Independence Heights earned a place in history as Texas’ first African-American city, settled in 1908 and sovereign until it was swallowed by the city of Houston 21 years later.
But tomorrow’s residents may be pioneers of another sort, as Mayor Annise Parker and a developer announced plans for as many as 80 energy-efficient homes powered entirely by natural gas and able to sell excess electricity to the grid, with the promise that homeowners won’t pay utility bills for at least a decade.
“We are the oil and gas capital of the world,” Parker said. “We intend to be the energy capital. But part of being the energy capital is understanding how not to use energy unnecessarily.”
The project, demonstrated in two model homes by Houze Advanced Building Science, offers what developer David Goswick describes as an entirely new style of energy-efficient house.
Built with metal framing and insulated panels, the houses have a Home Energy Rating System of 44, compared with a rating of 85 for Energy Star homes and a rating of 100 for the typical new home. (Lower is better.)
Once the technology is in place, the houses should achieve a rating of 0, Goswick said.
The models range from 1,600 to 1,650 square feet and will cost $200,000 to $225,000, and Goswick said homeowners will qualify for steep discounts on property insurance and other savings.
Some existing residents are worried about the effect on their property taxes, since the average home value in the neighborhood hovers between $60,000 and $70,000.
Neighborhood leaders, including the Rev. John Bowie, pastor of True Light Missionary Baptist Church, promised to fight any changes that would displace longtime residents.
“We’re very concerned we don’t run off the people that are here,” Bowie said.
Parker acknowledged taxes are likely to rise but suggested a slow increase would be better than continued deterioration.
Bowie and Tanya Debose, executive director of the Independence Heights Redevelopment Council, are among the community leaders who worked with Goswick on the project and turned out for Thursday’s announcement.
“It’s a new opportunity to be making history again,” Debose said.
She said other developers are building low- and moderate-income housing in the neighborhood, which so far has defied the gentrification seen in other historic neighborhoods, such as the Heights, where expensive new construction pushed out longtime residents.
“It’s very scary,” Debose said. “I think what Houze has brought us is a say-so.”
Independence Heights still retains much of its rural character. Many families have owned the same tiny frame homes for generations; a few still keep horses on empty lots.
Although the neighborhood is on the National Register of Historic Places, vacant buildings outnumber those under construction.
Those vacant buildings and lots, just a few miles from downtown, caught Goswick’s attention as he scanned the city on Google Earth.
A longtime developer, he had been involved with a project in Pearland that went into foreclosure in 2010, a victim of Hurricane Ike and the recession.
Goswick said he began looking for a new project that would incorporate new technology and energy efficiency.
He considered using wind or solar power but ultimately settled on a 10-kilowatt power cell, which uses natural gas to produce electricity and thermal heat.
Unique sell-back plan
Dan Bullock of Clean DG Advisors said the new homes will be connected to the electric grid as a backup. That also will allow homeowners to sell excess electricity back to the grid, more than offsetting the cost of the natural gas used.
Pat Hammond, spokeswoman for Reliant, the electricity provider for the homes, said the company’s sell-back plan is typically used by customers with solar panels.
“The technology being used at this new development is unique to my knowledge,” she said in an email.
Goswick said Houze – the “ze” stands for “zero energy” – intends to begin construction immediately on 30 houses on lots the company owns in Independence Heights. It will meet with community leaders before building on its 50 other lots in the neighborhood.
He said the company will also build elsewhere in town and expects to expand the concept to other cities over the next two years.
Parker said the city provided no financial incentives, but did assist with permitting and other regulatory issues.