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Superior panel grants land for 'zero-energy' homes

Green New Deal Housing plans to build solar-powered homes in North End, Billings Park and along 28th Street.

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SUPERIOR — The goal to build three zero-energy homes in Superior cleared its first hurdle Wednesday, May 18, when the plan commission approved giving Green New Deal Housing buildable lots in North End, Billings Park and along North 28th Street.

Six parcels in the Vacant to Value: New Construction program became available again after plans by Bigfork Valley Log Homes & Cabins to build six homes through the program fell through.

The program offers free, buildable lots for housing construction to get the vacant land back on the tax rolls and encourage owner occupancy of the new homes.

Two of the homes proposed by Green New Deal Housing, a nonprofit community development organization, would be two-story, three-bedroom, two-bathroom homes built in the 400 block of Cumming Avenue and 1600 block of Iowa Avenue. A single-story, three-bedroom, two-bathroom home would also be constructed at 2640 John Ave. Each of the homes would have two-car, detached garages.

Rachel Wagner of Green New Deal said when plans were developed for each of the homes, she drove through the neighborhoods to get a feel for existing homes in the area to build homes that would fit into the neighborhood.

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"We believe that creating new in-fill housing, combining it with workforce training, neighborhood investment in all neighborhoods that need it regardless of the economics or maybe because specifically because of the economics,” Wagner said. “So our least invested neighborhoods, I think, need the most investment."

The organization plans to break ground on its first home in June in the Central Hillside, 108 E. 11th St., in Duluth.

“In our work, we’re focusing on something called zero-energy housing,” Wagner said. “This is housing that is all electric, uses solar panels and is built super-efficient. One of the main reasons we do that is it makes the operating costs of the homes pretty stable and predictable.”

The offset, she said, is a slightly higher mortgage.

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“It's certainly a fascinating idea from an energy standpoint and being a net zero home,” Commissioner Tylor Elm said.

However, he was one of several commissioners to question the affordability of the homes.

Estimated construction costs are $457,100 each for the two-story houses and $465,583 for the single-story house. According to a memo included with Green New Deal’s application, the organization plans to sell with subsidized prices to buyers, who would pay no more than 30% of their monthly income on housing costs.

Commissioner Brian Finstad said he had concerns about the amount of subsidy that would be required to make the homes affordable.

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"The number here is just so astronomical … $450,000 for an in-fill house here in Superior is just shocking," Finstad said.

Commissioner Brent Fennessey said even if a buyer were able to get a 30% subsidy to make the down payment, the mortgage would still exceed $300,000.

"We realized that affordable doesn't mean inexpensive," Wagner said. "It means affordable to live in over the long-term. We are approaching affordable housing from a different direction."

Rather than approaching it by driving down the initial cost of the homes, she said the organization works with other organizations, material donations and incorporating workforce training to drive down those initial costs to build a more durable and valuable home.

"There are grants out there for things like solar panels,” Wagner said. “There are organizations, nonprofits and government that are very interested in pushing that particular element."

Fennessey said he would prefer to focus efforts to solve the affordable housing issue by focusing on the person with a median income for Superior. He predicted that a family would have to have a six-figure income to afford the houses.

Wagner said projections showed that households earning $60,000 to $80,000 a year would be able to afford the homes.

“What affordable means is different for every individual,” Elm said. “The goal of this program is to give this land away to put a house on it and make it functional."

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He said Green New Deal's proposal meets the purpose of the program, assuming the financing comes through.

The plan commission approving the organization’s application would allow Green New Deal to secure its financing, which would allow the city to move forward with development agreements for the construction of the homes, said Jason Serck, economic development, port and planning director. He said those agreements would still be subject to council approval.

"I do think this is the wave of the future," Commissioner Ann Porter said. "I think it's going to put Superior on the map in partnership with what's happening in Duluth. I think it's a great concept and I fully support it."

The commission voted unanimously in support of granting Green New Deal the property for its projects.

Shelley Nelson is a reporter with the Duluth Media Group since 1997, and has covered Superior and Douglas County communities and government for the Duluth News Tribune from 1999 to 2006, and the Superior Telegram since 2006. Contact her at 715-395-5022 or snelson@superiortelegram.com.
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