Building Resilience and Preserving History in Charleston

Charleston, SC
Charleston, SC. Photo credit: James Willamor via flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.

In a city like Charleston, South Carolina, with deep cultural roots and more historic buildings than you can count, the threat of rising sea levels and damaging storms has galvanized an interest in increasing energy efficiency and flood protection. In addition, the effects of development on neighborhood preservation coupled with the growing impact of climate change demand a new approach that can address both issues simultaneously. 

In Charleston’s historically significant Eastside neighborhood, once a thriving economic center of Charleston’s Black community, the city is trying new approaches to improving energy efficiency and flood protection through a $150,000 grant from the Southeast Sustainable Communities Fund. The city and its partner, the Sustainability Institute (SI), is testing solutions like weatherization, solar power, and flood proofing for Eastside’s lower-income homeowners.

The Sustainability Institute provides green workforce development, particularly for at-risk populations, and was the first AmeriCorps program in the country to focus on providing energy-efficient upgrades for low-income homeowners. Its workforce training also includes soft skills and industry education, providing participants with practical and professional skills that enable them to land jobs as contractors, energy auditors, or other positions in the industry.

Eastside, like many disinvested communities and communities of color throughout the country, has a history of disenfranchisement and neighborhood “improvement” plans that have ultimately done more harm than good. Knowing this history, the Sustainability Institute sought to build trust with the Eastside community by beginning its work with weatherization of the office of the Eastside Community Development Corporation (ECDC), a nonprofit that serves as the Eastside neighborhood association. Together, the Sustainability Institute and ECDC determined that the team would begin with a three-fold approach: 1) conduct a series of community education workshops; 2) do door-to-door outreach to homeowners and encourage them to accept the weatherization; and 3) weatherize ECDC’s historic, two-story office structure as a community demonstration project.

community workshop
The Sustainability Institute facilitating a hands-on energy conservation workshop for residents of the Eastside community. Photo credit: Bryan Cordell

In the fall of 2018, SI completed the energy upgrade retrofit of the ECDC building and began doing outreach. At the first community workshop, 25 families learned how to improve energy efficiency in their homes and about the free weatherization and upgrade services available from the Sustainability Institute. Since that workshop, SI has conducted several energy assessments in Eastside and completed its first residential retrofit for a longtime elderly resident. The goal is to complete 15 full-home retrofits, which consist of a holistic health, safety, and energy analysis of a home and necessary upgrades. Five homeowners will also receive solar panels and flood-proofing improvements. An additional 15 to 20 homeowners will receive weatherization, which is the process of protecting a building inside and out from the elements and making modifications to improve its energy efficiency—in turn lowering utility costs and lessening the incidence of weather-related damage and the ensuing repair expense.

Man measures a window
An ECC trainee measures a window as part of the energy audit process. Photo credit: Bryan Cordell

Although the solar and flood-proofing work is still to come, the city’s sustainability director, Katie McKain, sees the weatherization and outreach as an early win. “Reducing emissions is a huge part of mitigating climate change,” says McKain. “A key component to supporting energy upgrades is that it not only helps residents reduce their costs, but also reduces the demand on energy.”

The demand for energy efficiency among consumers in Eastside and neighboring communities is there, but it is often difficult for low-income homeowners to access financing for upgrades. SI wants to work with a financial partner to establish a revolving loan fund, as well as create new ways for low-income customers to access credit with area banks.

“This is an opportunity to see what works,” says Mark Wilbert, Charleston’s chief resilience officer. “Anything we can do to help residents have more resilient homes, that’s a good thing for us because, house by house, we become a more resilient city. If there are low cost opportunities that work in the Eastside, maybe there are things we can apply in similar neighborhoods and go after additional funding to make solutions more available throughout Charleston.”

Betsey Russell is an Asheville, NC-based writer and communications consultant.


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