While it might seem rare these days for Republicans and Democrats cooperatively to work together on anything, two Republican members of the US House of Representatives recently joined with one of their Democratic colleagues to introduce an important new piece of renewable energy legislation.
On July 20, Rep. Nan Hayward (R, NY), Rep. Dan Lungren (R, CA), and Rep. Mike Thompson (D, CA), proposed a bill designed to protect local communities’ ability to adopt an innovative clean-energy financing strategy that itself has attracted bi-partisan support from coast to coast – and with good reason. This financing strategy, known as “property assessed clean energy,” or PACE, allows homeowners finance the up-front costs of installing residential clean-energy systems through city partnerships that spread out the payments as an add-on to their property taxes for as long as 20 years.
As a way to encourage homeowners to invest in cleaner energy without a high up-front cost, PACE programs have proven popular with cities working hard to stimulate their local economies and create green jobs. Since 2008, legislatures in 27 states have enabled cities to set up PACE assessments, no matter which party controlled the state house – Republicans in Virginia, Missouri, and Texas; or Democrats in Oregon, Minnesota, and New Hampshire.
Despite this groundswell of bipartisan support, PACE programs came under threat last summer, when the mortgage lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac stepped in, refusing to finance mortgages associated with a PACE assessment. The lenders viewed the assessments as a competing “loan” that might have to be paid back first if a property owner went into foreclosure.
The new House legislation would clearly define in law that PACE assessments are not loans (and do not become due in full in the case of foreclosure), and would prohibit Fannie and Freddie from discriminating against PACE-associated homeowners. At the same time, the bill seeks to defuse the mortgage lenders’ fears by limiting their risk through a series of national program standards.
For example, the legislation caps the cost of clean-energy projects at 10-percent of home value, and limits participation to homeowners with a solid tax-payment history and at least 15-percent positive equity in their home. In addition, to qualify for a PACE assessment, home-owners must undergo an energy audit of their property that shows how their project will pay for itself in lowered energy bills over the course of the assessment.
This last requirement simply demonstrates what PACE enthusiasts have been telling Fannie and Freddie all along – that no other property assessment project increases homeowners’ financial stability the way the installation of a clean-energy system does.
In fact, a recent study by ECONorthwest, an economic consulting firm, found that PACE assessments tend to reduce homeowner default rates, making them a boon, rather than a burden, to Fannie and Freddie. Looking at four municipalities that enacted some of the earliest PACE programs, ECONorthwest found a default rate of 0.1% amongst PACE-assessed homeowners, versus a 3.2% default rate for non-PACE homeowners in the same areas over the same time period.
In these politically contentious times, any program that can bring Republicans and Democrats together to boost both clean-energy installations and job creation deserves to be protected. That this same program can shift the country toward renewable energy, strengthen local communities, save homeowners money during an economic downturn, and help blunt the foreclosure crisis, makes it a program that simply must be saved.
Every member of the House needs to hear from her or his constituents that the PACE Protection Act should pass.
—Andrew Korfhage from GreenAmerica.org