Affordable housing, solar power and community wi-fi: It’s not a combination that the Workforce Housing Group, an affordable housing organization in New York City, had necessarily envisioned for its portfolio of buildings across the Brooklyn neighborhoods of East New York, Crown Heights and Bedford Stuyvesant.
Yet it came together when John Crotty, founding member of the Workforce Housing Group, considered the community benefits that might come from money saved through solar, honed in on the importance of accessible internet, and found the right partners to make the combination work. Using first-of-its-kind financing from the New York Green Bank, Workforce Housing Group will soon install solar panels on 18 of its Brooklyn buildings, with savings from solar generation going toward free broadband access for residents across 22 buildings.
“We were trying to do something bold and innovative,” Crotty says of the project.
This cost-effective solar project on an affordable housing portfolio, and the community benefits that will come from it, would be unheard of just five years ago due to the cost, according to Noah Ginsburg, director of nonprofit Solar One’s Here Comes Solar program. The organization, which partners with affordable housing providers, property owners and community groups to support solar projects, worked with Workforce Housing Group on this plan.
“For a long time the challenge has been how can we make this relatively expensive new technology available and cost effective for affordable housing?” says Ginsburg. Historically, the solar industry was able to cost-effectively serve single-family homes and large commercial and industrial projects, not mid-size affordable housing buildings.
But the declining costs of solar technology and a new incentive through the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority increased opportunities for affordable housing owners. “We’re seeing new companies emerging, or finance companies that serve the large and the small market, moving into this space,” Ginsburg says.
In early 2019, Workforce Housing Group hired Here Comes Solar to conduct a feasibility assessment of 22 Brooklyn buildings. “18 of the buildings were good candidates for solar, and we presented them options for a more modest approach or a more ambitious approach,” Ginsburg says. “They wanted to do an ambitious approach, they wanted to get as much solar on the rooftops as they could.”
“They came back with a real plan to make this thing work,” Crotty says. “It was very useful to get the financing.”
Financing was the next important component: Workforce Housing Group worked with the New York Green Bank and the New York State Housing Finance Agency to obtain a loan that covers the full upfront cost of the solar installation, with repayments designed to be offset by the expected utility bill savings. Workforce Housing worked further with the New York State Housing Finance Agency to refinance the entire building portfolio to ensure the apartments remain affordable and stabilized for at least the next 35 years.
Meanwhile, investment bank Morgan Stanley often worked with Workforce Housing Group and had an interest in funding a wi-fi network at one of its affordable housing developments. This Brooklyn portfolio was the right fit, with additional savings from solar generation going straight into the network. Morgan Stanley seeded the effort with a grant to cover the upfront costs for wiring a high-speed fiber internet service throughout the 22 buildings.
“If you’re going into a $3,000 a month studio in Manhattan there’s an expectation you’ll have high-speed internet,” says Brandon Gibson, co-founder of Flume, who is providing the internet service. “For folks who live in public housing lower- or middle-income housing, that same expectation is not there.”
Though this plan was finalized before COVID-19 revealed the gaping digital divide, Gibson notes that “COVID has pushed property owners to go a little further in providing necessary utilities, because this really is a utility now.”
Flume will install the fiber network through this summer. The full solar installation should be complete by the end of this year. Starting in 2022, the solar savings will begin offsetting the wi-fi payments. Residents of 240 apartments across the 24 buildings will have free internet access for at least the next four years, says Crotty. Workforce Housing will subsidize the internet costs not covered by solar savings; Crotty hopes to secure an independent sponsor by the end of the four years to ensure the service remains free.
Crotty hopes this unique combination of solar and broadband can serve as a model as solar becomes more realistic for affordable housing owners and developers.
“In the end, this is all brand new and no one really knows how it’ll all work out,” he says of this first effort. “But I think there’s a real model to getting this right.”