What does it mean to be building up a community? As an organization that's taken on a unique challenge – creating a new norm centered on accessible, affordable solar in the largest metropolitan region of the largest state in the country – we find ourselves asking this question all the time. Getting low-income populations the solar technology they need and the education to become well-informed stakeholders in that revolution means recognizing that there are many broad communities within the Greater Los Angeles community; we're many nations, basically. From beachside areas with a small-town feel in San Pedro to suburban tracts in the east San Fernando Valley, places where we meet and serve homeowners can feel far apart (further than the miles that physically separate them). And the diverse definitions of community in Los Angeles encompass the local cultural and ethnic strains that make up this region's colorfulness, too: people from across the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Europe, who often live side-by-side, on the same block, in dense but diverse worlds.
What's figured increasingly prominently in our minds as the demand for solar mounts is that the kind of L.A. residents we started out serving, low-income people from all walks of life in single-family homes, look like one piece of the larger issues we try to address. While older homeowners commonly use GRID-installed systems to offset the costs of living on their property, for example, many older Californians who picked up our brochures at an outreach event have never owned homes, or have given up something they owned to move into smaller quarters as downsizing for old age made more sense. Similarly, some of the neediest working-class Angelenos, with some of the steepest electricity bills after laboring long hours for low pay, are potentially years away from a mortgage. Even in Southern California, where we invented the suburb and embraced the big houses that came with it, making ends meet living somewhere single-family doesn’t extend can be hard (an apartment, a low-income housing complex). For quite some time, we've aspired to take our model into multifamily spaces and explore what we can do in complex multifamily projects.
In 2017, we knew we were ready for this exciting new leaf to be turned over. And with a partner in LINC Housing Corporation, a decades-old nonprofit provider for families and seniors, we had our chance. LINC's apartments, such as The Village at Beechwood in Lancaster where a hundred limited-income families have had the opportunity to live in dignified, well-maintained rentals at below-market rates since 2002, looked a lot like the kind of multifamily community where we anticipated future growth of residential solar power. Opened on a site where drugs and petty crime had once been lowering the quality of life for a suburban neighborhood, LINC's Lancaster units were ready for another positive change. We had the know-how, the commitment, and the resources to do a technical project on a large development in Lancaster—we just needed to make this install happen.
Multifamily experts at GRID worked with Lancaster and signed all our necessary clearances, permits, and the like early in 2017. The residential development we wanted to work on was nearly a two-hour trip by car, significantly north of our home base in Downtown Los Angeles—but three GRID trucks and enthusiasm for a reimagined use of our solar installation expertise got us out to Lancaster with ease. Putting 136 panels of solar on a hundred-unit development instead of a cozy home wasn't exactly the typical day for us; in fact, it took four full days and another morning of post-install work to turn their parking lot into a solar opportunity! But like most people who go for a challenge, we saw new doors opening and didn't mind the slightly unfamiliar look of them.
"It was a challenge as this was our office’s first carport installation at this scale," says Alex Turek, the in-house multifamily development manager at GRID Alternatives Greater Los Angeles, reflecting on the biggest construction challenge we'd ever tackled in the High Desert. "But our entire team, from design to site visit to construction and job training, took the challenge head-on and finished ahead of schedule." With the last piece of the 44-Watt system Lancaster system put on its roof on March 10, we're in a place to say we learned a lot from a great, inaugural multifamily adventure. Yet we're just as interested in what the people renting units in the LINC development have learned from going solar: how solar has made their neck of the city a little healthier, how green energy will fulfill LINC's mission to strengthen people underserved by the marketplace, how the panels kids now see every morning on their way to school will figure into their future sense of responsibility to the community.
Working on March's low-income housing install in Lancaster was our very first regional multifamily project, but it's far from the last. Already in the pipeline, GRID sees exciting opportunities as far away as Orange County, with more details to come. What we know, though, is that successful GRID multifamily projects are innovative in the sense that they remix the way we serve people's power needs … while keeping the same options available to low-income segments of society at no cost (solar power, job training), and using the same tools in our toolbox. Expansive successes are ahead for our team, both in scale of what we hope to do and in impact—we already know what they look like, and plan to showcase our projects and partners with gusto. With a strong collection of good work in these communities that's already behind us, we're motivated for the chances that stand ahead to serve communities in 2017.