There are more than 18 million market-rate and affordable multifamily housing units in the U.S., and one in six American households resides in a multifamily building. Financing energy efficiency, renewable energy, and water conservation projects in multifamily buildings can be challenging as the sector’s diversity, complexity, and unique characteristics create barriers to implementation, but new financing mechanisms and other resources are creating opportunities for building owners.
This primer serves as an introduction to critical issues in energy finance for the multifamily sector. It provides case studies, market data, and other resources to help leaders in the sector take advantage of innovative financing strategies. The primer is part of the Better Buildings Financing Navigator, an online tool that helps public and private sector organizations find financing solutions for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects.
Common Barriers to Energy Financing
Multifamily building owners may have less of an incentive to initiate energy projects in buildings when the resulting savings will accrue to residents or to their grant-making institution rather than the landlord. In addition, owners may not prioritize investment in the long-term energy performance of their properties unless they feel energy projects will attract tenants, increase net operating income, address backlogged capital improvements, or further the organizational mission.
Multifamily building owners (especially in the affordable space) may face restrictions from lenders/investors on their ability to take on additional debt or add a lien against the property.
Multifamily property owners may not be able to easily access whole property data when properties are supported by a combination of owner-paid and tenant-paid utility accounts. Difficulty seeing the whole picture can make the business case for energy upgrades less clear.
Limited staff capacity and/or lack of financing/technical expertise in energy efficiency and renewable energy may prevent multifamily building owners from exploring potential projects.
Many multifamily properties have a range of competing priorities – including maintenance, staff salary, insurance, and other expenses – that all seek funding from capital and operating budgets.
Common Financing Solutions
Multifamily building owners may use debt or loan financing to purchase energy and water efficiency improvements or to pay for the costs of an energy savings performance contract (ESPC). Read more.
Multifamily building owners may use lease financing to directly fund energy and water efficiency improvements or to pay for the costs of an ESPC. Read more.
Performance contracts (sometimes called ESPCs or EPCs) in which an energy service company (ESCO) coordinates installation and maintenance of efficiency improvements in a customer’s facilities and is paid from the associated energy savings, are an option for owners with large projects or multiple smaller projects that could be aggregated under one agreement. Read more.
Multifamily building owners may use a power purchase agreement to buy the electric output from an onsite energy generation system that is installed, owned, and operated by a third-party developer. Read more.
There are a few unique characteristics of the multifamily sector that affect how a building owner may choose to approach financing for energy projects:
Sector makeup: The multifamily sector is generally categorized into market-rate (privately owned with no subsidies) and affordable (government-subsidized and owned by for-profit, non-profit, or public entities). Affordable multifamily properties may face additional financing hurdles due to the complex framework of subsidies, incentives, laws, and regulations that support these properties. Owners of affordable multifamily and smaller market-rate multifamily buildings may have limited capital and staff capacity to internally fund energy projects, making third-party financing (especially cash-flow positive options) attractive. Internal funding may be an option for smaller incremental upgrades such as replacing broken or outdated equipment with modern equipment, but typically more intensive retrofit projects require third-party capital.
Split incentives: In rental housing, the nature of the building owner/resident relationship creates split incentives: the disconnect that exists when the costs and benefits of reducing energy usage fall to different parties. This may create a scenario in which neither the building owner nor the building residents are motivated to pursue sustainability efforts. A building owner may not be inclined to implement a retrofit project if the resulting savings accrue to residents. Conversely, residents may be unwilling to pay for sustainability upgrades when they do not own their property or when savings accrue to the building owner. Another kind of split incentive exists in public housing or some privately-owned federally assisted housing, where, unless the building owner is part of an Energy Performance Contract, savings are retained by the agency (HUD) that subsidizes utility costs of the property. These circumstances can create not only a disincentive for owners/residents to conduct retrofit projects, but they can make it difficult for the owner to finance the project in the first place.
Lender consent: Oftentimes consent from all lienholders is required before additional loans or debt can be taken out on the building, creating an extra hurdle for on-balance sheet (showing up as a liability on a company’s balance sheet) financing options.
Discussion of Applicable Financing Solutions:
Owners of multifamily properties may look to traditional financing options such as leases and loans (not attached to an energy performance contract or shared-savings project) to cover the upfront costs of energy efficiency and renewable energy projects. These financing options are generally simple and quick with minimal contract complexity. However, cost savings are not guaranteed and operation and maintenance of equipment must be arranged by the owner. Most forms of leases and loans are secured, meaning that the debt is backed by some form of collateral (generally the building or energy equipment) in the event of a default. Obtaining consent from existing lenders on the property may be required for these financing options due to the additional debt taken on. Unsecured leases and loans, which are not supported by any type of collateral, are available in some cases but interest rates for these options are typically higher.
HUD offers various programs and resources such as a mortgage insurance premium discount to properties that are retrofitted to a certain standard for market-rate and privately-owned affordable housing. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac also offer loan programs for qualifying multifamily owners that are going through a major capital cycle such as a refinancing (not mid-cycle existing buildings). In addition, Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) and other mission-based lenders are actively funding projects in the multifamily space and may be able to provide assistance in the form of energy audits, education, and overall support during the process.
A number of cities, states, and utilities are supporting financing initiatives and programs that offer services such as free energy audits and basic improvements for the multifamily sector as well. For more information on available opportunities, check with your local municipality, the Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy, and DOE’s Tax Credits, Rebates, & Savings Database.
Energy Savings Performance Contracts (ESPC)*, also referred to as EPCs, are another commonly used solution to implement energy upgrades in multifamily properties (typically market-rate or public housing authorities, but examples in the affordable space exist). Under an ESPC, an energy service company (ESCO) coordinates installation and maintenance of efficiency improvements in a building (or bundle of buildings) and is paid from the associated energy savings. The ESCO typically provides a savings guarantee, and the improvements may be installed with little or no upfront cost (if the ESPC is financed). ESPCs are typically better suited for larger projects ($500k+, and often $5 million+). ESPCs can be self-financed if the building owner has enough cash on hand, or the owner may seek financing from a third-party lender to cover some or all of the upfront cost. The majority of financed ESPCs are backed by an on-balance sheet financing mechanism such as a loan or capital lease, which may require lender consent. Under these structures, the building owner owns the equipment throughout the financing term.
Power Purchase Agreements (PPA) have been used to install renewable energy (typically solar) on multifamily sites. A PPA is an arrangement in which a third-party developer installs, owns, and operates an energy system on a customer’s property. The customer then purchases the system's electric output for a predetermined period. A PPA allows the customer to receive stable and often low-cost electricity with no upfront cost while also enabling the owner of the system to take advantage of tax credits, although these may be difficult to capture in affordable multifamily.
Some multifamily building owners are installing solar using a portfolio level ownership approach. This approach involves setting up a special purpose entity (SPE) to purchase and own solar systems installed on buildings across a portfolio, allowing the building owner to take advantage of tax credits and income from the sale of electricity to its properties. There may be underlying financing solutions (such as loans) and/or incentives involved to support the purchase of equipment.
Other options for financing in the multifamily sector include commercial PACE, on-bill finance/repayment, and performance-backed arrangements such as efficiency-as-a-service. These options have unique attributes that help to overcome certain barriers to financing, but are newer in the market and have had limited uptake in the multifamily sector to date.
Commercial PACE is a financing structure in which building owners borrow money for energy efficiency, renewable energy, or other projects and make repayments via an assessment on their property tax bill. There may be some off-balance sheet benefit to PACE, making the option appealing for owners who would prefer to not take on additional debt. Lender consent may present an issue as PACE loans are typically senior to other liens on the property, and the complexity of PACE deals may be less attractive for some owners. PACE enabling legislation currently exists in 36 states plus D.C. For more information on commercial PACE affordable multifamily, see Commercial PACE for Affordable Housing.
On-bill financing (OBF) and repayment (OBR) are financing options in which a utility or private lender supplies capital to a customer to fund energy efficiency, renewable energy, or other generation projects and is repaid through regular payments on an existing utility bill. The benefits of OBF/OBR include low-to-zero interest rates, simple contract structure, balance-sheet flexibility, and potential for overcoming the split incentive issue in buildings where residents pay utility bills. On-bill financing may also be structured as a tariff, which can be beneficial for the affordable space due to the lack of a loan being involved. However, OBF and OBR are only available in regions where utilities support on-bill programs for multifamily and there has been limited uptake in the financing option thus far.
Performance-backed arrangements such as efficiency-as-a-service require no upfront capital and typically come with a performance guarantee. These options offer third-party ownership of energy equipment and are typically considered off-balance sheet for the customer, which may be appealing to owners who would prefer to not take on additional debt. The managed energy services agreement (MESA), a variation of the traditional energy services agreement (ESA), may be appealing to the multifamily sector as the structure of the agreement allows MESA charges to be passed through to residents. Owners of affordable multifamily may face restrictions on third-party ownership of building equipment.
*By ESPC we mean the broader scope of commercial and government performance-based projects, not specifically federal ESPC projects that have more stringent requirements
State of the Market
Since 2015, Better Buildings Financial Allies have funded $2.3 billion dollars worth of projects in the multifamily sector. While aggregate financing totals for the sector as a whole are difficult to estimate, data for certain financing options does exist. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory reported that public housing spent $342 million on ESPCs in 2014, and PACENation reported that Commercial PACE has funded $56.9 million in the sector. Additionally, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac financed $27.6 billion and $18.7 billion respectively in loans for energy or water improvements in 2017.
JCHA utilized energy performance contract funding to upgrade energy and water equipment, resulting in $5 million savings within first two years and increased comfort for over 1,700 residents.
The Rockford Housing Authority engaged in a $7.5 million Energy Performance Contract to evaluate the conduct a comprehensive energy audit and implement energy efficiency measures at eight of its multifamily properties, reducing energy costs by over $100,000 a year while improving the quality of housing for low-income housing tenants.
The Housing Authority of the City and County of Denver (DHA) completed a traditional energy performance contract that has served as a vehicle for major capital improvements, facility upgrades, and in-unit energy upgrades resulting in $2.6 million in utility savings annually.
NHT reduced operating costs in multi-family buildings by installing solar systems helping them sustain affordable housing costs for low-income families which generates 300,000 kw/year.
Palatka Housing Authority employed Energy Performance Contracting to make quality-of-life improvements that "pay for themselves" through energy and water savings while enhancing the homes of residents.
The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) employed multiple large-scale energy performance contracts (EPC) through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to kick-start investment in energy efficiency and carbon reduction while developing a long-term strategy for energy-smart capital investments. This resulted in increased energy savings of Energy Performance Contracts from 8% to 18%.
Hartford, CT, financed a $1 Million project through Greenworks Lending's Commercial PACE structure to implement energy efficiency, renewable energy, and microgrid improvements for a mixed-use building.
If you are a multifamily leader ready to take the next steps on financing for energy projects, consider doing the following:
- Engage property management to assess the opportunities in your building portfolio that are feasible to implement. Understanding the size and scope of the potential projects will help determine the appropriate financing mechanisms (e.g. whether an ESPC would be appropriate or the size of a loan).
- Understand what internal capital (if any) can be accessed to fund potential projects.
- Assess your building(s) to gain an understanding of which financing options may make sense. Examples may include resident leasing structures, energy data access, ability to take on debt, and lender consent requirements.
- Determine if there are available subsidies, incentives, or city/state/utility programs that could be leveraged to support financing efforts or lower the overall cost. For more information on available opportunities, visit the Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy and DOE’s Tax Credits, Rebates, & Savings Database.
- Consider using the Better Buildings Financing Navigator to explore the range of third-party financing options available and connect directly with Financial Allies who may be able to finance your project.
- Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy
- Energy Efficiency Financing for Low- and Moderate-Income Households: Current State of the Market, Issues, and Opportunities
- Financing Energy Efficiency in the Multi-Family Housing Markets
- Financing Renewables in Multifamily
- SAHLLN Resource Hub
- SAHF EZ Retrofit Tool