Connecticut Reaffirms Passive Affordable Housing
Passive affordable housing might have been the exception to the rule, except for a relentless outreach campaign initiated by Tim McDonald, principal of Onion Flats. McDonald’s efforts, first in Pennsylvania and gradually in other states, included numerous phone calls and in-person presentations to a slew of state housing finance agencies on the way to successfully making the case for Passive House. At last report, 16 states now include some type of incentive for Passive House in their low income housing finance process.
The Connecticut Housing Financing Authority (CHFA) was one of the earlier state agencies to follow the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency’s lead in incorporating points for Passive House design and construction into its Qualified Allocation Plan (QAP), which defines how the 9% Low-Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) can be earned. The LIHTC application is a point-based system, and competition among developers is fierce for these tax incentives, as they often determine whether an affordable housing project pencils out.
Photo by Caryn B. Davis
When CHFA designated six potential points for Passive House design in its 2016 QAP, developers took note; half of the total applications submitted in the subsequent LITHC round set Passive House as a goal, and ultimately three Passive House projects were approved. In the 2017 LITHC round, three more Passive House projects were approved, and Connecticut seemed poised for further growth in affordable Passive House developments.
Other promising signs of Connecticut’s burgeoning Passive House movement in 2017 included the debut of the newly minted Connecticut Passive House (CTPH), which offers resources, education, and outreach to promote the awareness and adoption of Passive House principles. CTPH, along with other regional Passive House organizations, cosponsored the inaugural New England Passive House Multi-Family conference in early spring 2018 to an at-capacity crowd. The day was filled with dynamic presentations and speakers, including a compelling keynote address delivered by McDonald on affordable passive housing, entitled “Leverage Points.” In his address, McDonald called the adoption of Passive House points in the QAP the embodiment of the phenomena described by Donella Meadows in Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System, “where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything.”
But soon after the widely acknowledged success of the New England multifamily conference, the music stopped in Connecticut, as CTPH board members learned the disappointing news that CHFA was considering a reduction in the number of overall points in the sustainable-design section of the QAP, plus revisions to the text pertaining to Passive House. If adopted, these revisions, would kill off the incentive for developers to pursue this path.
To prevent this potential setback, CTPH, alongside other organizations, including the Connecticut Green Peer-to-Peer network, spurred a multipronged coalition of various stakeholders to express their support for affordable Passive House, either in person at a public hearing or in e-mails and letters submitted to the CHFA staff and board, or both. CTPH’s outreach campaign recognized that the majority of decision makers who approve these tax incentives are individuals with expertise in public policy, banking, and law. They are not design and building professionals with specialized knowledge about sustainability in the built environment, let alone Passive House. Bearing this in mind, an organizational statement was drafted on behalf of CTPH to be delivered at the public hearing with the intention of presenting a narrative that would evoke the broad landscape of benefits to the state delivered by Passive House.
The narrative linked the state’s recent passage of S.B. 7, An Act Concerning Climate Change Planning and Resiliency, and the United Nations’ endorsement of Passive House as the best way to achieve the 2015 Paris Accord targets. The rationale of support was simple. By incentivizing Passive House affordable housing, Connecticut will ensure that buildings contribute to meeting the state’s reduced greenhouse emissions and decarbonization targets: 80% below 2001 levels by 2050.
Evidence for the impact of the growing Passive House community on the states’ clean-energy economy was provided with both quantitative and qualitative data. CTPH has attracted more than 60 members in less than a year and experienced attendance of over 300 participants at informational events, including a recent one that featured case studies of award-winning zero-energy passive homes in Connecticut. To showcase the fact that Passive House activity in the state is established, multiple copies of the Low Carbon Productions publication Passive House Buildings: New England Forges Ahead were distributed at the hearing, bookmarked to the introductory page of Connecticut’s section. This assured the CHFA board that embracing Passive House places Connecticut in good company with its neighbors.
To acknowledge the leadership already on display in the state, CTPH’s statement captured two highlights from the New England multifamily conference: CHFA was hailed at the conference for its visionary embracing of Passive House in its QAP, and Connecticut was the only state from New England invited to present a case study of an affordable Passive House project. To underscore the impact of Passive House on Connecticut ’s clean-energy economy, the fact that the three-member presentation team also happen to live and work in the state was mentioned.
As the final component to make the case for Passive House, CTPH’s statement included a section outlining how Passive House inherently provides a unique constellation of benefits to occupants, developers, and owners. For occupants, quality of life benefits, including healthier indoor air quality and superior indoor comfort, were mentioned. The ability to comfortably shelter in place when power has been lost—a level of resiliency that can bring deep emotional benefits—was also described. Yet another benefit is the confidence that, regardless of how energy prices change, the building would be locked in to the lowest levels of energy use. Since Connecticut has the second-highest electricity rate in the country, this energy security is particularly relevant for affordable housing’s vulnerable populations. Finally, owner benefits, including less maintenance and increased durability of the building, were also mentioned.
The statement delivered by CTPH also included a request for desired action relative to the QAP: Increase the maximum points for sustainable construction in the 2018 QAP from the six allowed in the 2017 QAP to seven, by retaining the additive structure in the 2017 QAP as is and including one additional point to be awarded to the two most cost-effective Passive House projects.
CTPH encouraged other stakeholders to weigh in by drafting a template of turnkey letters that contained a synopsis of the case for Passive House and providing contact information and deadline dates for responses.
The net impact of this multipronged outreach campaign was wildly successful. During the period allotted for public comment, a total of 44 comments were submitted, which in and of itself is noteworthy. Of that pool, a staggering 80% of respondents opposed the reduced incentives for sustainable design, while the support for Passive House was overwhelming. As a result, the CHFA board voted unanimously to adopt a QAP for 2018 that increases the total number of available points for sustainability to seven and preserves the pathway for Passive House as a tool to earn those points.
Alicia Dolce is a Climate Reality Leader and the communications director for Celebration Green Design & Build.