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Sustainable Southeast housing development models real possibilities

Ribbon cutting with the member of CAC's Advocacy Council,  LtoR: Glenda Orrego, Katie Arnold, Michael Riney, Mia Rocha, Willy Koger, Scott Wopata. Credit: Ensemble Creative and Marketing.

Not too long ago, many thought it impossible to build affordable housing that was also sustainable. A community coalition in southeast Minnesota that includes people who have experienced housing insecurity themselves has proven otherwise. Now, they’re sharing strategies with other communities.

Hillcrest Village in Northfield is the first housing development in the US to provide emergency and supportive housing while also powering 100% of its utilities with on-site solar panels. What makes Hillcrest even more unique is that it was envisioned, designed and built by the Northfield community. The effort was led by a local nonprofit, Community Action Center (CAC), in collaboration with partners that included University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships and their clean energy program, CERTs, and UMN Center for Sustainable Building Research. The result is an effort that is quickly gaining the attention of housing and climate leaders across Minnesota and beyond.

CAC Executive Director Wopata and Brian Nowak of Sweetgrass Design Studio, lead designer of Hillcrest, Spring 2022.

Sharing the vision

Three years after the first shovel broke ground, the 17-unit Hillcrest development is now complete, fully occupied and serving residents and families. It’s also meeting its original vision. “We are providing stable and safe housing for people and families while also seeing dramatic savings on energy bills, upwards of 60%. Hillcrest residents are paying just $20 per month for all of their heating and electricity combined,” says Scott Wopata, Executive Director of CAC. “We are excited by these outcomes and think the timing is right to share what we have learned with other communities.”

Andi Sutton, Southeast RSDP Executive Director, agrees that it’s time to spread the word. Sutton, Wopata and a team of UMN researchers were recently awarded a 2023 Impact Goal grant through the UMN Institute on the Environment (IonE) to support that sharing.

“Hillcrest Village can be a model for addressing housing challenges and climate change.” explains Sutton, ”This new grant provides the funding and expertise needed to relay that work, plus create tools for other communities to adapt and use.”

As it turns out, the lessons learned from Hillcrest are already being applied and adapted. In neighboring Rochester, a coalition has been working one-on-one with CAC to envision their own “Hillcrest Village.” Through an integrative design process supported by project funding from RSDP, Rochester leaders have developed a housing plan with similar energy and affordability goals. Leaders hope that each successful project enforces the notion that sustainable housing is affordable housing.

Hillcrest Village, Northfield, MN. Credit: Ensemble Creative and Marketing.

A winning project for people and the planet

Hillcrest has also caught the attention of climate researchers and advocates. The UMN Climate Adaptation Partnership recently awarded the Northfield CAC a 2024 Climate Adaptation Award in Climate Justice Leadership. This award honors leadership, education, achievements and cutting-edge adaptations addressing climate change.

Chris Danner, former SERSDP board member, nominated CAC for the award. “In my role, I had a front-row seat to how Hillcrest came to be. I watched it start as an idea that, through community engagement and partnership, became a reality,” says Danner. “This award will not only honor that hard work but will also throw the spotlight on the great possibilities that become realities when community members work together.”

Empowering change

Innovative housing solutions are emerging across Minnesota. Read about Green New Deal Housing in the Northeast and their RSDP-supported workforce training program.

Read more about Green New Deal

Constance Carlson, May 2024

Constance Carlson works as the assistant statewide director for the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (RSDP).

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