UNHP Multifamily Buildings Ready for the Solarverse
In 2023, UNHP is celebrating our 40th anniversary and another successful decade of collaboration and effective work with the wider Bronx community as a mission-driven housing developer, borough-focused researcher, and direct service provider for local residents. We have never been more sure of our mission to create and preserve more affordable homes in the Bronx, and we have never been more confident of our strategy to win that outcome through continued persistence and the strength of our local, private, and public partnerships. As we enter our fifth decade, we are looking forward to what comes next. Welcome to our first “throwback anniversary post” where we look at issues that we have been working to address over time and share our past and current successes.
As a Bronx community-based affordable housing developer, UNHP is involved in the oversight of 27 buildings that provide affordable decent homes for 1,216 families and individuals. Our mission to create and preserve affordable housing is carried out in on-the-ground efforts in the properties that we oversee. Our primary focus is keeping the buildings in good physical and financial condition, and preserving the affordability of the properties through financial restructuring, ongoing maintenance, renovation, and energy-saving upgrades. Within that focus, UNHP also strives to reduce energy and water usage, increase climate resilience, protect vulnerable tenants from power outages and other impacts of climate change, and utilize materials and technology that build towards reducing our carbon footprint and greater sustainable living solutions.
Since 1995, UNHP has been able to provide meaningful support for energy and cost-saving renovations to buildings through our Green Loan Fund. The purpose of the Green Loan is to make substantial cost savings available to affordable housing projects by providing the upfront capital to undertake energy, utility, and water, and cost-saving upgrades that achieve the dual goals of affordability and conservation. The no and low-interest loans with an average 5-year term are repaid out of the savings generated by the improvement. We have used Green Loans to fund roof replacements, boiler repair, and other work that reduces operating costs and saves energy. As of our 40th anniversary year, UNHP has issued 82 Green Loans to affordable housing initiatives in the local community. Working relationships with the Association for Energy Affordability and the Northwest Bronx Community & Clergy Coalition Weatherization Assistance Program have bolstered our ongoing efforts to maintain community-owned Bronx buildings, save energy and preserve affordability.
Within the past few years, UNHP has also implemented efficiency measures and improvements to save on costs and to improve the physical condition of the properties that we oversee, including offering training for front-line building maintenance staff, LED lighting, water-saving toilets, low-flow showerheads, boiler upgrades, and ‘cool’ reflective roofs. Conserving energy and reducing water usage not only have benefits for the environment, but also for the bottom line for multifamily buildings. Keeping operating costs low is critical for affordable housing developers like UNHP because an owner cannot offset increases in costs by raising rents. Whatever money is earned from our properties beyond what is needed for operating costs is reinvested directly back into the buildings.
UNHP’s properties are completely nonprofit-owned, but we also work in partnership with the private sector by employing property managers, hiring private contractors, and building relationships with local businesses. As a result, the economic trends of the private sector also affect our ability to maintain a sustainable operating budget, and escalating energy costs negatively impact our efforts to preserve affordable housing. With natural gas prices rising as a result of international sanctions and post-pandemic demand, electric services in New York City are expected to become much more expensive. At UNHP, we are more aware than ever of the need to implement more sustainable and affordable energy solutions to ensure that we can maintain a balanced budget and continue to serve our community according to our mission.
With that focus in mind, we are poised to build upon our past energy-conserving efforts in 2023 with a new solar panel initiative that will reduce our carbon footprint and provide substantial energy savings to UNHP-managed properties. Because we are committed to using profits to reinvest in our community, these energy savings will then get funneled back into the buildings through overall maintenance and unit upgrades. UNHP staff last looked into the potential of developing solar energy projects for some of our buildings back in 2015, and at the time the payback period on the initial investment was too long to make financial sense. The buildings need a certain amount of cash on hand to cover capital improvements and unanticipated costs, so solar development was simply out of our reach financially. However, through recent changes in government policies and our continued persistence in exploring all available options, we are finally able to make this dream a reality!
The new Inflation Reduction Act, signed into law by President Joe Biden in August 2022, offers an opportunity for tax-exempt nonprofits like UNHP to access tax incentives for green energy. Instead of receiving tax breaks, nonprofits and other non-taxable organizations are offered a direct payment by claiming a refund on their taxes. As a result of this law, the exemption amount was increased from 15-20% to a potential 30-40% per project, and the possibility of solar panel installation has become financially feasible for UNHP’s properties. This new program privileges low-income housing by requiring projects implemented with these incentives to include buildings where the tenants are low-income, the community is low-income, and the construction materials are purchased domestically. According to this set of criteria, UNHP is a perfect candidate to receive and utilize these funds.
Additional government funding for UNHP’s solar project will come from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA). NYSERDA’s Affordable Solar and Storage Predevelopment and Technical Assistance program aim to address resource gaps and solve market barriers preventing the development of solar and energy storage installations benefitting low-to-moderate income households. Support for projects targeted at these households can reach up to $200,000 for assistance with the predevelopment and planning process, which will greatly alleviate the financial burden of solar installation for UNHP. At the city level, we will also be utilizing the Solar Electric Generating Systems Tax Abatement program to fund this solar project. We do not pay real estate taxes on the residential units of our buildings as part of an existing regulatory agreement, but we do pay property tax on commercial units. The solar tax credit from New York City, which is offered to buildings implementing solar, will reduce the property tax expense on those commercial stores, making solar installation a more financially viable option.
These new city, state, and federal programs have made our solar initiative affordable for our properties and will help us address concerns about electric costs and sustainability. UNHP will work to install solar panels in three multifamily affordable housing projects comprised of 7 buildings - Reclaim Round II HDFC, The Wilton HDFC, 793-87 Garden Street HDFC - located in the Crotona, Morris Heights, and Mt Hope Bronx neighborhoods. UNHP has engaged an experienced consultant, Rob Crauderueff of Crauderueff Solar, who has worked with other nonprofits to access government programs and utilize solar technology. Crauderueff Solar has a specialized community solar program for affordable housing providers, taking into account the sector’s distinct building stock and ownership structure. Crauderueff Solar will facilitate the process of installing the solar panels, survey existing roof capability, and develop a work scope and financial estimate for the installation. These three projects consist of seven buildings that provide decent, affordable homes to 399 low-income families and individuals. The solar panels will generate enough electricity to power 95% of the electricity needs in the superintendent units and public areas such as the hallways, the laundry room, and community rooms. By retrofitting older multifamily buildings with modern energy sources and reducing operating costs for the nonprofit-owned properties, the projects’ CO2 emissions will decrease and more money can be reinvested into the building and apartments.
UNHP is grateful for the policy and program changes that allow projects like ours, which have low rents and high operating costs, to make this type of green improvement. Affordable housing projects are often excluded from the development of major green initiatives due to high-cost barriers and the constant struggle to operate on a tight budget. These new programs allow us to reduce our carbon footprint in the properties that we manage and to introduce higher degrees of fiscal sustainability in our work to create and preserve affordable housing for low-income families in the Bronx. As a mission-driven developer, UNHP is committed to keeping households in place despite fluctuating markets and rising operating costs. We will continue to use the programs available to maintain affordability, alleviate burdens on the electric grid, and play our part in creating a greener NYC in the years and decades to come.