Protecting Housing for Low- and Moderate-income Individuals

Protecting Housing for Low- and Moderate-income Individuals

Mou Vang grew up in Section 8 housing in the Twin Cities and is familiar with the outdated infrastructure that often exists in affordable housing. Now she uses her experience and knowledge to serve the residents of Wisconsin Housing Preservation Corp (WHPC). Recently, with financial support from the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin (PSC) Energy Innovation Grant Program (EIGP) and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), and technical assistance from Elevate Energy (Elevate), she co-led WHPC’s Green Team toward solar and battery storage for their Villa West property in Green Bay. The energy savings from these efforts will be reinvested in other areas of the property for the benefit of the residents.

WHPC has been dedicated to preserving, providing, and protecting homes for low- and moderate-income individuals and families across Wisconsin for over 20 years. With more than 9,000 housing units across Wisconsin, WHPC’s mission is not just about shelter; it’s about fostering stability, empowerment, and community well-being.

Central to WHPC’s initiatives is sustainability. In 2020 they convened a “Green Team” whose aim is to make its portfolio more environmentally friendly and efficient. By identifying opportunities for sustainable upgrades and prioritizing energy efficiency in its existing and new developments, WHPC is lowering utility expenses, reducing carbon emissions, and making the properties more comfortable for residents.

In April of 2022, WHPC received a grant from the PSC to create a microgrid at Villa West. This Green Bay property offers affordable housing for individuals earning no more than 50 percent of the area median income, with its residents being persons with disabilities or seniors.

“A lot of our properties were built in the mid to late 70s so they don’t have air conditioning,” said Mou. “In Wisconsin, not having air conditioning in a senior and disabled building is concerning.”

As an Asset Manager, Mou is regularly touring properties and can attest to the lack of progress that has been made in the quality of affordable housing. It reminded her of her childhood. On one hand, it forced her to reflect on how far she has come. On the other, she is well aware of the technological advancements that have been made since then and wonders why these properties seem to be frozen in time.

“The properties still look the same,” Mou said. “They still function the same. It really didn’t sit well with me. In 30 years, nothing’s changed.”

There is no shortage of work to be done to create more comfortable living spaces for residents living in affordable housing structures.

Embracing Sustainability through the Green Team

Partners at Elevate play a pivotal role in WHPC’s Green Team. Elevate is a nationwide non-profit specializing in clean affordable energy with a focus on low-income communities. Jake Archbell, Program Manager of Solar Programs at Elevate, leads efforts to study energy usage across properties and implement strategies to enhance efficiency.

For Jake, “The more complicated something is, the more I enjoy it. So, I love projects like this; I love doing new things and managing all the pieces and seeing them come together,” he said.

Jenna Grygier, Associate Director of High Performance Buildings at Elevate echoes Jake’s love for a challenge.

She said, “I’ve seen rooftop solar, ground-mounted solar, micro wind turbines, etc. but I’ve never seen battery storage on multi-family properties. So, it’s pretty exciting for me just to see how it all fits together.”

Bringing Solar and Battery Storage to Villa West

The initial phase of the Villa West project is nearly complete, with three of the twelve buildings having solar panels installed on the roof and backup solar battery storage. The solar panels alone amount to $14,000 of savings annually.

For WHPC, “that $14,000 is the difference between new flooring in the common space so that there’s less of a trip hazard,” said Mou.

While the battery storage has no direct cost savings for WHPC, the indirect savings are very real and tangible for the residents.

Mou explained, “Think of insulin that needs to be refrigerated but the power goes out; the medication may become unusable. Typically, insurance only covers this medication being refilled once a month. So now a person with limited income has to pay out of pocket for insulin to get through the month, in the event of an extended power outage.”

“It’s just something that I think a lot of people don’t think about because we don’t experience it firsthand,” added Mou.

When asked about the intangible benefits of this project for residents, Jenna highlighted an important, yet often overlooked aspect of making people feel valued.

She said, “Even if they [residents] don’t completely understand the mechanics of it, everyone can at least identify the solar panels. My hope is that it might make them feel more valued. That they live in a place where the owner cares enough to do something like renewable energy.”

Paving the Way for Clean Energy Benefits

Earlier this year, WHPC secured additional funding for Villa West to receive installations and storage for two more buildings. As each phase progresses, the vision of outfitting all buildings with solar and battery storage inches closer to reality, shaping a brighter, more sustainable future for Villa West and its residents.

Villa West Phase I was funded with a PSC EIGP award in 2022 for $500,000. WHPC will also be taking advantage of Focus on Energy incentives available at the time of installation completion to help fund this effort. Additionally, the IRA’s Elective Pay provision will enable Villa West to secure a federal rebate covering 30% of the solar project’s cost.

As WHPC continues to pave the way in the affordable housing sector, its commitment to sustainability stands as a testament to its ethos. Through the efforts of individuals like Mou and the Green Team, WHPC is providing housing, nurturing communities, and fostering a brighter, more sustainable future for all. In this journey towards inclusive, eco-conscious housing, WHPC is not just building structures; it’s building hope and resilience.

Mou added, “It truly is an investment back to the property and the tenants benefit from it.”

Energy Independence: Creating a Resilient Future

Energy Independence: Creating a Resilient Future

As a valued supporter of RENEW Wisconsin, we know you understand the critical role that renewable energy plays in creating a sustainable and resilient future. Today, I want to share the immense importance renewable energy plays in achieving energy independence for our great state of Wisconsin.

Energy independence is about more than just reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. It ensures that our energy needs are met through locally produced, clean sources that benefit our economy, environment, and communities. Renewable energy is at the heart of the transition to energy independence. This transition will promote:

  • Community Empowerment: Wisconsin has less than 1% customer-owned clean energy sources. Local renewable energy projects empower residents, businesses, and communities by giving them greater control over their energy sources.
  • Energy Security: As a state, Wisconsin spends over $10 billion each year importing fuels to power our energy sector. Diversifying our energy mix with renewables enhances our energy security by reducing our dependence on imported fuels, making our state less vulnerable to external disruptions and price volatility.
  • Economic Benefits: Costs of solar and wind have declined significantly, making renewable energy investments the best option for our energy production. Investing in more renewable energy creates local jobs, stimulates the economy, and keeps energy dollars in our state.
  • Environmental Protection: Temperatures in Wisconsin have risen 3 degrees since 1950, and our precipitation has increased by 17% over that time. Renewable energy resources emit no greenhouse gases, which helps protect our natural landscapes, improve air and water quality, and mitigate the worst effects of climate change.

At RENEW Wisconsin, we are committed to advancing renewable energy initiatives that drive us toward energy independence. However, we cannot do this work alone. With your support, we can advocate for stronger policies, promote groundbreaking projects, and educate the public on the importance of clean energy.

Renew your commitment to Wisconsin’s energy future by donating today. Thank you for your unwavering dedication to an independent energy future for Wisconsin.


We appreciate your support!

Ismaeel Chartier

Development Director, RENEW Wisconsin

Centro’s New Home Embraces Latin American Culture Through Sustainable Architecture

Centro’s New Home Embraces Latin American Culture Through Sustainable Architecture

All photos by: Heidi Rudd

Karen Menéndez Coller is a mother, daughter, and community leader. Born in El Salvador, she and her family moved to California when she was 12 years old. Her husband, a Green Bay native, and their two children have called Wisconsin home for the past 10+ years and are “pretty proud of it, too.” She is the Executive Director of Centro, a nonprofit serving Latinx in Dane County.

Despite leaving El Salvador at a young age, Karen said, “I grew up very being very cognizant of my history and my heritage and the role that sustainability plays in the lives of immigrants when we come here. I think, for a long time, it’s been pretty clear to me that almost everybody at Centro, like me, has been impacted by climate change issues globally. And a lot of us ended up here affected by that.”

Over the past ten years, Centro has tripled in size, now serving close to 10,000 individuals. As the demand for services increased, their old space became insufficient. 

This April, the organization unveiled its new building on the south side of Madison. This space tells the story of how community, sustainability, and change intersect in the foundation of their building.

Creating a Safe Space for Latinx Families

Centro was founded in 1983 to provide services to Dane County’s Latin American community. Its mission is “To become a County where Latinx families can aspire upward to reach personal and professional goals while feeling engaged and strengthened with the tools for success.”

“We support an immigrant Spanish-speaking community that’s not supported by [existing] systems. They try, but they don’t know how to help. They don’t understand us as much. So we’re there [to support] as much as we can,” said Karen.

Karen describes Centro as incredibly collectivist in the way it operates, and the team approached the building design in the same collaborative way.

“Everything has been vetted very carefully. We saw the people that were involved as us. We saw ourselves in them. And so that’s how we found the architect, the furniture installers, the designers, everybody was very collective,” said Karen. “So in the process of creating this building, we spent a lot of time healing.”

Making the New Building Feel Like Home

The inspiration for the new building was simple. Centro wanted its community members to feel at home. To achieve this, Karen and her team collaborated with architects and interior designers to incorporate materials native to Latin America into the building design.

“When you walk in, the reception desk is wrapped in lava stone, which is incredibly significant for the Latin American community. It represents fire and strength. This is the first thing that people see when they walk in. We want them to know that this space was designed with them in mind.”

The decision to keep the space open and bright was intentional, especially for sustainability and education. The floors are reminiscent of cement homes in Latin America. Homes that have status, have cement. “That’s what we want our families to feel.” 

“We’re talking about getting a drone so that we can take live shots of the solar panels. There’s some rain gardens out in our exterior plaza that some of our staff and young people are going to upkeep and maintain. That’s been a wonderful way to engage the community. We have geothermal, we committed to that because we believe in the power of the earth and trying to get energy from the earth to sustain us. This building is fully electric and we have windows everywhere,” said Karen.

Her vision is for the families to look outside, see the seasons, and ask about the solar panels and geothermal installation. The goal is to incite curiosity about the different aspects of the building. The design highlights sustainability and forces the community to consider ways to incorporate it into their lives. For example, the building is near a trailer park that houses some community members. This prompted a conversation about solar panels on mobile homes and how to make them affordable.

Karen has learned a lot throughout the process. 

She said, “The team wants to know more and more. I’m proud that this [building] is on the south side. And I think that our families are going to be able to see it in a very organic way. It’s not a thing that people bring in, it’s just there to be a part of it.”

When in Doubt—Dream

When asked if she could give one piece of advice to organizations looking to create a space that is environmentally sustainable and culturally significant, Karen said, “You just have to start. It’s not as hard as you think. I never feel at Centro that there’s limitations. We’ve got to find the funders and connect with people that understand us, and that allow us to come first,” said Karen.

For Centro, the idea of a new space has been ten years in the making. The details were not flushed out, but they knew they wanted something bigger and more functional than they had in the past.

“In the end, we have nothing to lose on the outside. So many people haven’t cared about our families. And so what do we have to lose? We just have to kind of dream,” said Karen.

Centro’s dream was supported by Wisconsin’s Focus on Energy program, RENEW Wisconsin’s Solar for Good Program, and the City of Madison’s Backyard Solar Grant. In addition, they are expecting over $600,000 through the Inflation Reduction Act’s Direct Payment. This will offset 30% of the cost of their geothermal system and 40% of their solar system. 

Centro had always been strategic about the partnerships that they built and the relationships that they have nurtured. When the time came for fundraising, Karen found they had the support of the Dane County Executive, the Madison Mayor, and the Governor. She credits the authenticity of the organization and the relationships they’ve built as the key to success.

“We have a really strong partnership with the director at the Office of Environmental and Climate Sustainability. The Director, Kathy Kuntz, and I are like-minded. She’s always trying to break into communities of color with her work,” she said. “I always try to tell her that it’s easier than you think, you just have to understand our history and what drives us here.’”

For the team at Centro, the drive for this project was to feel connected with the space, the land, and their ancestors and to honor that through environmentally sustainable practices, which is exactly what they did. Ten years seems like a long time to dream and plan, but Karen said, “It’s worth it. It’s valuable. It feels like we’re honoring all the people who are still in El Salvador and other parts of the world that are not here. And we’re saying we’re going to do our part. So that hopefully, it’s a little bit safer and more sustainable over there.”

Wisconsin Climate Action Navigators Visit Milwaukee Neighborhood Lindsay Heights

Wisconsin Climate Action Navigators Visit Milwaukee Neighborhood Lindsay Heights

On April 29 and 30, Wisconsin Climate Action Navigators (WI CAN) gathered in Milwaukee at the Wisconsin Black Historical Society for its second quarterly meeting to establish how Navigators want to engage in climate action in across the state. 

WI CAN is a collective action initiative to create a network of change leaders who foster authentic community engagement to advance transformative climate action rapidly. The group, born out of the State of Wisconsin’s Office of Sustainability and Clean Energy (OSCE) identified a gap in the outreach strategies, which is how the state is authentically engaging with communities. WI CAN seeks to inform the public through balanced and objective climate-related information. The organization hopes to empower the public to participate in policy discussions to create lasting change.

This meeting introduced Wisconsin’s Comprehensive Climate Action Plan (CCAP) which leverages qualitative data produced through boots-on-the-ground interventions. WI CAN’s vision for transformative climate action explores how community engagement can lead to desired climate action and outlines how the OSCE team will analyze outcomes to quantify how climate action impacts Wisconsin communities.

As a statewide initiative, WICAN represents disadvantaged communities, individuals and organizations engaged in climate policy, experts in specific climate action sectors such as renewable energy, and prominent community leaders, like Trasus Wright and Pastor Teresa, both representing the Environmental Justice and Infrastructure Initiative (EJII). EJII and RENEW Wisconsin have been WI CAN members since its inception in January 2024. WI CAN invited EJII to represent communities of color in Milwaukee and to help ensure that their efforts are continuously grounded through an environmental justice lens.

For the quarterly meeting, WI CAN members traveled to Milwaukee’s northwest side for a resident-led tour of the Lindsay Heights neighborhood. 53205 and 53206, the zip codes that makeup Lindsay Heights are shown to be two of the poorest not only in Wisconsin but also in the country. 

The rampant levels of poverty in these zip codes are due to historical disinvestment and city planning initiatives which include building a highway through the neighborhood that forced community members out of their homes.

A highlight of the meeting was a Faith Alliance Network activity at Canaan Education Center. The Faith Alliance Network is a group of Milwaukee-based churches brought together by EJII to create grassroots connections related to environmental injustices in the community. Over dinner, WI CAN members heard testimonials from members of the Neighborhood Improvement District (NID) about how Lindsay Heights continues to grow despite the lack of resources. 

Personal accounts of inaccessibility to basic needs such as affordable food, housing, and electricity – and the community’s collective efforts to secure them for all residents – are part of Lindsay Height’s story and resonated with WI CAN members working and residing in the urban areas of Madison, rural members in Viroqua, and tribal members in Black River Falls. 

This was an organization-wide reminder that storytelling is a way to build alliances. The programming was an inspiration for the future collaboration among WI CAN members.

In closing statements, Pastor Teresa, a local pastor and community leader thanked the group for their “willingness to learn and uplift with the Lindsay Heights community” and celebrated its new connection with the Wisconsin Climate Action Navigators and their efforts to expand state-wide.

Walnut Way Welcomes U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm to the Wellness Commons to Engage with Lindsay Heights Residents and Community Leaders

Walnut Way Welcomes U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm to the Wellness Commons to Engage with Lindsay Heights Residents and Community Leaders

On Wednesday, March 27, Walnut Way welcomed the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Jennifer Granholm to their site, opening up a conversation about shared priorities in uplifting progress for environmental justice communities and the transformative nature of the DOE’s involvement in helping the country reach decarbonization goals.

“What a massive honor to host Jennifer Granholm to Walnut Way, having the opportunity to showcase the transformational work being done with community-led comprehensive development,” said Antonio Butts, Executive Director of Walnut Way. “Because of the work being done at the DOE, we can use these grants to further the development of our neighborhood and provide green energy opportunities for low to middle-income individuals, sustainably transforming the city one grant at a time.”

Photo Credit: Clean Economy Coalition of Wisconsin

The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) are geared towards healing the rift of the past,” said Granholm. “We want to emphasize and empower communities to have a voice. This can be seen through grant stipulations such as the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA). With the CBA, we wanted to provide a vehicle to empower communities to speak and be heard.”

During her visit, Secretary Granholm participated in a roundtable facilitated by Butts. While leading the roundtable, Butts outlined Walnut Way’s work to elevate the voices of those in the community who haven’t previously had a seat a the table for environmental justice work and the community impact of helping weatherize and install renewable technology on homes in the neighborhood.

Granholm heard several concerns from Butts and others. In her response, she emphasized an upcoming IRA program to help low to moderate-income households with appliance rebates.

“But what we’re going to need is we’re going to need partners on the ground to be able to get the word out to people so they know that these are going to exist,” Granholm said. “Now, it comes through the state and Wisconsin has pledged to by June to roll out their program.”

Granholm shared that the program, for example, might be able to help people replace a worn-out furnace or air conditioning unit with a more expensive heat pump — a more efficient device that transfers energy instead of mostly producing it with fossil fuels.

Butts said the conversation was productive and noted that initiatives from the DOE and programs implemented through the IRA are key in accelerating clean energy solutions — specifically for low and moderate-income people.

Creating Sustainable Change For Communities, By Communities

Creating Sustainable Change For Communities, By Communities

Photo Credit: Walnut Way

Walnut Way, Community Change Grants and how their benefits can be leveraged to reduce environmental disparities in Milwaukee’s Northside

Clean energy dollars are reaching Milwaukee’s most underserved communities thanks to federal funding through the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). With over 20 years of experience as an environmental nonprofit in Milwaukee’s northwest side, Walnut Way Conservation Corp. has established itself as a trusted resource for Lindsay Heights residents and statewide organizations through its commitment to creating healthier, safer, and more prosperous communities.

One of the ways this will be done is by the creation of a one-megawatt microgrid within the Lindsay Heights community. This will support the integration of clean energy into the electricity grid and protect grid reliability.

These place-based investments will be focused on initiatives led by the community members of Lindsay Heights, ensuring they are responsive to the community. They are designed to deliver on the transformative potential of IRA for communities most adversely and disproportionately impacted by climate change, legacy pollution, and historical disinvestments.

Antonio Butts, executive director of Walnut Way, said, “Over the past two years, significant work has been done in Milwaukee to address energy burden, energy affordability, and sustainability projects in underserved communities. This work has involved engagement in utility rate cases with the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin, cross-sector collaborations with local grassroots organizations, and partnerships with various state agencies.”

Through the EPA’s new Environmental and Climate Justice Community Change Grants, Walnut Way has the opportunity to move forward with its multi-million dollar proposal intended to advance sustainable change. The Community Change Grants, which were developed as a comprehensive response to pressing environmental concerns, leverage the collective strength of Walnut Way and its partner organizations by deploying a budget of approximately $20 million to be distributed over 36 months. Walnut Way’s proposal is specific to Milwaukee’s Lindsay Heights Neighborhood with the goal of increasing education, capacity building, governance participation, and environmental stewardship. The goal is to reduce the energy burden within the community and promote renewable energy sources among residents.

Overall, the project aims for a holistic transformation of urban infrastructure and the creation of a sustainable, equitable community.

Community Impacts: Direct Financial Assistance, Energy Independence, and Home Weatherization

​“This grant opportunity is designed to fund community-driven projects that address environmental and climate challenges and enhance meaningful involvement in government processes related to environmental justice,” said Butts.

For Walnut Way, this starts with direct financial assistance to Lindsay Heights residents. The budget for the proposal outlines $3 million in direct assistance over three years to alleviate financial burdens associated with the cost of food, medical supplies, energy-efficient appliances, and utility bills.

Walnut Way has budgeted an additional $2 million to extensively weatherize 300 homes in the community. Weatherization services include upgrading appliances such as stoves and refrigerators to more energy-efficient models, installing heat pumps, and updating roofing in preparation for solar panel installation.

More notably, the initiative has allocated $1.5 million to implement a 0.5 MW microgrid for subscription-based renewable energy access. This project has been created to mitigate the high electricity bills and disconnection performed by the local utility company and will be done in partnership with Watts Up Way, an apprenticeship program born out of Walnut Way to support a clean energy transition, enhance energy independence within the community, and promote clean energy jobs.

To reduce the energy burden of residents, Walnut Way has budgeted $2 million to weatherize 300 homes in the community.“Our goals are ambitious,” Butts said, “And in order to complete these goals, it’s going to take a collective effort. Our objective is to sustain our engagement and ensure that generations to come have a voice that directly impacts our well-being and quality of life.”

Photo Credit: Walnut Way


The Importance of Community-Led Transitions to Energy Justice


A critical element of this effort is the Resilient Resident Civic Engagement Compensation Program. This innovative program by Walnut Way provides a strategy for community members to gain recognition and compensation for their contribution to the project, providing a way to earn additional income and engage in civic activities.

The objective of this is to provide an avenue for transparent two-way communication, leadership, and adjustment between government entities and constituents to build trust within the community. For Walnut Way, community engagement has always been the foundation for achieving sustainable change. This is apparent in conversations among Walnut Way and Lindsay Height’s residents when asked about their vision for the community moving forward.

The desire for change among residents is not scarce, but the means to make improvements have been.

“The reality is that we need to take advantage of all available resources,” Butts admitted, and “especially listening to our community members. They live here. They know what they need to be successful.”

He continued, “Being held accountable by the residents requires us to be aligned, coordinated, and to already have established a baseline of accomplishments for us to earn their trust.”

“Working alongside residents enables us as an organization to respond with confidence to aid the community moving forward,” Butts said.

Emmonia Barnett, who has lived in Lindsay Heights for over ten years, shared, “My vision is a community that is empowered to look after itself.”

Her neighbor, Ammar Nsoromoa, echoed Barnett’s wishes and added, “I would like the community to be beautiful. You don’t see trash. You don’t see people in poverty. The community is self-sustained. We take care of one another. The businesses serve the locals. We feed each other with food from grocery stores in our neighborhood. We want to be actively a part of what’s going on.”

Photo Credit: Walnut Way

EPA Grant deadlines, technical support, and how to bring change to your community

While Walnut Way is still in the preliminary stages of the grant application, the Notice of Funding Opportunity is open now through November 21, 2024, with applications accepted on a rolling basis. Additional support for organizations and communities seeking technical assistance with grant eligibility and technical writing will be provided through the EPA’s Environmental Justice (EJ) Thriving Communities Technical Assistance Centers (TCTAC). The creation of these centers was a direct response to feedback from overburdened communities and organizational leaders who have encountered barriers to maximizing the full benefits of available federal funds.

There are the two TCTACS serving Region 5 organizations and communities that have been disproportionately impacted by environmental hazards. As designated by the EPA, Region 5 spans 35 tribal lands and six states–Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. The Great Lakes, led by the University of Minnesota, and Blacks in Green (BIG) Justice, led by a partnership of community-based organizations in Illinois, are the two TCTACs that serve Region 5. Interested applicants can submit an intake form detailing their needs to either center to get help with overcoming barriers to accessing funding from the Community Change Grants.

“Our objective is to sustain our engagement and ensure that generations to come have a voice that directly impacts our well-being and quality of life,” Butts said.

He also noted that the Community Change Grants program has the capacity to expedite this process for the residents of Lindsay Heights while allowing the community to lead in its own solution development towards the clean energy transition.