Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Employee Spotlight: The Demo Diva and the Operation Home Program

United Housing employee Cherry Brooks, the self-proclaimed “Demo Diva,” has been sorting through houses by the fistful to find ways to alleviate blight in Memphis neighborhoods. Using the National Community Stabilization Trust (NCST) program called The ReClaim Project, distressed properties are donated to nonprofits that are willing and able to take some action on getting the homes either occupied or taken down.

Cherry Brooks, Demo Diva and Housing Support at United Housing

NCST is a nonprofit focused on accelerating neighborhood revitalization across the United States by collaborating with local community development corporations and national stakeholders. ReClaim focuses in markets with low-value, non-performing assets. Memphis is one of these left behind markets and continues to get hit by the housing crisis and economic recession. Property values are not increasing making it difficult for neighborhoods to bounce back.

“So many of these homes have to be knocked down, they are in such bad shape,” Brooks said sifting through piles of photos of homes with no doors, rotten structures, falling roofs, and water damage beyond repair. A vacant lot donated to the next door neighbors—often schools, churches, or homeowners—will help to maintain the lots and is one strategy for some of the homes.   “I drive around these neighborhoods, and look around. Find out if a school or church or store would want to maintain the lot, put in a garden or park. If I’m in Frayser I’ll recommend Frayser CDC for the property, especially if it can be saved and renovated,” Brooks says.

Not all of the homes need to be torn down. Some homes can be saved and repaired. “I just showed you the good ones,” Brooks said. The “good ones” can be donated to the neighborhood’s nonprofit community development corporation to be rehabbed and rented or sold to an individual or family. Brooks adds, “But most of them are just not worth the expense.”

Those rare property gems that are salvageable are ripe to become homes for veterans – the population NCST is focusing on getting housed. The donated properties can be “sold at a discount to qualified veterans or service members or made available as mortgage-free homeownership opportunities for disabled or very low-income veterans.

United Housing is currently developing a new program called Operation Home in partnership with veteran organizations in Memphis like Catholic Charities' St. Sebastian Veteran Services  program, where they transition homeless veterans into stable housing. Operation Home has helped five veterans so far. The goal of Operation Home is to help 25 more veterans and their families become housed using NCST’s donated properties and ReClaim project. Properties that can be saved and renovated using energy-efficient, universal design, can provide accessibility standards for individuals in a wheelchair. Our goal is to supplement treatment plans from partner veteran organizations by providing a very crucial missing piece in the housing options and financial education of veterans in Memphis.

"I have 45 properties right now I am requesting through NCST," Brooks adds, "let's hope we can get some of these back in shape."

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Renewable Energy in Memphis

Solar panels at Wolf River Bluffs.

Local solar panel enthusiast, Fergus Nolan, has written a short piece on Facebook on United Housing's Wolf River Bluffs. 

If you roll northwards on McLean, you dead-end at James St in Frayser. Clustered around the intersection, there's an interesting project by United Housing, a non-profit which works with low-income housing. These houses are very cool, built to pretty good standards of insulation, with economical on-demand water heaters, and each has a set of eight solar panels on the garage roof.
The panels were made in Memphis by Sharp America, who have since stopped making solar panels in Memphis. The economics of the panels are attractive. The eight panels probably have a rating of just under 2000 watts, which means that, with an average of 6 hours of productive daylight, you'd expect to get something approaching 12 KWH (12 units on your utility bill) per day. This is worth about $1.20 off your bill per day, maybe an average of 35 bucks or so, and this is higher in the summer months when the AC is on. 
There are still some tax incentives, in the shape of a credit, for installations like this, and you may qualify for some installation grants also. If you get a TVA/MLGW grid tie, you might be able to sell the energy to the utility for a higher price.
To build an installation like this yourself, you'd need approximately $2000 worth of panels, a solar controller in the $500 to $800 range and an inverter, to convert the 24V DC to alternating current, like you get off the mains. A 2000 watt inverter might start around $400 to 500. Then there is a mess or wiring, connectors and mounts, and you will need to hire an electrician if you want to hook it up to the grid, or contact the utility and jump through their hoops.
A grid this size won't power your home, but every watt you generate is a pile of coal they don't get to buy from Duke and burn at the Allen Fossil Plant, and thirty-something bucks per month is better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.
Payback looks to be in the order of 10 years and the panels come with a 25 year guarantee. There are a few little perks, such as the 'parasol effect' where the panels block 20% or so of the sun's heat. Mostly, doing a starter installation like this puts you in a good place to add more. Prices for panels have been in a historical decline, and fossil fuel will inevitably go up, so, at some point, you'd expect to be able to build up your home solar farm at incrementally lower costs. And, if you carefully research all the available grants and tax incentives, you may be able to trim these costs significantly.
The van in the pics is my solar-powered freezer truck, also with 1 KW of Memphis-built solar panels. This is how I have avoided tangling with bureaucracy as it is an off-grid installation. For anyone who has mobile power needs, the fact that automotive energy is much more expensive than grid power, and much of the available devices are awfully fuel-inefficient, gives a much better ROI calculation. Payback on the solar part of the truck conversion was less than a year. Opportunities for renewable energy are all around us. There is plenty of low-hanging fruit for homeowners and business folk who need to make our energy investments go to the bottom line.
United Housing has shown the way. These are neat and efficient houses that look very livable, probably much better than these leaky old Midtown houses. BTW is you know any low-income folks, it looks like some of the houses are still for sale.

Mr. Nolan is a member of local Facebook Advocacy group, Midtown Sustainability Alliance. He operates a small business based here in Memphis.

Learn more about Wolf River Bluffs on our website.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Operation Home: A New Home for a New Year

Center: US Veteran Shiloh Reynolds and Stephanie Dancy with their infant son, Shiloh, Jr., surrounded by United Housing, Catholic Charities, and St. Sebastian staff who helped them become homeowners.

Special Note: This post is written in collaboration with Alan Butson, Program Director for St. Sebastian Veteran Services, and with interview with Wayne Horton, St. Sebastian Peer Support Navigator. Watch this blog for further information in the St. Sebastian Newsletter.

The holidays are always a time of hope and of giving. For some, it can be hard. But this holiday season, Shiloh Reynolds, a ten year, honorably discharged, veteran of the U.S. Army who served in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom, has found hope in home. This New Year, UHI would like to formally welcome our newest homeowners, US Veteran Shiloh Reynolds, his partner, Stephanie Dancy, and their infant son, 8-month old Shiloh, Jr. They will close on their home in January 2016 but were able to move in early to be home for the holidays. 

Thanks to the combined work of folks here at UHI, and from Catholic Charities of West Tennessee (CCWTN) and Orange Mound Community Development Corporation (OMCDC)--matched with the determination of the young family—they are now in their very own home where they celebrated their baby’s first Christmas.

Reynolds reached out to Catholic Charities' St. Sebastian Veteran Services (SSVS) program for housing assistance for himself and his family, his son, and his partner Stephanie Dancy. After being homeless and living in an emergency shelter for over a week, Mr. Reynolds and Ms. Dancy worked diligently with their case manager – Deloris Little to find viable housing options in Shelby County.

In just over two months, Mr. Reynolds has gone from being literally homeless, to a recipient of a fully renovated home given away by United Housing Inc., a CCWTN partner. Reynolds and his family closed on their home just in time for the holidays. Working on financial planning with United Housing's Priscilla Reed, the Reynolds are ready for the responsibility of the taxes, insurance and upkeep of the home and in fifteen years it is theirs – free and clear!

Mr. Reynolds and his family are just one of the 196 Veteran households in Shelby County who have received services from the SSVS program over the past year, and one of the 368 new homeowners that have worked with United Housing this year. Shiloh gives back, by volunteering with Supportive Services for Veteran Families on Fridays to assist veterans who are receiving furniture donations.

United Housing has been helping people provide stable housing for their families since 1994. In that time, we have helped more than 4000 buy or keep their home. Over the recent holidays, we could not be happier to offer our programs and services to veterans such as Shiloh, and by becoming a UHI customer, he is the latest addition to this resilient, determined, and dedicated group. The New Year is bright and full of hope for this young family and their New Home for the New Year!