Saving Money Saving Energy: PTEE speaks the language of owners

7 min read

PTEE. Preservation Through Energy Efficiency.

The result of this National Housing & Rehabilitation Association initiative, now in its second year, has been a program that encourages sustainable efficiency in affordable housing. But that is not how PTEE was sold. “We present utility efficiency as an economic imperative and a business opportunity,” states NH&RA Executive Director Thom Amdur. “How can we leverage energy efficiency to increase the residual value of a property, increase cash flow and decrease operating expenses? The word green doesn’t even show up in our literature; this is about dollars and cents.”

PTEE evolved from CEFAH, another acronymic entity that stands for the Council for Energy Friendly Affordable Housing, a working group of some of NH&RA’s most active owners, managers and consultants that emphasizes energy efficiency opportunities. NH&RA initially launched CEFAH to advocate for policy changes that would facilitate affordable housing owners’ ability to retrofit and upgrade their properties for greater energy efficiency and attendant utility cost savings.

Spearheaded by David Abromowitz, an attorney with Goulston & Storrs and Larry Curtis from WinnDevelopment, both of Boston, CEFAH sought to reduce regulatory barriers and unlock existing funding resources that could help finance and implement retrofits in aging affordable housing portfolios. Efforts included a white paper exploring barriers to entry and practical solutions.

This was followed by a legislative initiative to incorporate new tools into the GREEN Act, a major energy efficiency measure introduced in 2006 by Representatives Ed Perlmutter of Colorado and Judy Biggert of Illinois that would, in Perlmutter’s words, “save our country money, and help revitalize our economy by making energy efficiency practices more affordable, accessible and achievable by consumers, businesses and government entities.” While the measure was ultimately reported from the Financial Services Committee, it failed to be voted on by the House and died on the vine.

The financial meltdown brought new challenges and opportunities for CEFAH. The group worked closely with members of Congress and the Administration to shape energy efficiency provisions in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, including expanded funding for the Weatherization Assistance Program and HUD’s Green Retrofit Program.

At that point CEFAH began pivoting towards implementation and regulatory change, working with HUD and the Department of Energy on initiatives and solutions that could be implemented without additional legislative action.

Although many federal, state and local resources have been made available over the past five years, Executive Director Amdur was surprised to find how few affordable housing developers and owners were actually taking advantage of them and making strategic investments in efficiency.

When he asked his members about their activities, he repeatedly heard that they weren’t getting the results they expected or didn’t know how to get started. And the various green-oriented groups were high-minded and earth-friendly, but according to Amdur, “not speaking the language of owners. The message often was directed to architects and engineers, but not decision-makers. The messaging tended to be either too technical or focused on non-economic benefits.   I’d watch their eyes glaze over when I mentioned the word ‘green.’ The message just wasn’t getting out.”

As one member commented, “I want to be on the cutting edge, but not the bleeding edge.”

The NH&RA and CEFAH leaders realized that to make energy efficiency a meaningful proposition, the focus needed to be on transactional analysis and business development. “And we were the right ones to do this,” says Amdur.

At an affordable green building conference in Chicago, he met Mijo Vodopic, a program officer with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation who specialized in housing and community and economic development. After crossing paths at several more events and on efficiency projects, Amdur pitched Vodopic on a different kind of energy efficiency initiative.

NH&RA applied for and received a significant grant to create “Preservation Through Energy Efficiency,” an interdisciplinary curriculum and program targeted at leveraging its own network and relationships with local partners, such as state housing agencies, government entities and entrepreneurial nonprofits, and building new ones with local utilities and other stakeholders in energy efficiency.

An advisory board was formed to oversee and steer administration of the grant, representing industry leaders, nonprofit and private developers, government officials, finance specialists and syndicators, engineers and the utilities world. NH&RA and its partners developed a state-of-the-art curriculum and identified a national roster of potential speakers and local owners who had experience with the successful implementation of energy efficiency measures. The idea was for developers and owners to share their most effective methods with their industry peers.

“The MacArthur Foundation has been an incredible partner,” says Amdur, “bringing the project financial support and a fantastic resource network.

“Our emphasis was always on replicable ‘real deal’ economics,” he explains. The curriculum is data and process-oriented: show the owner successful examples, identify locally available resources, empower with the tools to make data-driven decisions, and educate staff and residents to ensure results. A successful project shows both energy reductions and return on investment.

During 2014, the Preservation Through Energy Efficiency program was presented at four daylong “road shows.” The locations – Philadelphia (April), Denver (July), Minneapolis (September) and Atlanta (October) – were chosen for geographic diversity, perceived need, available local resources, strong partnership possibilities and educational opportunity in markets that had not been saturated. Each chosen market demonstrated strong support from the local housing finance agency, HUD, trade associations and utility companies.

The curriculum mixed national expertise with local examples. Each event was tailored to emphasize local opportunities. For example, while major themes remained consistent, there was a stronger water efficiency emphasis at the Atlanta Road Show. Lunchtime, an afternoon break and a closing reception provided ample opportunities for networking between participants and with local experts.

The intent, which has proven to be highly effective, was to establish an exchange of transactional knowledge and create a social network for attendees and an accumulated repository of wisdom and experience for participants. Each road show was recorded, key lessons written up, and supplemental resources provided via the project’s Content Library and Knowledge Exchange Forum on NH&RA’s website,

Representative of the topics covered were the Philadelphia Road Show’s panel and audience participation sessions: Putting It All in Context: What You

Spend, What You Get; Leveraging Local Programs and Resources: Utility Programs and Other Local Partnerships; Financing Options; Spotlight on Water Management; Operations, Maintenance and Resident Engagement; Assessing Your Portfolio’s Needs: Making Data Driven Decisions; Capturing Your Savings: Right Sizing Your Utility Allowance; and Tying It All Together: Next Steps and Future Opportunities.

Even a quick glance at this list confirms that achieving energy efficiency is not just about installing low-flow valves and more cost-effective light bulbs. It is just as much about engaging residents and staff in a mindset shift and cooperative effort, with built-in incentives for all. Participants learn how to gauge reasonable amortization schedules and payback periods, and what to expect in the way of future government energy resources.

The most gratifying aspect of the PTEE Road Show experience thus far for Amdur is that the owners are taking tangible steps toward retrofit opportunities. “It’s one thing to educate people, but when you see them take action as a result, that’s what we’re looking for. And we feel we’ve only scratched the surface as far as potential attendees.”

Next up is the Indianapolis Road Show on April 9, then another that will be announced soon. Amdur wants to bring in a film crew to make the program available to those who haven’t been able to attend in person.

Overall, he says, “We want to bring past participants together and continue to share the lessons that we’ve learned. In the affordable housing space, utility usage is one of the few operating costs owners can control. So we consider energy efficiency as a hedge against future interest rate escalation, commodity price fluctuations and inflation. We want people to think of good energy management as a strategic investment.”