2021 | Opinion

Opinion: Montgomery County can reduce building emissions, protect affordable housing

Property owners need funding, guidance for upgrades

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An Aug. 23 Bethesda Beat article, “Legislation intended to improve energy performance in buildings,” highlights the importance of proposed Building Energy Performance Standards legislation (Bill 16-21) in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Montgomery County.

We strongly support the legislation, which tackles one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions — buildings — and follows similar measures in Washington, D.C.

By adopting Building Energy Performance Standards (BEPS) quickly, commercial building owners can invest in their buildings and simultaneously take advantage of time-limited incentives like the federal CARES Act bonus depreciation ending in 2026, in addition to other existing state and county programs.

A few targeted measures can strengthen the county’s BEPS to avoid placing an undue burden on affordable housing owners and renters.

The biggest obstacles for renters achieving the benefits of BEPS are limited access by their building owners to funding, and potentially owners’ inexperience in energy efficiency upgrades. The county can and should address these challenges in the following four ways:

1. Dedicate funds to help underresourced multifamily affordable housing buildings achieve the new targets. This funding could include existing and additional resources from the Montgomery County Green Bank or an expansion of the county’s Housing Initiative Fund.

The Green Bank’s current products include loans, direct debt with flexible terms, and commercial solar power purchase agreements.

2. The county also could create a program similar to the Equitable Emissions Investment Fund proposed in Boston.

Boston’s proposed policy requires an alternative compliance payment for building owners without an approved Hardship Compliance Plan who have not met their emissions targets. Payments to such a fund would be redirected to help fund retrofits for affordable housing.

In exchange for funding, the county can require owners to extend the minimum number of years their buildings will remain affordable.

Technical assistance through planned collaboration with the Building Innovation Hub in D.C. can complement funding and help owners assemble financing and design the most cost-effective retrofit plan for their building.

3. Update the definition of affordable housing to reflect a building’s actual affordability. Since many multifamily buildings in the county have a mix of affordable and market-rate units, the definition should be similar to D.C.’s law, in which “affordable housing” means a multifamily building that includes more than 50 percent of dwelling units rent at levels affordable to households making 80% of area median income or less.

4. Offer additional flexibility to building types that will face particular compliance challenges, such as historic building designations, affordable housing refinancing timelines, and technological constraints due to the age and condition of the property.

5. Add additional affordable housing expertise to the Building Performance Improvement Board by including a non-voting representative of the Montgomery County Department of Housing and Community Affairs and a voting representative of a low-income community.

This summer’s soaring temperatures and extreme rainstorms underscored the growing climate crisis in Montgomery County. The County Council must take action and quickly adopt Building Energy Performance Standards legislation with protections and assistance for affordable-housing owners and residents.

Nedwick is the senior director of sustainability policy for the National Housing Trust. McGilvray is a co-chair of the Takoma Park Mobilization Environment Committee.


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