland's power market was deregulated in 1999.

To create a ripple effect beyond Habitat homeowners, BGE officials say they will be explaining to residents throughout the area how to cut utility costs and get rebates for energy-efficient appliances.

"Customers in a traditional Baltimore rowhome can take advantage of a lot of what we're doing for these Chesapeake Habitat row-homes," said Ruth Kiselewich, BGE's director of conservation programs.

BGE wants the rehabbed homes to be Energy Star certified, a designation given to properties that meet a variety of energy-efficient criteria. To win that recognition from the federal program, Chesapeake Habitat and BGE have discussed features such as additional insulation, low-flow faucets and shower heads, and extra-efficient windows, appliances and water heaters.

Chesapeake Habitat says it has 15 homes in hand and a commitment from the city to turn over government-owned vacant properties in and around McElderry Park. That neighborhood is north of Patterson Park, a community that stemmed its own tide of vacancy and blight with an intensive rehabbing effort, and Mitchell hopes his group's work will touch off wider revitalization.

On one block in the shadow of Johns Hopkins Hospital, seven of the 10 buildings are empty, boards where their windows and doors should be. Three of those empty homes are now Chesapeake Habitat's, their boards painted a cheery yellow - "symbolic to let folks know that change is coming," Mitchell said as he walked down the street.

Bernadette Perkins lives in one of the few occupied homes on that block, signs in her window warning "KEEP OFF THE STEPS" and "NO TRESPASSING." She sees the abandoned properties used for drugs and prostitution. The thought of at least some of them fixed up and lived in makes her very happy.

"To see it come alive - that would be awesome," said Perkins, a security officer at the hospital.

Mitchell said early work has begun on some of the homes and construction will start in earnest soon, with all 100 slated to be finished in five years. Chesapeake Habitat generally sells its rehabilitated homes for $100,000 to buyers making about $20,000 a year. The buyers, who help build their homes, get a no-interest mortgage.

Ernest K. Smith, a board member of the McElderry Park Community Association and a neighborhood leader who reached out to Chesapeake Habitat several years ago, thinks everything about the plan sounds promising. More fixed-up homes. More homeowners. More emphasis on how everyone can save money on their heating and air conditioning, not just the people buying the rehabbed properties.

"We're all faced with rising energy bills," Smith said. "Anything we can do to reduce that cost is a wonderful thing."

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