Net Zero: Making it Real for Residents

Green in Action
Green in Action
Net Zero: Making it Real for Residents

How do you make green features work for affordable housing residents? What do you do if they’re not working? Developer Mutual Housing California learned from experience about the importance of resident engagement at their ambitious net zero energy development, Mutual Housing at Spring Lake, in Woodland, California. In the first episode of the Green in Action podcast, host Kimberly Vermeer spoke with Bryan Dove, Director of Asset Management at Mutual Housing California, and Spring Lake residents and youth leaders Gerardo Brambila and Manuel Maravilla about how owner and residents learned together to make net zero real for residents.

Topics Discussed:

  • Net Zero energy for a rental development
  • The importance of resident engagement in operating a functioning green building
  • How resident leadership help communities thrive
  • Value of sustainability


Blueprint for Greening Affordable Housing, Revised Edition

Mutual Housing California

Mutual Housing at Spring Lake

Net Zero: Making it Real for Residents Transcript

KIM VERMEER: Hello! I’m Kim Vermeer, host of Green in Action, the podcast where we celebrate stories of green leadership in affordable housing.

Green buildings come in all shapes and sizes. Depending on your location, building type, and your priorities, they can look all kinds of ways. But the best green housing all has one thing in common: it provides a comfortable, healthy, and affordable home for its residents.

When my co-author Walker Wells and I wrote our book, Blueprint for Greening Affordable Housing, we included 14 case studies to showcase ambitious green buildings from all around the country. One of those case studies is this terrific net-zero rental apartment project in Northern California:

BRYAN DOVE: Mutual Housing at Spring Lake is a two-phased affordable housing apartment complex in Woodland, California, just north of Sacramento. They are affordable apartments for farm worker families. And we built them to zero net energy standards and LEED Platinum.

KIM VERMEER: That’s Bryan Dove, the Director of Asset Management at Mutual Housing California, the developer and owner of the Spring Lake community.

Walker and I were excited to feature Mutual Housing at Spring Lake in the book. In the affordable housing world, net-zero rental housing is rare to see. To be “net zero” means that a building produces as much energy as it uses, in this case through solar power.

What’s more, Mutual Housing was giving the benefits of energy production right back to the residents: by crediting the solar power to the resident accounts, Spring Lake residents wouldn’t have electric bills. An ambitious green project, with a strong equity-driven mission – it sounds great, right?

But as we researched the project for our book, we learned that there was more to the story…

MANUEL MARAVILLA: So, for us, what really shook us, like we were really surprised, is that when we saw our bill, I think it came something like six hundred, right. And we were really shocked. And we talked to all our neighbors, and they were getting the same stuff. And everyone was really confused. Everyone was really angry.

KIM VERMEER: That’s Manuel Maravilla, a current high school senior and former youth leader at Mutual Housing at Spring Lake. Manuel and his family were some of the first residents of the Spring Lake community and moved in during phase one in 2015.

Manuel’s family was not the only family to be shocked and angry about the high electric bills in this supposedly net-zero complex.

Gerardo Brambila, another resident who’s now in college at UC Davis, told us what happened next:

GERARDO BRAMBILA: So I remember one day we all got together, and we were like, “what’s going on? Like these bills are so high.” Like it was just so confusing. It was not what we expected it to be. I remember they all went to management here, and they were like super angry. They’re like “What’s going on? Like, you guys lied to us. Like this wasn’t supposed to happen.” So, yeah, it was it was quite shocking.

KIM VERMEER: Well, at that point, Mutual Housing realized that the net-zero building was not working as intended for the residents. They knew that they needed to act fast to understand what was happening in their new building.

BRYAN DOVE: We heard pretty quickly after lease-up that residents were experiencing bills, and some very large bills, and this being one of our first zero net energy projects, we needed to get up to speed pretty quickly on why that was happening.”

KIM VERMEER: Their first step was to hold a meeting with residents.

BRYAN DOVE: What we heard were residents say, “Hey, we have high bills, you told us it will be low bills. What’s going on? Help us.” And it took a lot of investigation, discussing with the residents, like, “what is going on? How can we correct this?”

KIM VERMEER: So how did this happen? How could the utility bills of this carefully designed net-zero project be so high?

Let’s go back to the beginning, before Mutual Housing at Spring Lake had even opened its doors…

Back in 2015, Mutual Housing at Spring Lake was Mutual Housing California’s first net-zero development. They were excited, and eager to share their excitement about this big step in green performance in their marketing.

BRYAN DOVE: Mutual Housing California is very resident focused, and so we’ll do a lot of outreach in the community as we’re developing the project, as it’s under construction. So we try to get the word out about our communities before they open. The unique thing about Mutual Housing at Spring Lake in the first phase, we did also promote the zero net energy strategies which came back to haunt us a little bit, in the way we promoted them.

KIM VERMEER: During Mutual Housing’s leasing process – in addition to finding tenants that matched their income and farm worker requirements – they wanted to get potential residents excited about net-zero energy at Spring Lake.

But for many families, like Gerardo’s, the main priority was about price and fit, not green features.

GERARDO BRAMBILA: My parents didn’t really know much about it. They just knew that the electricity bill was going to be cheaper. I remember we moved into Mutual Housing because of how it was connected to like families that worked in agriculture and how it was based on, like, low income.

KIM VERMEER: Manuel’s family had a similar experience. They wanted to move from a rural town to the city, with access to services and better schools. As for the green features, they were excited about the low utility bills Mutual Housing promised, but were less clear about the details of what net-zero meant.

MANUEL MARAVILLA: So we knew that they were going to have solar power, so the electricity costs were probably going to be cheaper, but we didn’t really understand what, like net zero meant and all the whole environmentally friendly stuff. I personally really liked it, but my parents weren’t really at all that gravitated to it, because they were just looking for a place to stay.

KIM VERMEER: Even if they didn’t understand the specifics of the Spring Lake apartments’ green features, Mutual Housing’s marketing efforts were pushing one message loud and clear: if you live in a net-zero energy home, you don’t have to worry about your electric bill.

Mutual Housing certainly hadn’t intended to create a “bait and switch” situation with their marketing. So, why was this ambitious green project not performing as predicted? What was going on?

After they heard residents’ concerns, Mutual Housing started troubleshooting to understand what was causing the high bills.

The first challenge turned out to be an equipment failure with water heaters, and they were one of the biggest energy users in the complex.

BRYAN DOVE: The temperature gauge kind of popped out. And so, it thought it was at 80 degrees or 90 degrees. And so, it kept trying to heat up, heat up, heat up. And so, once we figured this out, we pushed the thermometer in. It was one hundred and forty, hundred and fifty degrees.

KIM VERMEER: With malfunctioning temperature gauges the water heaters ran constantly, and that caused huge electric bills. Identifying and fixing this equipment problem was an important step.

The second challenge had to do with the differences between energy-use models and energy-use reality. The idea of net zero energy is that the residents’ electric usage is offset by the solar production. But if residents use more electricity than anticipated, or the solar panels produce less energy, then problems start happening.

BRYAN DOVE: We did a poor job of understanding the process and explaining that to the residents ahead of time. there’s a budget of electricity. If a household uses more than that, you’re going to pay for more than that. The solar can only offset so much.

KIM VERMEER: Mutual Housing realized it needed to do a better job of explaining that the bills will only be low, or next to zero, if a household is careful about the amount of electricity they used.

BRYAN DOVE: It’s a model, an engineering model. And so not everybody fits into that perfect box. If it works, if a resident uses the amount of electricity we estimated and then the solar panels offset that — on an annual basis. And so, there’s some fluctuations throughout the year. The winter months is less PV production or solar production.

KIM VERMEER: And that was the third challenge: residents didn’t understand that the solar panels would offset electricity use on a yearly basis, not on a monthly one. The net-zero idea is that over the course of the year, the photovoltaic, or PV, energy production would balance out the energy use, with production lows in the winter offset by high output in the summer. That bigger picture wasn’t clear to residents who expected to have low energy bills every month.

BRYAN DOVE: If a household uses what the engineer thought the amount of electricity would be used, and the solar panels produce what they should be, and the sun’s shining and the panels are working, and then those would be offset. And the residents would have zero or maybe a ten-dollar electric bill per month, a base rate that the utility company charges. So, we advertise the building during lease up and the outreach that “this is a zero-net energy, very low bills or you’ll have no bills living here.” And that isn’t actually the case.

KIM VERMEER: Finally, the fourth challenge was long delays by the utility company, Pacific Gas and Electric, or PG&E, to get the virtual net-metering system set up to credit resident accounts.

BRYAN DOVE: The utility company took a few months to set up the zero net energy billing system, so residents were getting billed, but they weren’t getting any of the credits yet from the solar panels. So that took a little understanding on how that works and several months before it caught up.

KIM VERMEER: Here’s how Manuel and Gerardo remember it:

MANUEL MARAVILLA: Our answers weren’t really answered right then and there. But they said that they were going to try to contact someone from PG&E to explain everything to us. And I think after a month or two, a PG&E person came, and they explained to us, like, why we had that six-hundred-dollar bill, how we could pay it off, through payments. And he explained to us a lot of the benefits of, like solar power.

GERARDO BRAMBILA: I remember that the change didn’t happen right away. It definitely took a while. But I do remember that a few months after the credit did go into place and that was very relieving to know that that was going on.

KIM VERMEER: With the 62 phase one families still needing education and support, and with another 39 units for phase two on the horizon, Mutual Housing realized they needed a new approach to resident engagement and education.

After the break, we’ll hear how Mutual Housing changed its approach and developed resident engagement strategies to improve communication.

After these initial challenges were addressed, Mutual Housing wanted to be sure that residents would understand the relationship between their electricity bills and the way the building worked and how families could manage their energy use better. They developed a new, long-term approach to bridge that gap: resident-led engagement, especially with youth leaders.

BRYAN DOVE: We tried to get folks like Manuel and Gerardo to help us. I was really impressed that the youth at the property really understood what was going on and sometimes more so than us, as the owner. And so, we tried to tap into that. I think it’s a real a real positive coming from their neighbors.

KIM VERMEER: Mutual Housing remained committed to net-zero and to giving residents the tools to understand how it worked in practice. And Mutual Housing wanted to improve its own understanding of how the buildings were really functioning as well, so during Gerardo’s first year as a green leader, he tracked energy use on all of the meters.

GERARDO BRAMBILA: Month to month, I would go around with my brother to all the energy meters here in the property, and we would just document all the numbers for each and every specific unit. And at the end of the year, we sent the spreadsheet back to the coordinator that was helping us at the time. They took all of that and really used that to see if the property was actually meeting the goals for net zero energy or if they weren’t and what they could do to change that.

KIM VERMEER: Measuring actual energy use over time gave Mutual Housing a better sense of how residents were using energy and what information they needed. Their next step was to give residents a tool to monitor their family’s energy use.

MANUEL MARAVILLA: “They give us like a little box that had like LEDs, that indicated how much power we used. It had two lights, one of them was for the power usage at the moment, and one of them was for the power usage throughout the day. So that was really what we use as a gauge to sort of see how much power we were using. And I really tried to get my family to, like, pay attention to it, because they didn’t want to hear it.

KIM VERMEER: But it started to make a difference. Manuel continued:

MANUEL MARAVILLA: We slowly started to realize that even if you have, like a TV plugged in when you’re not using it, it’s still drains like quite a bit of power. So that was one of the things we also did.

KIM VERMEER: The LED use monitors were helping to change behavior – like Manuel’s family unplugging the TV. But Mutual Housing realized they also needed to change messaging and outreach to address the reality that every family uses electricity differently.

BRYAN DOVE: We did look at the usage from household to household. And so with sixty two households living at the first phase, they all use a different amount of electricity in different ways and then also within a household, even my own household, each individual uses electricity differently and has a different mindset. And so we did outreach early on to those households that were using more electricity than others. And it was so interesting that some of the households, it wasn’t urgent or important thing. Others, they’ve got work and kids and other responsibilities. And so, it wasn’t top of mind. Other households were interested in saying, “oh, I wasn’t aware of that, thank you. Well, come and show me.” And so we saw some significant declines in some of those households that were just aware of what’s going on.

KIM VERMEER: Mutual Housing carried forward what they’d learned from phase one to their approach to resident orientation in phase two, a few years later. One important difference was in the marketing.

BRYAN DOVE: So on the second phase, we really didn’t play up the zero net energy aspect.

KIM VERMEER: Resisting the urge to over-promise on the advanced green building features, Mutual Housing was able to avoid setting the unrealistic expectations that amplified the problems they encountered during phase one. Bryan noted the difference this made in initial resident meetings, recalling that first phase one meeting:

BRYAN DOVE: I’ve got pictures that I show, one of the meeting from the first phase and the room was full of residents packed the room with their bills, leaning forward.

KIM VERMEER: comparing that experience to phase two,

BRYAN DOVE: They were sitting back. They were relaxed. They were open and receptive and nodding, “Oh, yeah, OK, Now I understand.” We didn’t give them expectations or incorrect information.

KIM VERMEER: Mutual Housing had learned a lot from the challenges of phase one.But one of the most important lessons was harnessing the power of resident leadership.

BRYAN DOVE: Our main mission and focus is the residents and giving them the tools to be leaders in their community. And then the neighbors can do a much better job than we can as staff in working with the residents that are working with their neighbors and promoting goals that are important to them.

KIM VERMER: Mutual Housing has staff that recruit and work with residents to provide support for green leaders like Gerardo and Manuel. That relationship-building helped the youth leaders get perspective on Mutual Housing’s green goals.

With training on how the buildings worked, Gerardo and Manuel acted as an informal resource for their neighbors.

MANUEL MARAVILLA: I did help out a lot of people, not only just by the sessions that we had, but also just in general, people sort of around the community started to like, know me.

If it was just something that they thought didn’t really need to go all the way to management, they would also go to me. Like they would just ask me general questions, because they knew that I knew a lot of this stuff.

KIM VERMEER: From bigger issues like utility bills to day-to-day tech support needs, Manuel was a leader in his community.

MANUEL MARAVILLA: People had a big disconnect between the people actually in management, and I felt like I guess I filled in that disconnect pretty well.

KIM VERMEER: As a fellow resident, people trusted Manuel’s knowledge about green features.

This youth leadership changed attitudes in their families, too. For Gerardo, this even went beyond his immediate family.

GERARDO: My parents definitely became more aware of the whole idea of the energy usage and they even help out, like, our family that doesn’t live on the property that live elsewhere to reduce their energy, especially like my siblings. Come in their houses like, “oh, you’re not using that. Like, you should unplug it, you know, save on your energy bill.” So I felt like that was just really cool.

KIM VERMEER: Zero-net energy living and Manuel’s leadership changed his family’s attitude too:

MANUEL MARAVILLA: Oh yeah, 100 percent, the whole thing with the whole zero net energy that really introduced my family to like being not only more conscious about electricity, but just being more conscious about the environment because I don’t know, something just sort of clicked after doing this for so long that they sort of just really started to get to like the idea not only because it was benefits for their pocket. Right. Because they don’t get to pay bills, but because, I guess they sort of really like the idea of having a green future.

KIM VERMEER: Green leaders will always want to push the envelope, which is good! Though, when pursuing cutting edge projects like Mutual Housing at Spring Lake, things aren’t going to go exactly as planned. But if you build a trusting relationship with residents, your community will be more resilient to those challenges you face.

As we’ve heard: green features offer real benefits to residents, but if residents don’t understand them, they may not work as intended. Reflecting on that initial conflict with residents, Bryan now understands the importance of preemptive resident education on how net-zero actually works.

 BRYAN DOVE: We didn’t explain that up front. And then at that time of the meeting, that first meeting with the residents, the residents were angry, and rightfully so and came to that meeting waving the utility bills and wanting answers or refunds and, you know, we realized we should explain how the system works. It’s better to explain how the system works, you know, ahead of time when folks are receptive to it.

KIM VERMEER: Bryan addressed the tension between the potential of green features and the need for residents to understand them in order to receive the full benefits.

BRYAN DOVE: Some people understand green building and take it to heart and then others, it’s not that important. And so as housing developers, we’ve got to strike that balance where it would be better to build a building where the residents don’t have to focus on it or work at being efficient. So if we can build buildings that are passive or efficient on their own, or make it very easy for residents to live there and be energy efficient, then I think we’re going along way.

KIM VERMREER: In the meantime, while developers and owners work toward that goal of simple and easy-living green buildings, Mutual Housing’s experience at Spring Lake reminds us of how crucial resident engagement is to ensure that projects are successful for the people who live there.

Thanks to the youth leaders Gerardo Brambila and Manuel Maravilla, and to Bryan Dove at Mutual Housing for being with us on this episode. And special thanks to Steven Root for coordinating our interview.

This is the Green in Actionpodcast, where we explore green leadership in affordable housing.

Thanks for listening! You can find us on Twitter at @UHIPodcast. Subscribe to us wherever you listen to podcasts, and rate us and review us on Apple Podcasts. Thanks for doing that – it helps to spread the word.

If you want to read more about resident engagement, check out the book that Walker Wells and I wrote, Blueprint for Greening Affordable Housing. The book is available from the publisher Island Press, as well as at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Or, you can also search for “Blueprint for Greening Affordable Housing” at, to support an independent bookstore near you.

This episode was produced by Kimberly Vermeer, and Klara Kaufman. Sound engineering and audio editing by Carl-Isaak Krulewitch. Music by Matt Vermeer. Kimberly Vermeer is the Executive Producer. Green in Actionis an Urban Habitat Initiatives production.

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