Finding Gold for Green

Financing green retrofits for affordable housing.

The inherent complexities of the affordable sector make financing green retrofits at affordable properties a particularly demanding task. Yet our industry has some very creative professionals who are turning to numerous sources to make federally assisted properties more efficient. A Greenbuild 2014 panel in New Orleans titled “Financing Green Retrofits for Affordable Housing: A Polyphonic View” examined the challenges and emerging solutions.

There are four major challenges, one of which is accessing capital, said Darien Crimmin, vice president of energy and sustainability at WinnDevelopment.

“If you walked into a bank to finance a retrofit for affordable housing, they would laugh at you and you would leave without a loan,” Crimmin said. He added that there are some mission driven banks sprouting up to fill the gap, but landing capital is no easy task. Money can end up coming from a number of sources like Fannie Mae’s new Green Preservation Plus execution option, state utility assistance programs, multifamily energy efficiency programs and weatherization rebates.

Concerns over returns are another barrier. There are three factors at play here: worries over whether or not savings will materialize; utility rate volatility (i.e. natural gas has dropped 20 percent over the last five years); and concern over the “R” factor, which in this case stands for Residents. “We have seen the utmost efficient buildings in the world with their lights left on and their windows wide open in winter,” Crimmin added.

The third major challenge involves regulatory and utility barriers, according to Rebecca Schaaf, vice president of the energy division at Stewards of Affordable Housing for the Future. Taking on debt is precluded in some properties. The split incentive of owners taking the risk while residents reap the savings is another struggle. HUD is trying to address the problem.

“Rents are set on budgets. If owners reduce their own utility costs, that means a reduction in budget and thus savings on rent that are ultimately passed on to HUD,” Schaaf explained. “Well HUD is now offering options for owners through the Better Buildings Challenge to access those savings.”

Schaaf also addressed the fourth big hurdle, which in human resources. Some owners just don’t have the expertise on staff. Having an energy manager is often not enough.
“Third parties are a great way to bring in expertise and resources without having to hire,” she added.

Two case studies were presented to showcase the emerging solutions used to surmount these challenges.

Hunter Johnson, president & CEO of LINC Housing, first detailed a recapitalization of a 274-unit garden apartment community in California that was hitting the 15-year LIHTC mark. LINC bought out their co-owner and closed the first Fannie Mae Green Plus loan (now known as Green Preservation Plus). There were, however, six total layers of financing, Fannie being the only one that was conventional. The five non-conventional layers included California’s Energy Savings Assistance Program, the Multifamily Energy Efficiency Rebate, California Solar Initiative, Multifamily Affordable Solar Housing and Weatherization. Approximately $400,000 of the $715,000 total cost was comprised of rebates. LINC put up roughly $318,000 that had to be paid back.

“But we are seeing $80,000 a year in savings, making this essentially a bit over a four-year payback,” Johnson said. “We think this is good, and consistent in what we can offer other people.”
In terms of the impact on utilities, the retrofit was able to secure a 45 percent reduction in water use, a 14 percent reduction in gas consumption and a 12 percent reduction in electricity use.
LINC also took some creative steps to address the “R” factor. A “healthy and sustainable homes coordinator” on the central staff is tasked with helping onsite staff to help residents be more efficient. LINC also found that it can bring the topic of energy use into the homes through the property’s youngest residents, who are taught to be “energy detectives” in the free after school program.

“We also offer job training as we are putting solar on the roof,” Johnson added. “After the training program with the solar installer, they have enough skills to be part of the group putting solar on their own building.” LINC also connects the freshly trained residents with job placement services.

The second case study took a look at how an energy services company (ESCO) known as Affordable Community Energy Inc. retrofitted a 1,174-unit portfolio serving seniors, the disabled and families. The firm targets the full range of energy efficiency programs: water and electricity efficiencies, as well as all the renewables and cogeneration that can fit on an affordable site.
ACE takes on the cost of improvements and the cost of operations. During the life of the agreement, they take a substantial portion of the measured savings in energy, and a smaller percentage of the water savings. They also charge the customers for the electricity produced on site at a rate 10 percent lower than what they would have been paying their utility company. This covers the owner’s hurdles of capital and concerns on return.

“Because we are paying for it, we believe we are eating most of the performance risk,” said Jeffrey Greenberger, COO at ACE.

For this particular portfolio, which involved all types of properties in order to diversify risks, the total project cost was $6.25 million. Of that, $4 million went to 2,400 solar panels and 7 combined heat and power units. The remaining $2.25 million went to energy efficiency improvements, while water conservation was financed separately. The end result was a 37 percent reduction in electricity use, and a 15% reduction in natural gas consumption.

Greenberger added that ACE’s major challenge is on the capital side. The company has its own layered approach that starts with Federal tax credits for renewables and cogeneration. Their scale allows the company to pursue New Markets Tax Credits (NMTC), as well as state and utility incentives.

Greenberger reiterated that these two case studies represented just two creative solutions. A myriad of other ways exist—and will emerge—within the affordable sector to meet the increasing demand for retrofits. He said, “We believe strongly that having renewable energy sources at affordable housing is critical to keeping it affordable for the long term.”