St. Peter: Louisiana’s first net-zero apartment building—one year in.

In 2019, on a block of land in New Orleans that used to be a salvage yard, SBP broke ground for what would become The St. Peter, Louisiana’s first net-zero apartment building. Its grand opening in February 2020 welcomed the new residents and celebrated the 50-unit mixed-income residence where half of the units are prioritized for veterans. In a city where affordable housing is often hard to come by, The St. Peter offers an opportunity for veterans, individuals and families to live in high quality, energy-efficient, resilient housing they can afford.

After months of planning, the completely unexpected happened — a global pandemic took hold and changed the course of what the rest of the year would look like for The St. Peter residents, SBP and everyone else in the world. The idea of home took on new meaning, new urgency, and mattered even more to the most vulnerable populations The St. Peter houses.

Many of our residents are transitioning from homelessness, shelters, or recovery centers. To get as many people in as soon and as safely as possible, we scheduled additional cleaning sessions and rotated move-in days. The property manager switched to online application processing and virtual lease signings. Neighbors got to know each other through masked greetings in hallways or in passing outside.

The vision for The St. Peter was always one of a real community — people looking out for each other while living in a resiliently built, net-zero energy apartment building. The one- and two-bedroom units also have energy-efficient refrigerators, ovens, and washer/dryers. More than 400 solar panels sit on the roof and a battery storage system is in the parking lot. Our partners at the architectural firm Eskew Dumez + Ripple and long-time partners Entergy New Orleans, the local energy utility, guided us through a net-zero model and the use of solar panels and battery power. As a result when Hurricane Zeta blew through in October 2020 and the rest of the city experienced multi-day power outages, The St. Peter residents did not. Electricity generated by the solar panels and stored in the on-site battery helped power the building while the rest of the neighborhood remained in darkness.

The solar panels and battery also mean that residents like Mr. Eddie won’t have an electric bill if they follow energy-use tips in their apartments. Mr. Eddie, a Navy veteran, moved in last March, just as the city was shutting down. He left four roommates and a recovery community he’d been part of for two years for his own apartment. He loves being part of the veteran community at The St. Peter and being so close to the Lafitte Greenway where he rides his bike miles each day.

COVID-19 put certain aspects of community life on hold — like community center events — while bringing other aspects of community life to the surface. 25–30 school-age children who call The St. Peter home were now home indefinitely with school closings. A handful of new residents also experienced unplanned job losses resulting from the shut-down of New Orleans’ hospitality industry.

But the community bonded and supported each other — checking on neighbors during hurricane season and cleaning up trash when holiday schedules caused delays in trash pickups. Our residential support team shared information about applying for unemployment and accessing other services.

Ashley in the community room.

The average apartment building turnover rate is around 46%. The St. Peter’s has been less than 4% since opening. That’s due, in part, to the work of Ashley Thompson, our resident service coordinator. She handles the community planning — including newsletters and activities like a holiday door decoration contest. She also implements the educational aspect of living in a net-zero energy community.

Ashley also helped develop a series of community-oriented questions for The St.Peter resident applications, things like What does a sense of community look like for you? Do you mind helping your neighbor? Are you interested in living in an energy-efficient building? Responses helped us identify residents who could lead community projects and activities.

Being part of a community, having stability and home, changes people once they are here, Ashley says. She sees what a sense of belonging does to a resident’s confidence. One veteran transitioned from a homeless shelter where, during COVID, they were on complete lockdown for months. Having his own space now has breathed new life into him. He stands up straighter, walks with a more confident gait.

Mr. Wendall, an Army veteran, loves the view of Broad Street from his second-floor apartment. He’ll tell you he likes the quiet of the place, that he’s a more private person, but he’s still looking out for those around him. As a former Army cook, making meals in his kitchen is one of his favorite activities — things he can share with an elderly neighbor or family members who drop by. In the spring he’ll be able to access bounty from the on-site community garden.

Farming New Orleans cleared out the community garden space last summer and put together raised beds. They created a list of things that would grow best in the space. This spring, Mr. Sherman is taking up the mantle to begin planting and overseeing the garden’s health. He plans to grow things you may not find in the local grocery store as a way to engage his neighbors.

Mr. Sherman explains what will grow in one of The St. Peter garden beds.

Despite the challenges of the last year, life at The St. Peter is vibrant and communal. An outdoor playground went up last summer. A long-time volunteer group of nuns from all over the country donated books and a library program kicked off from the community center for kids and adults. Last fall, Ashley herself manned a table in the community center so kids could come in for virtual school or get help with homework. Parents could get a much-needed break.

What we wanted to do with The St. Peter was to make a safe, secure home an option for people who haven’t always had access to those things. We knew we were creating a resilient building that would have long-term impact for residents, but what we couldn’t have known was that we would have resilient residents who could take the uncertainty of this last year and thrive. A safe and secure home is, truly, everything.

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