Teach a person to make a house more energy efficient, and an impact will be made on an energy bill. Teach a person to educate her community about energy efficiency, and the impact will be exponentially greater. That’s the lesson the Michigan Suburbs Alliance learned in their work with energy efficiency programs. And it’s an idea that has shaped a new pilot program that aims to plant seeds of sustainability in individual Metro Detroit neighborhoods then spread into homes throughout the entire region.

Green Anchors is a program that is one part affordable housing, one part community engagement and a third part energy efficiency. This holistic approach to neighborhood stabilization is beginning with a three-home pilot program in Southgate.

“It’s not just about saving the earth, it’s also is about quality of life,” says Hayley Roberts, communications director for the Michigan Suburbs Alliance. “Most people just think of low rent when it comes to affordable housing, but really, the cost of living includes the cost of heating and electricity.”

Green Anchors aims to reexamine what makes affordable housing truly affordable, by renovating homes to be models of energy efficiency and then spreading the savings throughout the neighborhood via community engagement. Two homes have already been purchased, and a third is in the works. Once renovated, part of the agreement with the future tenants will be acting as their community’s energy efficiency coach.

“We were asking ourselves how to you take a single incidence of someone making improvements to their home and make it a neighborhood movement,” Roberts says. “We see these homes as anchors of sustainability for their communities.”

After knocking the idea around for a few years, the Michigan Suburbs Alliance partnered with general contractor Meadowlark Energy to undertake the renovations and Wayne County EDGE to provide funding for Green Anchors through their Neighborhood Stabilization Program. The choice for where to pilot the program, says Roberts, was an easy one.

“Southgate is doing a lot in terms of sustainability,” she says. “More than 200 homes in Southgate participated in BetterBuildings for Michigan. They are looking to be leaders in turning the rustbelt green.”

The houses chosen for Green Anchors are typical for their neighborhoods: small, single-family homes that might not be seen as good candidates for energy efficiency because of their age.

“A lot of the Detroit suburbs have this older housing stock,” says Roberts. “There is this idea that if the house has old walls and old windows it won’t be a able to be energy efficient, and that’s simply not true.”

Roberts goes on to explain that when people become convinced that energy efficiency is impossible, their housing becomes unnecessarily unaffordable. With energy bills for older homes sometimes rivaling the cost of rent or mortgage, the impact on low- and moderate-income individuals can be devastating. By renovating these homes into models of efficiency, the Green Anchors program will not only prove that sustainability is achievable, but that these homes can be affordable places to live.

Michigan Suburbs Alliance will be working with the Veteran’s Administration, the Area Agency on Aging and others to identify at-risk individuals to become the tenants and community coaches in the Green Anchors homes. They’ll start as renters.

“Home ownership is one of the major goals of the Neighborhood Stabilization Program,” says Michigan Suburbs Alliance Programs Director, Richard Murphy. “We won’t be throwing our residents directly into home ownership, but helping them grow into that role.”

The renovations done to the homes will further help make home ownership an achievable goal. They’ll undergo major structural repairs, correcting everything from shifting foundations and damaged chimneys to collapsing garages. Water-efficient fixtures as well as high-efficiency heating, cooling and appliances will be installed. On top of that, each home will receive added insulation, air sealing and more.

Inspiring others to replicate these improvements in their own homes is a crucial part of the Green Anchors plan. The residents’ roles as community coaches will have them giving tours of their homes, hosting community events and educating their neighbors about energy efficiency. With a greater stake in the neighborhood’s success, Michigan Suburbs Alliance believes the new residents’ message will be well received.

“There is a trust barrier when you’re trying to sell energy efficiency to people,” says Roberts. “It makes a difference when someone has the same stake in your neighborhood that you have.”

Until the tenants are able to take over as homeowners – and Michigan Suburb Alliance hopes afterwards as well – the community coaches will be tasked with planting the seeds of sustainability in their neighborhoods. The goal is to save more than $500 annually in energy bills, and for neighbors to start realizing the same savings in their own homes.

The shorter-term goals for the recently launched Green Anchors program are to complete renovations to the homes near the end of this year, and have tenants on the way to  ownership by Feb. 15. After that, how quickly or far the energy efficiency bug will spread is up to the Southgate neighborhoods. However, if early reactions from neighbors is any indication of how effectively the word will spread, things are looking pretty good.

“It’s been really wonderful to see the neighbors coming out and expressing interest already,” says Roberts. “They’re curious, and they’re excited to see investment in their neighborhoods.”

With ideas about sustainability already being planted, and demonstrations, education and resources on the way, these Southgate residents are poised to find out how far community engagement can take energy efficiency in their city. With any luck, the impact will start in their own wallets, continue down their block, and ripple into neighborhoods throughout all of southeast Michigan.