Fannie Mae Has It Right on PACE

A decision by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to say no to a White House-backed solar energy program has a lot of people in California pretty upset. As much as I like solar power, I have to agree the regulators got this one right.

San Diego County Supervisors Pam Slater-Price and Dianne Jacob pleaded with President Obama and the region’s congressional delegation to save the program and called the Federal Housing Finance Agency’s statement on the matter “insulting.” Gov. Schwarzenegger was disappointed. California Sen. Barbara Boxer, NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg and many others deluged the administration with letters.

The solar-financing  program, known as “property assessed clean energy program” or PACE would have allowed homeowners in 13 San Diego County cities and unincorporated areas to write off the high up-front cost of solar panels — typically $25,000 or more — over 20 years.

The nascent program was dealt a major setback last week when the federal regulator overseeing Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae said that the federal mortgage giants will not buy or sell mortgages on homes enrolled in the program.

The Federal Housing Finance Agency said in a statement Tuesday that the liens created by the PACE program were senior to existing mortgages. FHFA said first liens “present significant risk to lenders .. and are not essential for successful programs to spur energy conservation.”

The second part of the statement is the one Jacob and Slater-Price found insulting. The first part of the statement — that first liens present significant risks — happens to be true.

San Diego County’s program was administered through the CaliforniaFIRST program. Here’s a sample Pace Agreement.

Homeowners who sign up for CaliforniaFIRST have a “contractual assessment lien” placed on each participating property covering the cost of installation plus interest.

A $25,000 solar panel retrofit would wind up costing $40,000 at 5% over 20 years. Assuming you pay $100 a month in electricity like I do, you wouldn’t save enough power to make it worthwhile.

The lien would be paid through property taxes, and liens would be bundled together and sold to investors as bonds. Communities often issue special tax assessments to cover the cost of infrastructure repairs or improvements, but PACE assessments uniquely cover improvements to a single residence.

For would-be buyers, a problem is that the lien follows the house, not the owner. It would have remained on the property even if the owner sold it.

But the real problem lies in the liens’ “super senior” status, which means it takes precedence over all other debts, including mortgages. So you could lose your house if you can’t or won’t pay. Take a look at this clause in the CaliforniaFIRST agreement.

The Property Owner acknowledges that if any Assessment installment is not paid when due, the Authority has the right to have the delinquent installment and its associated penalties and interest stripped off the secured property tax roll and immediately enforced through a judicial foreclosure action that could result in a sale of the Property for the payment of the delinquent installments, associated penalties and interest, and all costs of suit, including attorneys’ fees.  The Property Owner acknowledges that, if bonds are sold to finance the Improvements, the Authority may obligate itself, through a covenant with the owners of the bonds, to exercise its foreclosure rights with respect to delinquent Assessment installments under specified circumstances.

Another of the FHLA’s concerns that hasn’t gotten much attention bears noting. Homeowners who can’t afford solar panel will now become targets for shady lenders in a repeat of the whole interest-only mortgage debacle that helped fuel the housing bubble. I’m not saying that PACE will create another housing bubble, but do we really need to be adding to personal debt levels right now, especially for people struggling at the margins?

I’d love to end the burning of fossil fuels and dependence on foreign oil too. Increasing debt burdens to pay for it isn’t the way to go about it.

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