Burlingame

Newer construction in the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority inventory includes green initiatives such as solar panels on Burlingame roofs. One local couple wants guideline changes that would encourage residents of the older housing stock to retrofit their homes to be more energy efficient.

The APCHA board of directors has agreed to hear a proposal that would incentivize residents to invest in renewable energy.

Lara and Marc Whitley live in employee housing, and are interested in a net-zero conversion in their home, meaning their house would generate as much energy as it consumes. As Lara explained to the APCHA board during public comment last week, the motivation to invest in energy efficiency and renewable energy is hindered by the resale caps placed on deed-restricted homes.

“Here’s the challenge, to have high climate impact it equals a high investment, and that is bumping up against caps on capital improvements, creating a financial barrier to homeowners like us to create a net-zero home,” she said.

Most of APCHA’s ownership stock restricts the maximum sale price as the original purchase price, plus a simple appreciation of the consumer price index over the course of ownership, and capital improvements. However, those capital improvements cannot exceed 10 percent of the purchase price.

“At this point, we want to have a conversation with APCHA to lift the financial barriers to making these investments,” Whitley said.

APCHA restricts the listing price in order to keep homes affordable for the local workforce. The Whitleys are open to using their home as a prototype for retrofitting an employee-housing unit so that APCHA can see in real numbers what it takes to make the conversion to zero emissions.

Their three-bedroom, category-three home could not sell for more than $248,000 if it were added to the inventory today. Whitley, who works for Community Office for Resource Efficiency, a local environmental nonprofit, said she believes the capital improvement cap can be lifted for renewable-energy initiatives without increasing home prices beyond their category.

A combination of local and federal rebates can be used for home assessments, insulation, converting utilities off fossil fuels, and renewable-energy generation such as solar panels.

“We are trying to demonstrate how it’s possible and how to make it pencil out,” Whitley said. “We are trying to demonstrate that anyone can do this.”

Whitley has gathered community support for the retrofit initiative. Bryan Hannegan, president and CEO of Holy Cross Energy, submitted a letter to the APCHA board encouraging them to consider lifting the capital-improvement cap for investments in energy efficiency.

“We recognize that APCHA’s guidelines create a financial barrier to homeowners investing in the solarPV systems needed to become a true net-zero building,” he wrote. “We encourage you to consider changes to those guidelines that enable this option for those you serve, both now and in the future.”

Lara and Marc have lived in their home for 19 years. In those two decades they have reached their 10 percent capital improvement allotment through other energy-efficient upgrades and a small remodel.

“The challenge is that once you go through that then you’re on your own,” Lara Whitley said.

The cost of going net zero is in the thousands of dollars even with rebates, and she worries that it’s enough of a cost burden to discourage residents to make the switch, knowing when they go to sell the house those improvements won’t necessarily be counted toward the asking price.

“There are ways to make it work, but the only way possible to make it work is to lower the financial barrier so people will see it as a possibility,” she said.

APCHA board chair John Ward agreed to place the capital improvement discussion on the agenda in January. Board member Rachel Richards suggested that Whitley take current rules on capital improvement into consideration and account for things like depreciation and useful life of the retrofit equipment.

“I do appreciate your presentation and the undertaking you are proposing,” Richards said. “Really keep in mind the precedent factor.”

Whitley is currently getting bids on converting her furnace to an electric heat pump, and a solar array for her roof. She will have those specifics prepared for the January meeting.

“We would like to have all the options on the table for an open discussion on how this could work,” she said. “Not just for one family, but it’s really important for us that this be a showcase for others.”

As the city and county have added to APCHA’s holdings recently, new construction has included solar panels, in the case of Burlingame, and a net-zero buildout in the case of the Basalt Vista complex.

Whitley said if the more than 1,000 deed-restricted homes that were not built with contemporary energy efficiencies were all able to upgrade, it could make an impact.

“The only way we are going to solve the climate crisis is through scale. Individual action, while it’s important, doesn't make a big enough dent,” Whitley said. “But if we are all in, doing as much as we can, then we are looking a whole lot better.”

Alycin Bektesh is a reporter for the Aspen Daily News. She can be reached at Alycin@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @alycinwonder.