CAN executive director Derrick Miller says their goal is for everyone in the area around Bryant Elementary School to achieve a similar outcome through the nonprofit’s Bryant Sustainability Project, a trial run for the city’s A2Zero carbon neutrality plan.
According to a 1974 Detroit Free Press article, the subdivision surrounding the school, originally called Stoneybrook, was built under a federal program designed to help low-income residents buy homes. To keep costs down, many were built without basements or garages. Down payments were minimal, and HUD mortgage payments were subsidized based on income.
But the article was headlined, “Dream of Low-cost Home Turned to Nightmare at Stoneybrook.” Four years after it opened, fifty homes were already vacant. Some had been resold to speculators for as little as $500 by buyers who couldn’t keep up the payments or were demoralized by crime. In 1995, a teenage girl died when she was caught in a crossfire between rival gangs.
Ann Arbor’s rising tide of gentrification has since washed into the neighborhood, with some renovated homes selling for more than $200,000. But according to citydata.com, Bryant homes still average less than $150,000, compared to Ann Arbor’s average of $435,000. More than half of the residents identify as Black, Indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC). Household income is about 40 percent below the city average, and more than one-third spend 6 percent or more of their income on energy.
Miller says CAN has been involved with A2Zero since its inception, “because under-resourced families tend to not have a seat at the table in policy decision-making.” The city’s Office of Sustainability and Innovations also wanted to
prioritize the city’s most financially vulnerable residents. Add the fact that Bryant is evenly split between single-family homes and apartments, he says, and the neighborhood “became a natural fit for being a potential partner” in the city’s decarbonization campaign. The plan is to reach carbon neutrality in Bryant, then apply the lessons learned throughout the city.
CAN is collaborating with Homeland Solar to provide schematics for every household in the community and its solar potential. The nonprofit also did its own assessment, going door-to-door to identify issues related to comfort, health, and safety.
“We have this deep understanding of what’s going on in the household, their needs, and what types of investments are necessary to get it closer to carbon-neutral,” Miller says.
The solar panels are just part of a broader electrification project. “Most households in the neighborhood are using gas stoves and water tanks,” he says. “To become carbon-neutral, you have to reduce your gas footprint.”
Since that will make electricity even more critical, a key component of CAN’s strategy is creating a “resilience hub.” The plan is to equip the Bryant Community Center to provide reliable energy when the sun’s not shining or during widespread power outages. “We are pursuing other funding opportunities to add more solar throughout the community, and, if the funding allows, we would like to add battery systems as well,” Miller emails.
He expects the upgrades and the resilience hub to last between twenty and twenty-five years. “That’s the typical lifespan of a solar system. And that’s saving at least twenty to forty grand worth of utility bills” per household over that time.
CAN is piecing together several funding sources to complete the current work, including the McKnight Foundation, Solar Moonshot, and MSHDA. A recent $500,000 grant from MSHDA will mean that “about twenty households in the neighborhood are going to be getting anywhere from twenty to twenty-five thousand dollars’ worth of home improvements that are focused not only on weatherization, but ultimately about carbon reduction and equipping the house to be more efficient,” Miller says.
Going forward, he says, the Bryant Sustainability Project will seek out additional financial support to make energy improvements, assess what it will take to upgrade all the homes in the neighborhood, and negotiate group rates for the work. They’ll also work with landlords to reduce energy use and keep rents affordable.
Miller says it will cost an estimated $10 million to make the entire neighborhood carbon-neutral. “We are trying to shift off the financial costs for the families,” he says. “We are also looking into low-interest-rate loan options from green banks and other philanthropically minded lenders.”
UnitedforAlice.com, a data-driven equality index, ranks Washtenaw County eighty-first of the eighty-three Michigan counties in income inequality, and the state in the top ten for utility cost per household. Miller hopes the Bryant Sustainability Project will help change that.
“The work that we’re doing really, truly is multiple wins,” he says. “You’re reducing the carbon footprint by using more sustainable energy sources. It’s a win in affordability, which is a huge problem in Ann Arbor for low-income families. And … it’s a win in terms of adding generational wealth to households, because the equipment adds value to the home.”