Chicago Tribune

Habitat for Humanity subdivision in Aurora seeks breakthrough in affordability

This article was originally featured in the Aurora Beacon-News

Aurora, Ill. – Friday, Jan 27, 2023 – The key theme for the new Habitat Green subdivision planned for Aurora’s far West Side can be summed up in one word – affordability.

The goal of its planners is make the 17-house Habitat for Humanity subdivision “an affordable and resilient community,” while achieving energy efficiency, said Meena Beyers, vice president of Community and Business Development for Nicor, which serves 2.3 million customers in northern Illinois with natural gas.

Nicor is part of the planning for the development, which will be done by Habitat for Humanity. The company not only granted Habitat some of the money for the estimated $5.5 million project, it will provide natural gas heat for houses that will include many green elements, with the idea that the homes will be net zero as far as energy use. Net zero means that the subdivision will use only as much energy, overall, as it generates. It is a carbon neutral situation that can be achieved by combining natural gas and electric resources, officials said.

The subdivision has several firsts, officials said. It will have have modern, green elements, but in a subdivision with low- income residents; it will be a net zero community partially designed by a gas company; and it will be in a northern climate.

“A gas company running a net zero community is extraordinarily unique,” said Juliet Shavit, a spokesperson for Nicor from SmartMark Communications, LLC. “We have a role to play in a net zero community. We play in the sandbox with electric, so a user can afford to live comfortably. It really is a novel idea.”

So novel, it is the first of its kind for Nicor, and the first in a northern climate for Southern Company, Nicor’s parent, which has smart neighborhoods with Alabama Power and Georgia Power.

“What’s groundbreaking about it is how (gas and electric) are going to work together,” said Beyers. “It’s how we can make it seamless.”

The 1,500- to 1,700-square-foot houses will be equipped with a number of green features, including solar panels, a battery storage system, insulated concrete foam walls, spray foam, energy efficient windows, heat recovery ventilation and LED lighting. The system to collect solar power for electric and bring in natural gas for heat will be tied together in what officials are hoping is an easy and affordable option for homeowners.

“These will be first-time homeowners; we know they’re going to have a lot to think about,” said Beyers. “Making it easy is really important. Our goal is to not have to manually think about it.” Beyers describes the neighborhood as “a living laboratory.”

“We want to share this model,” she said. “We imagine that these can be replicated by large scale builders.”
For Habitat for Humanity, it also is a new tactic. Jeffrey Barrett, executive director of the Montgomery-based Fox Valley Habitat for Humanity, said the focus for the organization has been on individual homes.

“We are now on an exciting new course,” he said. “We are transitioning from building a few homes a year to building an entire community.”

Founded in 1988, Fox Valley Habitat for Humanity has built or upgraded 70 homes in Aurora, North Aurora, Batavia and Montgomery. Habitat received a $1.25 million federal Housing and Urban Development grant for the neighborhood, with the help of the office of U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, D-Naperville.

The federal grant will be used to provide the infrastructure for the neighborhood, including water and sewer lines, utilities, streets, sidewalks and stormwater mitigation. Barrett said so far, $3 million has been pledged to the $5.5 million community, and Habitat has kicked off a fundraising campaign to secure the rest.