EFFICIENT Claretian homes exceed DOE energy ratings by 6%.

The residential corridor between southeast Chicago and northwest Indiana once was a vibrant community whose inhabitants thrived under the success of the domestic steel industry and its plentiful job opportunities. Today, it is a patchwork of industrial wreckage, empty neighborhoods and forgotten spaces. But one local developer is attempting to transform the look of southeast Chicago and lure people back by replacing abandoned structures with new single- and two-family homes that environmental engineers are calling the most energy efficient and low cost in Illinois.

The scenario is all too familiar in most major U.S. cities. Developers investing in burned-out markets similar to southeast Chicago have little to offer low-income, working-class families except dirt-cheap prices and down-payment subsidies. However, Claretian Associates, a non-profit developer in southeast Chicago, thinks it can sweeten the pot by building a small neighborhood of affordable homes that come with sustainable construction, access to public transportation and super-low utility bills.


Claretian started construction last year on $5 million of affordable homes in southeast Chicago under an 11-year-old city housing program called New Homes. It grants economic incentives to developers and buyers in the city’s most dilapidated neighborhoods, particularly in Chicago’s west and south sides. The program exclusively serves non-profit developers looking to build single-family homes and "two-flat" rental properties in those neighborhoods.

Across Chicago, affordable construction is heating up in these otherwise cold markets. Since it was created 11 years ago, the city’s New Homes program has released deeds to about 1,600 vacant, abandoned and tax-delinquent properties, including brownfields. The city sells the lots to developers for as little as $1 each and offers $10,000 to $30,000 in buyer subsidies to families meeting low-income criteria.

Housing also comes with a guaranteed maximum price. Claretian’s New Homes for South Chicago development starts single-family homes at $123,000 and caps them at $165,000. Two-family homes start at $196,000 and top out at $230,000. The developer plans to build a mix of 25 units, with an option to expand to 37 if there is sufficient demand. So far, six single-family houses are sold. Two are finished and two are under construction.

Claretian’s radical implementation of green building technology in these affordable homes has put the developer in Chicago’s sustainable construction spotlight. The homes exceed the "Energy Star" rating of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Dept. of Energy by as much as 6.3%. And the development is situated just steps away from U.S. Steel’s 570-acre Southworks plant, which was decommissioned in 1992 at 112 years old. Kathy Kelleher, Claretian project manager, says it is appropriate that the energy-efficient homes are being built "in a community that once was among the city’s most polluted."

The affordable homes stand out as green building-product showpieces. According to Kelleher, some of the progressive items include low-VOC interior and exterior paint; 92.5%-efficient, sealed-combustion gas furnaces; pressure-assisted, 1.6-gal flush toilets; low-flow plumbing fixtures; bathroom tile made from recycled glass; cork kitchen flooring; wood-polymer porch decking; dual-pane windows; recycled-plastic carpeting; recycled wallboard and structural insulated panels with "R" values of 24.7. "The buyer is not being asked to put up any money for the green technology," says Kelleher. The incremental cost of using green materials is $4,000 per house, which is covered by various subsidies.

The first 12 buyers also get a 1.2-kw rooftop photovoltaic system that generates an average of 3 kwh per day, potentially saving a few hundred dollars a year in electric bills. The cost of the $14,000 photovoltaic units is being 100% subsidized by the city’s Dept. of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, local utility Commonwealth Edison and local supplier Spire Solar Chicago in an effort to advance the technology for low-cost housing, says David I. Sullivan, execu-tive director of South Chicago Workforce, the project’s general contractor. With this large collection of green technology, "we’ve had a parade of other developers very interested," says Sullivan.

RENEWAL Construction of single- and two-family homes near defunct steel plant will start at 25 units, with an option for 12 more.

The solar panels "are modest but they help," says Robb Aldrich, project engineer at Steven Winter Associates Inc., Norwalk, Conn. The firm recently has seen more work in evaluating energy-efficient affordable homes. It is charged with a year-long task of monitoring energy savings and air quality in the new south Chicago development, an effort underwritten by the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development and DOE’s Zero Energy Homes program. "These homes won’t be there, but we’ll see how close we get," Aldrich says. Sullivan expects the technology will help buyers save at least $500 a year on their utility bills.

The project has some of the largest affordable homes being built in the city. At base price, not including upgrades like garages, the single-family houses have about 1,700 sq ft of living space, not including a 900-sq-ft unfinished basement. The two-family models have roughly 2,800 sq ft.

Sullivan says it is unusual to see an affordable housing project of this mag-nitude in such a depopulated location. "This ward has the most vacant lots in the city…about 600. In the period of a crummy economy, [the work] is a miracle," he says.

But as with most low-cost housing, improving the neighborhood’s infrastructure will be a challenge. The city already has invested about $80 million on improvements, such as rebuilding a nearby commuter train station, upgrading local public schools and helping to finance retail construction.

(Photo courtesy of Claretian Associates)