'Green' public housing: LaFayette Housing Authority builds 30 units with federal funds

photo Ruth Bass, LaFayette Housing Authority director, speaks about appliances like garbage disposals, microwaves and dishwashers in the 30 new environmentally friendly low-income housing units on Foster Circle in LaFayette, Ga.

LAFAYETTE, Ga. - The name of Hill High School - the only historically black high school in Walker County, Ga. - will live on at the first new public housing built in LaFayette in more than two decades.

The LaFayette Housing Authority chose Hill High Court as the name for an environmentally friendly, 30-unit, low-income apartment complex that's almost ready for tenants. Sixteen apartments are on the Culberson Avenue site of Hill High School, which burned down years ago, and another 14 apartments were built on Foster Circle.

"I just can't wait to get the people in here," housing authority Executive Director Ruth Bass said.

The apartments are ready, but glitches have held up occupancy. For example, a brick retaining wall in front of the apartments' lawns along Culberson Avenue was built too high. It was 36 inches tall in places, Bass said, when it was supposed to be 30 inches, at most.

Fearing a possible lawsuit if a child was injured by jumping off the wall -- and also concerned that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development wouldn't sign off on it -- Bass made the contractor saw off the top of the brick wall. Another problem that still needs fixing, she said, is the overly steep slopes behind apartments on Foster Circle.

When tenants do move into the two- and three-bedroom apartments, possibly on Dec. 1, they'll find a number of "green" features including energy-efficient lighting, bamboo flooring, ceiling fans in all the main rooms, programmable thermostats and tubular skylights that help light up the bathrooms.

"The cabinets have no formaldehyde in them," Bass said, explaining that's true of flooring and building materials, as well.

The most exotic "green" feature is the apartments' electric "heat pump" hot water heaters, made by Milwaukee, Wis.-based A.O. Smith.

"It's essentially like a refrigerator running in reverse," said Tom Butler of the Atlanta office of Southface and Lord, Aeck & Sargent Architecture, which designed Hill High Court.

While a refrigerator pulls heat from inside a box and dumps it into the surrounding room, a heat pump water heater pulls heat from the surrounding air and dumps it -- at a higher temperature -- into a tank to heat water, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

The cool air generated by the heat pump water heaters is vented into the attics of Hill High Court apartments, Butler said, because the attic is warmer than the apartment itself and venting the air into the living space could make it too cool in the winter.

He said four of the apartments have sensors to track how well the water heaters work.

"TVA has even been here to look," Bass said. "I'm real anxious to see what the utility bills are monthly."

The apartments have more conventional features, too, including GE appliances.

"They all have a dishwasher, which is unheard of in public housing," Bass said.

The apartments already have been claimed. Half will go to families now living in the housing authority's 300 units; half will go to newcomers. The apartments have certain restrictions, including no pets and no smoking -- not even outside.

"It has to be working people," Bass said of the tenants.

The housing authority first applied to build the apartments in 2002. It paid for them with $5 million it saved over the years from funding it gets annually from HUD for capital improvements and maintenance. It's the first new public housing the authority has built since 1991, Bass said.

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@times freepress.com or 423-757-6651.