By Adam Blust


That’s the key to bringing energy efficiency to affordable housing in Dane County and beyond.

Sustain Dane brought together experts from business, nonprofits, education and government to discuss this collaboration at its most recent Sustainable Breakfast Series event July 26 at the Madison Public Library.

On the panel:

• Abigail Corso, Chief Strategy Officer at Elevate
• Kurt Paulsen, Professor of Architecture at UW-Madison
• Kelly Hilyard, Sustainability Coordinator for the City of Middleton
• Brian Driscoll, Senior Multifamily Services Manager at MG&E
• Rob Dicke, Assistant VP of Asset Management at Wisconsin Housing Preservation Corp

Paulsen began by discussing the concept of what constitutes affordable housing. It’s much more complex than just the usual “spend no more than 30 percent of your income on housing.” Because for one thing, that calculation that calculation typically doesn’t include costs like internet access, which has become a vital utility in today’s world.

There are also major trade-offs, Paulsen said, based on quality and location. You can lower your housing costs, but you probably will have to compromise on a lower-quality apartment or one that is far from your work.

And fundamentally, in Dane County as many other places, people are just not making enough income to manage their housing needs. Paulsen said approximately 15,000 households in Dane County pay 50 percent of their income in rent.

“So what can we do about it?” Paulsen said. “Well, the city and county are doing a lot, but it feels like you’re kind of bailing water because the needs are so high.”

Much of what is considered “affordable housing” in Dane County is older and in need of significant upgrades, Paulsen said. But landlords have little incentive to make those upgrades. Expenditure by public entities helps, but there is just not enough money to go around to fill the needs. There is subsidized affordable housing, such as properties built with the low-income housing tax credit from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). There is also naturally occurring affordable housing (NOAH) that is often the older stock which by nature of its quality and location is at a more affordable rent price. Both tend to have higher utility costs. The majority of our affordable housing in Dane County is NOAH.

On a separate but related note of perspective on the overall housing market, the talk of what is “subsidized housing” overall also needs a reality check, he said.“The vast majority of white homeowners like me actually live in subsidized housing. The subsidies are indirect through the tax code. So they’re hidden,” he said.

Dicke then spoke about the Housing Preservation Corp (HPC), which he said is the largest nonprofit owner of affordable housing in the state of Wisconsin: more than 8,500 units in 58 of the state’s 72 counties. More than 85 percent of their units have rent subsidies.

Dicke said the HPC is working hard to improve not only the quality of its buildings, but also their efficiency.

“Because we are mission driven nonprofit, any money we can save in operations, we can put back into more housing, which I think is really important,” he said. “We can drive those cost savings back into expanding our mission.”

The HPC has been working on projects to convert from gas fired heat sources to heat pumps, improving insulation, and converting to all LED lighting. Residents benefit from lower energy costs, increased comfort and improved health outcomes.

For Hilyard, the sustainability coordinator for Middleton, the issues of housing and sustainability are closely tied together. But it’s difficult to layer issues of climate mitigation on top of the already complex world of housing policy.

Hilyard praised the relationship the city has built with Elevate and Sustain Dane to create plans for energy efficiency and solar power in Middleton.

“For us, this ticks a lot of boxes as a city, because we have pretty stringent energy goals,” she said. “We have city-wide goals to be 100% renewable by 2040.”

Middleton wants to “sprinkle the green to everyone,” Hilyard said, not just the upper-middle-class homeowners who have had generations to build wealth and reflect that in their energy efficient home designs.

Community engagement is key, she said.

“When we do this work, it shouldn’t just come top down with people prescribing ‘this is what we think need to happen.’ Middleton is a small enough city that we can build relationships with the tenants and building owners and have them involved in the process early on,” Hilyard said.

It’s important to keep in mind the role race plays in these energy efficiency issues, Driscoll said. On average, customers of color pay two to three times the utility costs compared to their white neighbors. And the economic difficulties ushered in by the pandemic have only made things worse.

Despite the challenges, Driscoll said MG&E has worked hard to increase energy assistance and provide energy efficient products, especially to its most vulnerable customers.

“We wouldn’t be able to do this work without the strong relationships we have with our community partners,” he said. “It’s because of them and that built-in trust that we have the ability to enlarge our efforts in energy assistance, low-income weatherization, and LED giveaways.”

Education is another crucial component, Driscoll said, making sure customers have all the information they need about managing thermostats, weatherization, and many other topics that can make a big difference in energy use and cost.

For Hilyard, another important concept is willingness to spend more during new housing construction in order to reap the efficiency benefits over time. That’s not always a consideration, she said, but retrofitting, while possible, is much more complex and expensive than doing it right at the start.

All the panelists emphasized that affordable housing in general, and energy efficiency of housing in particular, is also a workforce issue. There needs to be a critical mass of professional labor available to deliver the projects that the community can use; and that labor just isn’t there.

“We have a shortage of workers in every sector,” said Paulsen.

And how will those workers be paid a living wage in the current economic climate? The minimum wage has remained stagnant for decades.

“Yes, we have an affordable housing crisis, but we also have a wage crisis,” Dicke said.

In the final analysis, for Hilyard, it’s all about the collaboration.

“I’m thankful for the relationships I’m building,” she said. “That’s the future of our work.”