Housing: The Next Generation / Energizing Money

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For low-income tenants and co-op owners, affordable housing can quickly become unaffordable when the utility bills come in. In the five years following Governor George Pataki’s push to deregulate the state’s electricity industry in 1996, power bills across the state have jumped by about 40 percent.

To boost the state’s energy conservation efforts, the state Public Service Commission agreed to commit $150 million a year over five years for the New York State Energy Development Authority (NYSERDA) to upgrade power-guzzling appliances and electricity systems in low-income homes and apartment buildings across the state.

In New York City, the New York Energy Smart program is focusing in large part on multifamily buildings, for which NYSERDA received $68.3 million to spend by 2006. So far, the Assisted Multi-Family Program has helped owners of 82,000 apartments and condos–about half of them in the five boroughs–move toward making changes like converting from electric to gas heating and replacing old refrigerators. These energy conservation efforts save a household about $520 a year, according to NYSERDA estimates.

But the work is far from over. Another 1 million homes that qualify for the state program still need some kind of overhaul, estimates Sean Neill of Hamilton, Rabinovitz & Alschuler, Inc., the firm that’s administering the program with NYSERDA.

The strategy for upgrading these properties is twofold: Get the word out, and then convince property owners that, while they need to make a financial investment in conservation upfront, the upgrades could give them more money in the bank later on.

To qualify for assistance from NYSERDA, an apartment building must have at least four apartments, and each household must earn less than 80 percent of the area’s median income ($47,808 for a family of four). The buildings also must already receive some form of public subsidy, like tax credits or federal Section 8 vouchers, and be a customer of one of the state’s six investor-owned utilities, like Con Edison.

Then it is up to the property owner to make the initial investment. To be sure owners are committed, NYSERDA requires a deposit of up to $3,000 before engineers are sent in to audit a building’s heating system, appliances and light fixtures. Based on this review, HR&A makes a cost estimate and suggests a package of funding sources that the landlords can look to for financial assistance.

Upgrade costs can reach as much as $4,000 per apartment, but funding help is available. Landlords can put some of the state and federal subsidies they already receive toward the cost. NYSERDA also helps connect property owners to financial lenders who offer low interest rates for energy upgrades. Under this program, participating lenders–like the New York Energy Smart Loan Fund and the Multifamily Low Income Housing Fund–have agreed to reduce interest rates on loans of up to $500,000 by 4.5 percent. NYSERDA pays the bank or credit union the difference. Last year, NYSERDA helped arrange $10 million in loans. And in extreme situations, if owners are still coming up short, NYSERDA will provide grants.

Co-Op City, the 35-building complex in the Bronx, hopes it can make NYSERDA’s proposed conservation package work. The upgrade–which would include a more energy-efficient elevator system and indoor lighting fixtures that dim after 20 minutes–could save the development an estimated $3 million a year.

“Hopefully, aesthetically it will be an improvement, as well as save money,” says Crissa Skarimbas of Marion Scott Real Estate Inc., managing company for Co-op City.