Epic Homes: It’s not about the houses, it’s about the people living in the houses.
Tens of thousands of low-to-moderate-income families in Fort Collins live in energy inefficient housing that perpetuate health and economic disparities. The solution, “Epic Homes”, is an integrated, scalable public-private partnership model to “find, finance, and fix” energy inefficient rental properties and document health and well-being impacts. Epic Homes leverages private capital to offer simple and attractive financing for energy upgrades to achieve social and environmental outcomes.
The Problem: Over 46,000 low-to-moderate-income (LMI) residents of Fort Collins live in energy inefficient, rented housing that is harmful to their family welfare, and which contributes to critical socioeconomic disparities in the community.
The Innovation: entitled Epic Homes, is designed to “find, finance, and fix” thousands of energy inefficient properties, benefiting low-to-moderate-income households who rent, while rigorously collecting data to document indoor environmental quality (IEQ), health and well-being indicators. Fort Collins is joining forces with private companies, universities, homeowners and other stakeholders to implement a scalable approach to renovate low-to- moderate-income rental properties, so they are more energy efficient, affordable and healthy. Organisers will demonstrate measurable improvements in health, productivity and quality of life indicators for residents, while also creating other important co-benefits, including new jobs and businesses, private sector investment and lower carbon emissions. In collaboration with the Colorado Energy Office, Colorado State University, efficiency contractors, banks, property owners and tenants, they want to change how people think about energy efficiency in rental housing, and its intersection with health, well-being and equity.
Goals of the Innovation (through 2021):
• Upgraded 360 rental properties (home to at least 230 LMI families), out of 2,000 overall upgraded homes
• Document indicators of home performance and indoor environmental quality that are likely associated with improved health
and well-being for 80 homes
• Savings from 15% reduced energy use and lower utility bills will be available for other family priorities
• 70% of rental property owners will report financing is not a barrier to energy efficiency upgrades
Who benefits from Epic Homes?: Fort Collins are creating multiple benefit streams for a diverse group of stakeholders, including:
- For LMI families (with more efficient, safe and comfortable homes)
- For property owners (improving asset value – their rental property – making their properties more attractive to prospective
renters and reducing tenant turnover, thereby increasing operating income)
- For the City (improved community equity, increased housing stability, reduced energy consumption and carbon emissions, job
and investment creation and documented health and well-being impacts for residents and LMI renters)
- For energy efficiency contractors and partnering businesses (ready customers and embedded project finance via the “on-bill”
option offered by Epic Homes)
How is the innovation envisioned for the future?: From the beginning Fort Collins designed the Epic Homes program for scale and potential replication to other cities in Colorado and across the United States. Toward that end, organisers are working with the State of Colorado Energy Office and the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) to create strategies, tools and methodologies to help other communities and municipal utilities replicate and incorporate approaches they are pioneering with Epic Homes. Also, in 2018 Epic Homes was selected as a Grand Champion of the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge, a national municipal innovation competition between more than 320 American cities. As part of that award, Fort Collins received $1.1M in prototyping and prize monies and technical support and engagement for three years with Bloomberg Philanthropies. At present, they are raising approximately $7.5M of private-sector capital for the on-bill financing component of Epic Homes, and they estimate that the loan fund may eventually reach approximately $16M, which would allow the funding to become an “evergreen” (self-sustaining) capital stack to support future demand for energy efficiency upgrading of single-family and small multi-family homes in perpetuity.
How their course of action was influenced: Data, evidence and prototyping with LMI families and other stakeholders convinced them that upgrading the energy efficiency of housing could address a host of interrelated community problems, including:
• Poor housing and indoor air quality exacerbate health and well-being disparities;
• A high percentage of low-to-moderate-income residents live in poor-quality rental properties;
• Research shows even modest improvements in indoor air quality can have significant, positive impacts on health outcomes in
areas with relatively cleaner air (e.g. most of the U.S.A, not so much severely polluted cities like Beijing or New Delhi);
• Reduced energy use and lowered utility bills from energy efficiency upgrading is well documented;
• Traditionally, neither rental property owners nor renters have an incentive to invest in efficiency upgrades;
• This sub-optimal outcome is often referred to as the ubiquitous “split incentive”, which Epic Homes helps to narrow;
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
The Epic Homes approach is innovative for a number of reasons, including: 1) a unique public-private on-bill financing structure that leverages the deep borrowing power of local government to benefit residents with attractive, easy financing; 2) committed engagement between government experts and private businesses that ensures high quality outcomes; 3) collaboration with University partners to rigorously collect data and document potential benefits; and 4) builds on a decade of residential efficiency program experience and success.
That said, at its core we believe the Epic Homes approach is ground-breaking because it successfully reframes the conversation away from complex technical topics, such as “energy efficiency” and “building performance”, into more resonate themes of “equity”, “health” and “well-being” that broadly connect with residents at an intrinsic, emotional level; hence the program tagline “It’s not about the houses, it’s about the people living in the houses”.
What is the current status of your innovation?
As of this submission, we're actively implementing the Epic Homes program and have supported the energy efficiency upgrading of several hundred area homes and rental properties. Since July 2018, we've raised approximately $5M in external financing to support the program's on-bill loan fund, including debt capital from large banks, grant monies from the State of Colorado Energy Office, Utility reserve funds and prize money from winning the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge. Recently, the project team also provided feedback to U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley's staff regarding new legislation to extend on-bill financing and related Epic program elements nationally via U.S. State Energy Offices. As of submitting, organisers were also shortly anticipating the formal launch of the Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ) study with Colorado State University, where they hope to document the potential health and wellbeing benefits of the Epic Homes program, particularly for low and moderate income families who rent.
Collaborations & Partnerships
Fort Collins engaged a broad range of civil society organizations ,universities and other stakeholders in an “idea accelerator” workshop to refine the innovation. They conducted 1X1 interviews with LMI families and worked with rental property owners, banks, hedge funds and impact investors. They investigated: 1) owner willingness to upgrade rental properties; 2) the ability to raise the adequate capital; 3) the interest of LMI families in the potential health and well-being benefits of energy efficient homes.
Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries
Organisers expect the following benefit streams:
• Fewer doctor visits related to poor indoor environmental quality (IEQ)
• Reduced stress
• Improved comfort and productivity
• Reduced utility bills
• Fewer school/workdays missed due to poor IEQ
• Reduced housing instability
• Reduced energy use & carbon emissions
City and Companies
• 17 new jobs created for every $1M invested in energy efficiency
• New businesses started or expanded
• Improved property values for upgraded rentals
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
Results to date include:
• Over 480 homes completed energy efficiency upgrades in 2019;
• More than $7M in capital raised or in process for Epic Homes on-bill loan fund;
• Innovative IEQ study of rental properties developed with Colorado State University using a mix of specialty and “off the shelf”
environmental quality sensors; and
• Increased City focus on equity, health and well-being.
Future outcomes include:
• Annual deployment of $500,000 or more in on-bill loan capital for rental property upgrades by 2021;
• $2M or more in annual on-bill loan capital deployment for all property types (owner-occupied and rental) by 2021;
• New data that demonstrates additional non-energy benefits for renters, property owners and the community from energy
efficiency upgrades of older properties; and
• Replication of Epic Homes approaches in other cities and states.
Challenges and Failures
The most significant challenges have been related to securing long-term debt capital for the Epic Homes on-bill loan program. Absent federally insured mortgage loans, it’s very difficult to borrow from banks in the United States for more than 7 to 10 years. However, for the Epic Homes program, they need to borrow and re-lend long term money (up to 15 years) to make energy efficiency upgrade projects attractive, particularly for rental property owners who organisers have learned are very cash-flow sensitive. Longer loan terms allow Fort Collins to complete more comprehensive upgrades and offer reduced monthly payments.
One notable failure was the negotiation for most of 2019 with a single regional bank to secure 15-year capital, and ultimately, Fort Collins failed to close a deal due to an impasse on loan stipulations. This failure set them back on project deliverables, and they learned that they need to make faster decisions, including knowing when to move on to other opportunities.
Conditions for Success
The conditions for success, from the perspective of local government- which are not typically the most innovative enterprises! – include:
• Organizational culture that understands that innovation and failure are simply two sides of the same coin. You cannot have one without the other;
• Physical co-location of work teams from different departments. This leads to organic discussions (in the hallway or over coffee) that build trust, and which fosters the opportunity to develop true collaboration over time;
• Leaders willing to allow bold plans, who can also delegate to (and not micromanage) the teams that must develop and execute the work;
• Willingness to adopt private sector tools, such as rapid prototyping, in order to bring new ideas to development faster, cheaper and with more authentic engagement with residents and other stakeholders; and
• Commit to focus on ideas that can be scaled. If you can create solutions that help your residents AND others, you have an obligation to do so
Fort Collins is engaged with the Colorado Energy Office (CEO) to help replicate the Epic Homes program in up to four other Colorado communities, in collaboration with the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI). CEO is providing a $200,000 grant and a $800,000 low-interest loan to help capitalize Epic Homes. Fort Collins will compile documents and processes for CEO to create an “On-Bill Financing in a Box” tool for replication. CEO has committed to providing an additional $1M in financing capital to four other cities in Colorado (up to $5M in total). Public health leaders in Johnson County, Iowa have also expressed interest in being among the first to replicate the Epic Homes program in that state. Lastly, technical expertise necessary for Epic Homes also exists in the three other cities in Colorado which jointly produce and deliver electricity in collaboration with Fort Collins, and those cities are the most likely next partners for replication.
1. Create a team that can articulate the VISION behind the idea, and then give potential stakeholders the opportunity to support
the mission to achieve the goals.
2. Tell them the WHY upfront. Organisers found that folks really wanted to understand the motivation behind why it was so important to
"find, finance and fix" energy inefficient rental properties for LMI residents. They needed that before they were willing to
become part of the HOW.
3. Make it about the people. Someone asked singer / songwriter Bruce Springsteen once "Why do you write so many songs about
cars?" He responded, "I don't write about cars, I write about the PEOPLE in the cars". Make your effort about the people first,
and other benefits, second.
Organisers say that they are still learning, experimenting and iterating their Epic Homes model. For them, innovation is most definitely a journey, not a destination.