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A New Shade of Green

By Sherry Listgarten

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About this blog: Climate change, despite its outsized impact on the planet, is still an abstract concept to many of us. That needs to change. My hope is that readers of this blog will develop a better understanding of how our climate is evolving a...  (More)

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How a 1960s apartment complex is going green

Uploaded: Feb 7, 2021
Sunshine Gardens Apartments in Mountain View is a modest two-story 44-unit complex, with ten 1960s-vintage buildings circling a small pool. Tenants at this complex across from Landels Elementary enjoy water and energy bills that are half what they were just a few years ago. Their apartments are comfortably warm in winter and hold the temperature so well that the heater runs only infrequently. Summers are cool enough that air conditioning is not missed, while insulation keeps the apartments quiet. Highly efficient condensing furnaces and solar hot water heaters help this complex use less energy per square foot than 99% of comparable buildings. (1) Visible features like low-water landscaping, exterior LED lighting, and new composting bins further demonstrate the complex’s commitment to green living while also saving the owner money.

How is it that a modest apartment complex with many long-term tenants in Mountain View, a city with strictly enforced rent control, was able to accomplish this climate-forward transformation? It took a motivated property manager, a committed owner, and a good deal of help from local agencies.

Property Manager Deborah Vasquez stands at the entrance to Sunshine Gardens

Deborah Vasquez did not intend to become a property manager. She grew up in Mountain View and earned a Masters in Public Health, eventually working as a registered dietician. But as her infant grew into a toddler she looked for a job that she could do part-time, eventually finding one with BT Properties, a firm that manages 80-100 properties in the Bay Area.

Sunshine Gardens Apartments had new owners when Vasquez arrived in 2015. They had just turned down an offer from a corporation to buy and scrape the complex, choosing instead to run it as a small business. One of the two owners is local, and she asked her new property manager to get the units into shape. Vasquez recalls: “The buildings were so worn down. Mildew was growing in some of the walls. There was condensation on the windows and it didn’t feel nice inside. It was drafty, cold, damp. We had to fix water damage in about ten floors.” Vasquez and the owners recognized that it’s not good for the neighborhood, the tenants, or the owners’ profit margins to have buildings in such poor shape. So they got to work.

The owners took out a large loan, repair work began on specific apartments, and Vasquez started to look for ways to make additional inexpensive improvements. With Measure V, Mountain View’s rent control, newly in place, it was harder for the owners to recoup property improvements through rent increases. She needed to progress carefully.

An early initiative was inspired by a Recology ad pointing out that recycling can save money and help the planet. Vasquez appreciated the message and saw no downside for the owners, so followed up. By adding containers for recycling and cardboard, she was able to reduce the number of trash bins and save money. Residents adapted and enjoyed the lower waste bills.

Recycling at Sunshine Gardens saves on trash costs

Next Vasquez came across a water-saving program sponsored by the Santa Clara Valley Water District. She took advantage of rebates to deploy low-flow fixtures in the apartments and low-water landscaping outside. These were small steps, but the tenants could see that she cared, and started to see savings on their water and gas bills. (2)

Encouraged by the progress and the response, Vasquez was motivated to make more environmentally-friendly changes. “I grew up here. The fires and smoke we have seen recently are not normal. People say things like ‘It’s fire season, it will be burning for three months.’ They might have asthma for three months. That is not okay. I want to help turn this around.”

She started working with BayREN, a regional collaboration that helps people and businesses with energy efficiency. Vasquez was assigned a technical assistant to help her do an energy audit and lay out a plan, and she would get access to a sizable rebate when the work was complete. Her BayREN assistant, Sebastian Cohn, advocates starting with things that are easy, visible, and/or relatively inexpensive. In Sunshine Gardens’ case, exterior LED lighting, a variable speed pool pump, and a pool cover would save the owners money within just a few years.

With those easy wins behind her, and appreciative owners, Vasquez approached her first heavy lift, improving the building envelope. This was a property-wide, higher cost project. Attic insulation is relatively easy, has low labor costs, and makes a big difference. Double-paned windows are more expensive but an important quality upgrade for tenants. How would the owners respond to the high upfront costs, even with BayREN’s substantial rebate?

“You know, there are two reasons I was really committed to these improvements,” said the local owner (who prefers to remain anonymous). “One is personal, and one is business. On the personal side, I am a first-generation immigrant and I come from a place where it’s not like it is here. The air was so dirty, the sky so gray and filled with smoke. When I first came to Mountain View, I thought everywhere here, it is like a park. The sky is so blue, and it is so beautiful, especially after it rains. It is very emotional for me. I don’t want people to have to live like where I come from. I want to keep Mountain View nice. My first impression when I came to this country was so amazing. I want to leave something nice behind for the next generation.” And, she added, “The second reason is business. We want to be competitive. There are nice buildings in many areas of Mountain View. We need to compete.”

So Vasquez got the go-ahead for a number of property-wide improvements. By working with BayREN, and later PG&E to receive a separate incentive, she was able to insulate the attics and exterior walls, add double-paned windows (3), upgrade the furnaces to efficient condensing furnaces, and add solar hot water heaters to the roofs of the buildings. These improvements also allowed Sunshine Gardens to participate in Fannie Mae’s Green Rewards program, lowering the owners’ interest rate on their loan.

Solar water heaters are arrayed on the roof of the building behind the play area.

How have the tenants responded? Jim, who has lived at Sunshine Gardens for six years, is impressed with the change. “Our bills are far less than they used to be. Our water and garbage bill used to be around $200, now it’s about $120. We used to spend around $200 in the winter on gas, now it’s maybe $75. And it’s so much quieter. You used to be able to hear a pin drop outside. It was noisy, and you could almost feel the wind. Now it’s so quiet. Deborah has brought this old complex back to life.” He also appreciates that rents remained stable. “In my building, no one has moved out. I guess we all like it here.” I asked him if there were any changes he regrets. “Well, I like to have extensions on the kitchen faucet and in the shower, so I can pull out the nozzle. We don’t have that any more. But you know, that’s okay, I can live with it.” Jim acknowledged the environmental aspect as well. “I’m not a scientist, but I have common sense. You know, I’m from Puerto Rico, and I go back to visit. The ocean there, it used to be around 78 degrees, now it’s 82-83. It’s making the storms much more intense. You can see it.”

Sunshine Gardens’ owner notes that the improvements have helped to attract new tenants. “The younger generation, they care about the climate. They like these features, like the solar heaters and the gardens. Especially the families with kids. They think more about the future. We are doing the right thing, and the new generation wants to do the right thing too. We also try to retain our old tenants. The recycling helps with the garbage bill. The heaters help with the gas bill. We save a bit for them, and I think they appreciate the effort.” She is very satisfied with the outcome, and in particular how the building has performed during the pandemic. “We are at 100% occupancy. That’s much better than average in Mountain View right now. It’s a community effort. People feel like we are a small community, trying to do good.”

One of the newer tenants, who prefers to remain anonymous, concurs. “We really appreciate the energy efficiency and sustainability features. It was terrifying to see the wildfires that happened not so long ago here in California as well as back home for us in Australia, so it's definitely top of mind for us. I think personally there is a lot that we can do as individuals to make more eco-friendly choices, but it really makes things easier when the community you live in has made intentional decisions and investments to be more sustainable. All of these little things add up.” He is hoping that the building will be able to install some chargers, though for now he’ll have to hang a cord out of the window to charge his plug-in hybrid.

Candis Mary-Dauphin, who leads the multi-family programs at BayREN, is encouraged by this progress, and says they hope to scale this to other buildings. “These days, the landlords need the tenants, and the tenants need the landlords. This kind of project can bring people together. We see some real opportunity here.”

Their recommendation is to start with small, simple things and build from there. Aubrey Dority, another BayREN technical assistant, suggests that controls like smart thermostats, lighting timers, and temperature sensors on hot water recirculation systems provide good bang for the buck. You might be able to turn down the temperature on a water heater, close a flue in a chimney, or replace an old pump with a variable speed pump. Aubrey and Sebastian also emphasize that some initiative is needed to formulate a workable plan and carry it out. They enjoy helping out and have seen many successes.

Vasquez emphasizes that “Slow and steady wins the race.” She says it’s important to spread out the costs, particularly as the rental market is uncertain and the rebates don’t come until the project is complete. She also advises working with multiple organizations in order to take advantage of more rebates. “I’m proud of what we’ve done, though we aren’t done yet. Our Energy Star score increased from 46 in 2015 to 99 in 2020. Our vintage buildings are now rated among the top 1% in the country among similar buildings for energy conservation. Our tenants are happy. And we were the first apartment complex in Santa Clara County to be a certified Green Business. But I wish there were many more joining us. I’d love to find a way to convince more local business owners to participate. We need to wake up. It’s not good to have orange skies. We’re in Silicon Valley. We can find a way to help our tenants, help the environment, and make sound business decisions all at the same time.”

I’d love to hear from more apartment managers, owners, and tenants with your thoughts on improving your building’s envelope, replacing gas appliances with efficient electric ones, and incorporating rooftop solar. We need to move forward together on our climate goals, and multi-family residences and their tenants are a big part of that.

Notes and References
0. Interested in electrifying your Eichler home? Join a webinar, Electrifying Eichlers, on Tuesday February 9 at 7pm. More information here.

1. The concept of “comparable” takes into account: the number of units per 1000 sf, the number of bedrooms per unit, the number of days when heating or cooling are needed, and whether it is a low-rise building. This is described in more detail here. Energy Star provides a useful metric for assessing progress on energy efficiency.

2. Gas bills decrease because less hot water is used with these fixtures.

3. The double-paned windows were required by Fannie Mae, but not rebated by either BayREN or PG&E.

Current Climate Data (December 2020)
Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard (updated annually)

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Posted by Bernie Brightman, a resident of North Whisman,
on Feb 7, 2021 at 2:12 pm

Bernie Brightman is a registered user.

"They had just turned down an offer from a corporation to buy and scrape the complex"

"scrape" it?

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Feb 7, 2021 at 2:32 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Bernie, I am referring to "tear it down and build a luxury complex". By proactively refurbishing rather than "scraping", you can maintain long-term tenants and foster a diverse community. The property manager believes that is part of the reason why Sunshine Garden's occupancy is at 100%.

Posted by Philip Cosby, a resident of another community,
on Feb 7, 2021 at 7:56 pm

Philip Cosby is a registered user.

Helpful and inspiring article. Thank you!

Posted by A, a resident of Monta Loma,
on Feb 8, 2021 at 11:54 am

A is a registered user.

Impressive! I love this story :-)

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