It may be hard to believe, but the greenhouse gas emissions of a typical home are double that of the average vehicle. In fact, the energy use associated with our homes accounts for some 21 percent of our nation’s overall energy consumption. That’s why a commitment to improving energy efficiency in housing must be a continued focus of our nation’s policymakers, particularly as the housing market begins to recover.
How to incentivize the adoption of energy-efficiency measures in existing and newly constructed homes was the subject of a lively panel discussion at the Commission’s public forum in Los Angeles. Led by panel moderator Bryan Howard of the non-profit U.S. Green Building Council, the discussion showcased the many innovative initiatives that are taking place at the federal, state, and local levels.
The critical first step in making our homes more energy efficient and environmentally sustainable is having timely and accurate information about electric, oil, gas, and water use. As Kelly Smith, the Director of Building Analytics at the Boston-based firm WegoWise, put it: “You cannot manage what you don’t measure.” WegoWise has developed a web-based tool to help multifamily property owners collect data on energy use and track the performance of the buildings in their respective portfolios.
The certification of homes as meeting certain energy-efficiency and environmental standards is also an important tool. The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for Homes program, developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, verifies that homes are designed and built to be energy-efficient and healthy for occupants. LEED certification can be applied to single-family and multifamily homes, and covers both market-rate and affordable housing. To date, more than 100,000 housing units have been certified under the program.
Another tool to promote energy efficiency in affordable housing are the State Qualified Allocation Plans for the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit. According to Global Green USA, a leading environmental organization, the LIHTC program and QAPs are “critical drivers in the national adoption of green building criteria in affordable housing design and construction.” Nearly three-quarters of all state housing finance agencies incorporate smart growth principles and energy efficiency standards in their QAPs.
At the federal level, the Green Refinance Plus initiative builds on the Fannie Mae/FHA Risk-Share program by funding energy-efficient retrofits of older affordable multifamily properties. The program allows for lower debt service coverages and higher loan-to-value ratios to generate extra loan proceeds that can be “cashed out” and used for these retrofits. The retrofits, in turn, are based on Green Physical Needs Assessments that provide in-depth energy and water audits and an evaluation of opportunities for environmentally friendly upgrades.
While we have witnessed many significant advances in recent years in improving the environmental sustainability of residential housing, we have only just scratched the surface. Enhancing the energy efficiency of our homes can improve our quality of life, reduce household costs, and enhance our nation’s energy security. As the housing market continues to recover, it will be more important than ever to keep the momentum going.