As a partner in an Orlando affordable housing initiative, OUC improves tenants’ living conditions with electric and water efficiency upgrades to 83 refurbished units in low-income community.

It’s a sweltering October day in Orlando as April Reynolds sits next to her husband in the living room of their small rental apartment. Up until a few days ago they seldom ventured outside their bedroom while home because it was the only space with working air conditioning. But here they sit on a couch set underneath a new energy efficient wall-mounted AC unit, cool and comfy, when Reynolds says she’s actually looking forward to seeing their next utility bill.

And why wouldn’t she?

The multifamily unit she and James Hollis occupy has undergone a dramatic makeover to make it more efficient and just an all-around better place to live. Everything is new: Paint inside and out, LED lighting, Energy Star® double-pane windows and kitchen appliances, flooring, cabinets, bathroom vanity, and water-efficient toilet and energy-efficient water heater. A new roof covers the length of the single-story apartment building and upgraded attic insulation helps lessen the impact of solar heat penetrating it.

They’re used to seeing $300 monthly utility bills during summer, which wouldn’t be so alarming if they lived in a house much larger than this. But since the Orlando Utilities Commission (OUC –The Reliable One) joined an initiative to improve the living conditions with electric and water efficiency upgrades at 83 rundown rentals in the city’s Parramore community, Reynolds and other tenants like her may not dread seeing their monthly OUC bills anymore.

“The whole house is so welcoming and just so comfortable now,” says Reynolds, who works in the cafeteria of a local public elementary school.  “I’m so thankful for all of the work that was done to our home. I finally have my own fully functioning kitchen. It feels like a home when you walk in and that’s what it should feel like.”

Reynolds and Hollis have the Parramore Asset Stabilization Fund (PASF) to thank for the makeover of the home they’ve rented for a year. The nonprofit bought and renovated dilapidated residential units scattered across 44 separate properties on downtown Orlando’s beleaguered west side, where the new University of Central Florida/Valencia College campus is drawing an influx of students, multifamily construction, businesses and land speculators. A consortium made up of Florida Community Loan Fund, Central Florida Foundation and New Jersey Community Capital, PASF plans to invest $8 million in this community revitalization and preservation project. The group’s long-term goal is to ensure affordable housing and protect its renters from being forced out by gentrification.

In May, OUC Commissioners approved a two-year, $300,000 commitment to provide PASF’s homes with energy- and water-efficiency upgrades. OUC’s contribution covers attic insulation, duct work repair, weather stripping, irrigation improvements, LED lighting, Energy Star® windows, hybrid water heaters, energy efficient AC systems, and smart thermostats for some homes. Residents of refurbished homes could see their monthly utility bills fall by as much as 40 percent, amounting to an annual savings of approximately $800.  PASF expects to complete home renovations early next year.

“This is truly helping change lives and we are thrilled to be able to help,” Linda Ferrone, OUC’s Chief Customer Officer, says of the home renovations. “Our role is to act as a trusted adviser to contractors and help them find the best energy- and water-efficient solutions for each residential property. By making these homes more efficient, we’re also making them healthier and safer places to live. Better living conditions translate into a higher quality of life.”

OUC’s involvement in PASF is the first step toward playing a larger role in efforts to help restore the most economically disadvantage neighborhoods in the utility’s service area. “We will continue to develop programs and services that encourage landlords and multifamily unit owners in disadvantaged communities to make energy and water conservation improvements,” says Ferrone. “Not only that, it is incumbent on us to educate residents on energy- and water-saving best practices.”

In a neighborhood where the median household income is only $25,361 and the poverty rate is 35 percent, according to a U.S. Census survey, safeguarded affordable housing is the last line of defense against runaway rent inflation. PASF intends to ensure that renters in its 83 refurbished homes are not squeezed out as economic forces drive up land values and rents in Parramore, a historic African American enclave.

“Even though the homes are being upgraded, any rent increases will be limited,” says Mark Brewer, President and CEO of Central Florida Foundation. “This is an important step to preserve the history of Parramore and to ensure these families remain in the neighborhood they call home.”

PASF plans to keep 42 of the units reserved for renters making less than 80 percent of the average area median income and will hold annual rent increase to no more than 2 percent during the first decade of the program.

In time, PSAF-owned homes will become part of the Central Florida Regional Housing Trust (CFRHT), a partner organization. OUC has a seat on CFRHT’s board and could expand its role to include pilot testing such efficiency solutions as battery solar or demand response in the Parramore homes.

Through the trust, the homes will remain affordable to rent and some may become available for purchase by tenants, if they desire. In such a sale, though, the trust would retain ownership of the land, making a home purchase more possible for a low-income buyer.

For the near future, tenants like Reynolds and Hollis can enjoy living in affordable refurbished homes that bear little resemblance to their recent past.

“This is a like a dream come true right here,” Hollis says while looking around the living room, the updated kitchen just a few feet away. “Everything they did in here, compared with how we were living, I mean, man, this is just wonderful.”

Hollis, who’s disabled and uses a cane to get around, adds that he and his wife are no longer ashamed of their living conditions. “Now, people come over and we’re glad [they] come over and see how everything looks. It really makes us feel good,” he says.

That’s just the kind of impact OUC’s Ferrone hoped the home improvements would make on PASF’s renters.

“Being a hometown utility means we are close to our customers and part of the community,” she says. “So, we want to make a positive difference in people’s lives and improve their quality of life if we can.    And we believe our involvement in this initiative in the Parramore community will do just that.”