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Update on "Green Living in Housing Cooperatives!"

Report on new environmentally-friendly improvements in housing cooperatives.

Three years ago the East Bay Cooperative Housing Coalition held an Earth Day event, in April 2014. We distributed our new pamphlet, "Green Living in Housing Cooperatives," which showcased all of the environmentally-friendly improvements cooperative living groups had made. There were numerous presentations at the event from people living in cooperative housing communities in the East Bay, with each speaker highlighting some of the sustainable practices they had implemented. Our cooperative living communities were clearly way ahead of the curve on everything from installing solar panels for electricity and solar hot water heating, installing high-efficiency toilets and low-flow shower heads, planting vegetable gardens and fruit trees, raising bees and chickens, composting food scraps and yard clippings, and building grey water systems to recycle water from washing machines and showers. You can read the original pamphlet at: www.baclt.org/docs/green_living_in_housing_co-ops.pdf

Each participant at the event was encouraged to ask their cooperative living group to take one additional step in the coming year to make their housing more ecological. This is our follow-up report on what we have heard back from a number of cooperative living communities about their efforts towards environmental sustainability.

Brown Shingle Collective, in South Berkeley, has planted a beautiful new vegetable garden and several households have been growing vegetables. Brown Shingle also installed a compost system and residents are now composting all food waste as well as lawn clippings, weeds, and yard waste. And one of Brown Shingle's three buildings adopted a "Zero Waste" goal, and residents are actively working to create less garbage, and to reduce their use of plastic by "pre-cycling:" avoiding buying products with excess packaging, avoiding buying products in plastic bottles and containers, and avoiding using paper plates or plastic utensils. They have also converted a currently unused space to a bike shed, making it easier for more people to be "car-free," and allowing others to drive less because they have much more convenient access to their bicycles. They are working on plans to build a larger bicycle shed so more residents can safely and conveniently store their bikes for everyday use.

Parker Street Limited Equity Housing Cooperative, also in South Berkeley, has always had beautiful flower beds in the small yard space in front of their two buildings. However, in the past few years they have dramatically increased the amount of gardens by planting in every inch of available space. And they have added tomato plants, strawberries, and other food crops to their gardens, and they have apple trees and a fig tree heavy with fruit in the back of the buildings. They have also planted a lush and gorgeous rooftop garden where residents can enjoy picnics and a breathtaking view of the Bay.

Ninth Street Co-op, in West Berkeley always used a substantial amount of water for their large vegetable garden, lots of fruit trees, and lots of flower beds. Two years ago they built a large rainwater catchment system that collects over 500 gallons of rain water that runs off the roof of one of the buildings through PVC pipes into holding tanks, and the water is recycled to water the gardens and yards in the following months. They had tried for many years to reduce water use, but were stymied by the high cost of commercially-available rain water catchment systems. Eventually they were able to build a very inexpensive system ourselves, by buying two large recycled plastic tanks and attaching PVC piping to downspouts to collect the rainwater. Last year they also added a grey water system to one of our washing machines, and now the water from washing clothes is recycled and piped out to the yard to water the fruit trees.

While many housing cooperatives want to implement ecological upgrades for the sake of saving our environment, most of these improvements save residents money. For instance, many co-ops have added low-flow toilets and shower heads, which save lots of money on their water bill. And at Ninth Street Co-op, the rain water catchment system and our grey water system saves money every month on the water bill. Many collectives and co-ops have added LEDs and other light bulbs which save electricity and save money on their PG & E bills. And co-ops that have installed solar electricity save a lot of money on the PG & E bill. Brown Shingle Collective and other co-ops that have reduced the amount of garbage they produce by adopting a zero waste goal and installing compost systems save money on their garbage bills.

We also received a detailed update from the Sustainability Coordinator at Berkeley Students Cooperatives (BSC). BSC was originally founded at UC Berkeley in 1933 to provide affordable housing for students during the Great Depression. It has flourished ever since, and has expanded over the years to become the largest student cooperative in the nation, with over 1200 units of housing in 20 buildings. BSC has been a leader in "Green Living," with a focus on reducing water use, using less gas and electricity, installing solar panels for electricity and solar hot water heating in many of their buildings.
In the past three years, BSC conducted energy efficiency audits on all of its properties and has identified additional environmental upgrades to save gas, electricity, and money. Some of the energy retrofits include blown-in insulation, window sealing, digital HVAC controls, and replacing old, less-efficient equipment.

All twenty BSC co-ops are in the midst of an energy competition to encourage residents to reduce electricity and gas use. The building that reduces their use the most each month will receive a cash prize, and that co-op can use the money they save on their PG&E bill for other purposes.

BSC is also developing an exciting new project in partnership with the City of Berkeley. They are developing a "Re-use Center," so that students can donate furniture, clothes, and other items when they are moving out of any of the co-ops, or graduating and moving on. Currently, students throw a significant portion of their belongings into dumpsters when they move, which eventually end up in the land fill and cost BSC and the City a lot more money to dispose of.

BSC is always working hard to do their part for the planet, and saving a lot of money in the process so they can continue providing affordable housing for students.

Berkeley Town House sent a very impressive report about their many environmental upgrades over the past three years. This 60 unit senior co-op has been working very hard to conserve resources and has significantly reduced their use of water, gas, and electricity through the following improvements:

  1. Replaced compact fluorescent light bulbs with LED luminaires.
  2. Replaced a domestic water boiler with a more energy-efficient heater.
  3. Installed a new clothes dryer that can be programmed to reward settings that save electricity and natural gas.
  4. Added a new front-loading washing machine that uses much less water than the ones previously on-site and can be programmed to reward lower use of electricity, water, and natural-gas.
  5. Performed periodic readings of water meters to diagnose and reduce water waste.
  6. Educated residents on ways to save water and lower their water bills.
  7. Performed an inspection of all toilet fixtures in the building’s 60 apartments to detect leaks and repair all leaking toilets.
  8. Distributed toilet tank fillers to decrease per-flush water consumption.
  9. Replaced some toilets with high-efficiency toilets that use much less water.

We were inspired by how much they have accomplished all of this in such a short time, and asked how they did it. Residents said that it was primarily the work of a few individuals who saw that there were ways that Berkeley Town House could reduce energy use, which reduces their carbon footprint and saves money on utilities. And they were willing to put in the time and effort to make it happen. And, there were already a few resident committees in existence that were willing.

Mariposa Grove Cohousing in Oakland recently added a rainwater catchment system, which includes a large cistern buried under the yard that collects and stores 250 gallons of rainwater, as well as placing 12 barrels under downspouts of their buildings to collect rainwater to use on their gardens.

We have recently heard about an exciting initiative called “Greening the Church,” a national movement within African-American churches to educate their members about “why environmental sustainability and climate change are a priority for African-American congregations.” The Church by the Side of the Road, on Russell Street in South Berkeley, has been a leader in this movement and many churches in Berkeley are involved. (See www.cbsor.org for more information.)

Reported by Kathy Labriola, BACLT volunteer