State agencies have not always been a friend to green buildings. There are outdated building codes, unpredictable defunding schemes, and of course garden variety bureaucratic inertia. But out of the ashes has risen a dark horse, an unlikely but stalwart advocate for healthy and high performing buildings: the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Authority (PHFA).
What exactly does the PHFA do? It administers the Federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program, devised by lawmakers to channel more investment into affordable housing projects. Essentially, the program sets up a trade-off. The local housing authority (in this case the PHFA) gives investors a break on their income tax payments in exchange for their investment in an affordable housing project. The increased capital allows some units to be rented below-market rates or reserved for section 8 housing vouchers. This program is federally mandated and requires only dedicated administration at the state level.
So how has the PHFA upped the affordable housing game?
When selecting which projects receive funding, the PHFA has developed some innovative evaluation metrics. To be awarded, a project must achieve a minimum of 85 of the total 150 available points from the rubric below:
- Community and Economic Impact (30 points)
- Development Characteristics (25 points)
- Resident Population and Services (55 points)
- Development Process (30 points)
- Development Cost Savings (10 points)
As of 2016, the PHFA has included some of the building community’s best practices in its Development Characteristics evaluations. It’s a veritable laundry list of 3rd party standards and sustainable building practices, which, it should be noted, go far beyond what is currently required by law. The breakdown:
- Smart Site Selection (10 points)
- Locating on a brownfield, residential infill, or adaptive reuse of an existing building
- Certification by a Green Building Program (10 points)
- Enterprise Green Communities
- LEED (Silver)
- National Green Building Standard (Silver)
- Energy Efficiency Goals
- Reduced HERS index (5 points)
- Meeting Passive House Requirements (10 points)
And just like that, PHFA incentivized Passive House, one of the most rigorous building standards in the world. This move is particularly important because Western Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh have one of largest energy burdens for low-income households in the United States. That means that families who are already struggling to pay their monthly bills are paying a large proportion of their income to energy bills. A 2016 ACEEE report confirms what many of us intuitively know to be true: Pittsburgh is filled with lots of old, leaky, uninsulated homes, and those who can least afford to are paying the highest energy bills per square foot. PHFA’s incentives are part of the solution to this problem – incentivizing development that locks housing into the lowest energy bill possible for the life of the building. Building to Passive House creates sustainability for occupants in the truest sense of the word.
So, thank you PHFA! We appreciate that you are pushing the market towards financial and environmental sustainability. We see how you are planting the seeds of sustainable building methods around the state. And we celebrate the real impact you are creating in bringing healthy and high performing buildings to all Pennsylvanians. PHFA, champion of systemic solutions to societies’ greatest ills, we salute you.
For a more detailed look at PHFA’s plans for the future, check out their allocation plan.