Low-income housing builders vie for funds

By Diana Nelson Jones / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

If you can build low-income housing to standards for passive energy use, your chances of winning tax credits from the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency just got better.

The agency recently announced it will award 10 points to applicants who meet Passive House certification standards and five to those who exceed Energy Star efficiency ratings.

Points are considered among other criteria in a highly competitive application process, but the more points a project is awarded, the better its chances of being selected.

We may get 130 applications and we are going to fund about 40," said Brian Hudson, executive director of the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency.

Many more developers are capable of the five-point target for Energy Star efficiency, but Passive House is catching on across the country," he said. We want developers to move in that direction, given the cost of utilities for low-income tenants. We're trying to be more energy efficient, and passive house takes it to the next level."

Passive House Section

Applications that make the Jan. 30 deadline will be considered for allocations in late spring, he said.

A passive house has triple-paned windows positioned to catch maximum sunlight, intensely airtight insulation and a ventilation system that sends stale air out and takes fresh air in to condition and distribute only as needed for high air quality. This acts in place of a furnace. The Passive House Institute-U.S. cites savings of up to 90 percent per year.

Pennsylvania is the first state to offer points for tax credits for low-income passive house developments, said Katrin Klingenberg, executive director of the institute, in Chicago. She said of 130 passive buildings in the United States, with 130 more in the pipeline, 11 are multi-family or commercial. About 2,000 designers, contractors and consultants in the country are Passive House certified, she said.

The concept emerged in the 1970s but grew in the 1990s, especially in Europe. Worldwide, more than 40,000 buildings meet the standards. All new buildings in Brussels, Belgium are now required to meet them.

Passive buildings in the Pittsburgh area include three developed by ACTION-Housing — a housing retrofit of the McKeesport YMCA, the Hazelwood Center and a test model in the new Uptown Lofts on Fifth Avenue.

One building of the Uptown Lofts has been built to passive house standards, the other to 2012 energy code standards. They will be completed next month. Their consumption will be tracked and compared over 15 years, said Linda Metropulos, director of housing and neighborhood development for ACTION-Housing.

She said the five point reward for non-passive developments is a big deal. Passive house is a wonderful standard to reach for but it's not the only way to get a high performing building."

The August electric bill at the 2,913 square-foot Family Support Center in the Hazelwood Center was $56, said Debbie Gallagher, the director. Last February, before the center opened, she said, we came dressed for no heat but it was toasty."

Architect Laura Nettleton, principal at Thoughtful Balance in Pittsburgh, designed the Hazelwood and McKeesport projects and has recently retrofitted a house in Shadyside. A founding member of Passive House Western Pennsylvania, she said she expects heating and cooling the house to cost less than $30 a month.

We want to get to zero energy, and passive house is one way to get there," she said. If you are doing a new construction or a gut renovation, there is no reason not to do it."

Retrofits are tricky, and historic properties are particularly so, she said. Restoring facades after insulating ties up a lot of money, and building to passive standards is already a bit pricier than construction to code — about 10 percent pricier.

But if a $200,000 construction costs $20,000 more to make passive, only a moron wouldn't do it if he realizes an 85 percent yearly energy savings," said Craig James, a certified Passive House consultant and owner of James Construction in Carnegie.

The U.S. Green Building Council's requirements for assigning LEED — Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design — status consider energy saving designs but not performance. They require sustainable sourcing of materials and low-emissions products such as paints and carpets.

The Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency's tax credit awards go to the development team, which acts as a pass-through for an equity investor, who matches the allocation to finance the project. The $1 million allocation becomes $10 million over 10 years, and in each year the investor gets a tax break.

This is just the beginning," Mr. Hudson said. I'm not sure how many [developers] will make use of the passive housing points this time around, but a good number may in the future."

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626.

from post-gazette.com

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