Green, Affordable Housing Faces a New Financing Challenge

GreenHome.jpgAffordable housing projects face enough challenges of their own without the added challenge of making them green. And yet, low-income families face a greater challenge from the burden of housing costs – the more families have to spend on maintaining a home reduces the amount they can spend on other basic necessities. Green features such as increased insulation, energy efficient appliances, and renewable energy systems can have a major impact on reducing the energy burden for low-income families. So how do we overcome the challenges of affordable housing to incorporate these green features?
Financing is one of the major barriers to affordable housing projects. Affordable housing projects cost the same to build as market-rate housing, but are priced below the market value in order to meet the needs of lower income families. As a result, developers do not get the same return for an affordable housing project, which encourages some developers to skimp on features such as energy efficiency or renewable energy.
Luckily, there are several government (federal, state, and local) programs that help to bridge the financing gap. Many of these programs are now incorporating energy efficiency standards into the eligibility requirements for these projects. There are also some emerging programs that directly address green features and renewable energy for affordable housing projects. In researching green affordable housing, I’ve come across some of these innovative programs.

The Massachusetts Green Affordable Housing Initiative is a state funding program created to support the construction of small photovoltaic systems on affordable housing projects. The program enables partnerships between builders, financiers, and developers to encourage the creation of green affordable housing projects. What I find to be interesting with this program is that it is also creating a collaborative learning environment in which key players can share their experiences in order to gain a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t. This information is shared through meetings and presentations, and is then made available on the program’s website. This shared experience can diminish the concerns that developers may have regarding green construction. It also helps the funding agencies figure out how to optimize their programs in order to promote the programmatic and behavioral changes for which they are striving.
California is often at the leading edge of solar development, and it is no different with green affordable housing. The California Solar Initiative (CSI) has developed two new programs to address affordable housing directly. They are the first I have seen that specifically finance solar systems for existing buildings. While there are other state rebate programs for affordable green housing, their focus is on new construction.
Beginning in 2007, 10% of all CSI funds were set aside for low-income and affordable housing projects. The Single-Family Low-Income Incentive Program was developed first, and aims to bring solar systems to low-income home owners. It is administered by GRID Alternatives, a non-profit agency dedicated to bringing renewable energy services to communities in need. Their strategy is similar to Habitat for Humanity in that they focus on low-income families and use the sweat equity of the home owners and volunteers. Instead of building homes, they train people with the skills necessary to install solar systems. I find this approach interesting because it not only addresses the installation of solar systems on low-income housing, but it also addresses the need for green job training.
California’s Multifamily Affordable Housing (MASH) program was created in 2008 and focuses on existing multifamily housing. This program is interesting in the way energy from a PV installation is distributed. One issue that often comes up in discussions about solar on multi-unit buildings is the equitable allocation of energy to the tenants. The MASH program uses a virtual metering system that allows the PV system to offset electricity to multiple units without having to be connected to each individual meter. Instead, a device records the bi-directional output and balances the PV output with the use of each unit as well as the common areas. The allocation between common areas and tenant units is determined by the owner, and the allocation to tenant units is then determined by the relative size of each unit. (Click here to see a full discussion of virtual net metering.)
I think these programs provide some interesting directions for the future expansion of the solar industry within the affordable housing sector. The solar industry is strong and growing stronger, despite the economy. Given this growth, surely we can see our way clearly toward making it available to those who face the greatest burden from their energy use. State rebates are one way to make this happen, but with only five states offering solar rebates and incentives for affordable housing, it is not enough. Innovations such as volunteer solar installers and virtual private metering can make it easier to implement programs. A collaboration that encourages stakeholders to share lessons learned also helps reduce implementation barriers. Yes, there are plenty of barriers to implementing these programs, but these innovations are a step in the right direction.
Lisa Bingham is a dual-degree MBA/MS Environmental Studies student at the University of Colorado in Boulder. She is focusing on sustainable real estate and environmental sociology. She hopes to pursue a career in sustainable community development. You can contact her at

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