Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - August 13, 2010

Going green without having green

In today's world of expensive, but energy-efficient technology, how can lower-income residents do their part?

by Ryan Deto

Fitting the average house in California with solar panels costs $15,000 after rebates, according to Castro Valley's The Solar Company. To plant an edible garden in a backyard costs around $1,000, according to Don Larson, assistant manager at Common Ground Education Center and Organic Garden Supply of Palo Alto. A 2011 hybrid Toyota Camry costs $26,400 compared to the standard 2011 Camry, which costs $19,595.

These things, along with other eco-friendly appliances and practices, are becoming mainstays in households throughout Palo Alto. And while these energy-efficient components save money in the long run, their high initial costs means that only people with larger incomes can afford them. Where does that leave the lower-income residents of Palo Alto? How can renters "go green?"

Amidst gardeners spraying vegetables with green garden hoses and children pushing plastic wheelbarrels with white lettering reading "Palo Alto Community Garden," Rita Morgin sits down on a wooden bench with a white plastic bucket in her lap. Inside the bucket are fresh blackberries that are just sweet enough to make Morgin's lips pucker.

"I live in an apartment, so my green options are limited," Morgin said.

Morgin, a single parent who makes a living through day-care work, selling Tupperware and gardening, earns less than $16,000 a year. Plots at the garden cost $150 a year, with a 75 percent discount for seniors and parents of young children. And while Morgin can't afford to have a hybrid car, she still cares for the planet and does her part by working her two plots in the community garden.

"We are trying not to damage the Earth," she said of her fellow gardeners. A young girl hands her a bouquet of bok choy, Chinese cabbage, to thank her for her help.

Morgin said she started gardening at the community garden for the "exercise, religion and psychotherapy." The community garden is also one of her few options to go green.

"The best thing we have at my apartment complex is recycling bins," Morgin said. "And it's hard to get the whole complex to do things, even recycle."

She produces all the greens she needs through her garden and also other edible options such as raspberries, artichokes and cherry tomatoes. However, Morgin said she is fortunate to have two plots in the community garden because demand for plots is so high that the waiting list is full at all three Palo Alto community gardens and it won't open up again until later this month.

Renters often don't have any incentives to go green. They expect their landlords to provide the low-flow showerheads or double-paned windows.

"There is a disconnect because you are paying rent," Morgin said. "You don't see the direct cost with the direct benefit."

Palo Alto Hardware carries the cheap, eco-friendly supplies that show the direct cost benefit.

Low-flow showerheads at $15 can save up to $300 on water costs per year. Compact fluorescent lightbulbs cost five times as much as their incandescent counterparts, but store manager Maureen Montez said, "You can see a huge energy savings if you switch lightbulbs."

She jokes about the "high-tech" solar clothes dryer (a clothesline with clothespins), which saves significant green in comparison to the quarters used at the laundromat. Montez also praised nonchemical cleaners and said they cost the same as the nongreen versions but don't harm the environment.

And while Palo Alto Hardware carries these green supplies, there are still far more nongreen options filling the shelves. Montez said that people still need to educate themselves and become involved to go green.

"The problem is people don't really want to improve things that they can't own," she said. "That would be the responsibility of the property owners."

The Palo Alto Housing Corporation (PAHC) has taken on that responsibility. The largest low-income housing organization in Palo Alto, PAHC has implemented many green practices and components throughout their complexes.

Georgina Mascarenhas, PAHC director of property management, said that most units have weatherstripping on doors and windows to save on heating and cooling costs, low-flow toilets to decrease water bills and drought-resistant landscaping. All laundry machines are EnergyStar-rated. PAHC is also looking into solar power and Mascarenhas said that the Alma Street location is ideal for harnessing energy from the sun's rays.

PAHC also signed a new contract with Quick Light Recycling from Brisbane, which conducted recycling presentations, provided larger communal recycle bins and gave personal recycle bins to residents.

"I think (residents) do want to be green." Mascarenhas said. "For the most part, it is all about education."

Mascarenhas said the main green thing PAHC residents can do right now is recycle. She also said that PAHC provides a written conservation plan with suggestions on energy-saving methods, such as setting the thermostat to automatic mode.

"Nobody wanted to take time to sort through the recycling before," she said. "But, now that it is more convenient, more residents are doing it."

Editorial Intern Ryan Deto can be e-mailed at rdeto@paweekly.com.

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