Column: Finding ways for homeowners to afford hurricane upgrades

Here’s how Pinellas County can best mitigate its exposure to severe storms and rising sea levels at an affordable cost to homeowners.
This boarded-up building on Mexico Beach, which faced Hurricane Michael, and its history of recent hurricanes told on the plywood is a reminder of how important it is to harden homes in Florida. [Douglas R. Clifford  |  Tampa Bay Times file]
This boarded-up building on Mexico Beach, which faced Hurricane Michael, and its history of recent hurricanes told on the plywood is a reminder of how important it is to harden homes in Florida. [Douglas R. Clifford | Tampa Bay Times file]
Published October 23

The citizens I serve in Pinellas County know me as a commissioner who always strives to do what is right. One of the growing concerns I hear from constituents is how can Pinellas County best mitigate our exposure to severe storms and rising sea levels at an affordable cost to homeowners. The National Hurricane Survival Initiative reports that while a large majority of Florida homeowners want to strengthen their homes against hurricanes, too few Floridians can afford available home upgrades via traditional financing options. One solution is a home improvement financing program called Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing.

When a homeowner decides that PACE financing is right for them, a private PACE financing provider covers the total upfront costs of upgrades like new impact-resistant windows, or other approved measures related to wind mitigation, energy efficiency or renewable energy. The homeowner then pays for the improvements over time on their property tax bill. PACE interest rates are fixed, and repayment periods can be as long as 25 years, making PACE an attractive and affordable option for many homeowners.

As of this past summer, more than 50 percent of all Florida homeowners now have access to PACE financing. This milestone means that 10.5 million Floridians can use PACE for storm resilience and energy efficiency improvements to homes and businesses with no upfront cost. Pinellas County currently allows commercial property owners to use PACE financing for these improvements, and our commission is now considering whether to approve this financing as another option for homeowners who choose to make these same types of upgrades to their homes.

During the current debate regarding whether our county should authorize residential PACE, some have raised a concern about whether homeowners applying for PACE financing understand how PACE works and the terms of the financing. This is a concern I take very seriously and it’s why I’m working to ensure that Pinellas County adopts transparent and stringent consumer protections for residential PACE, helping to ensure that Pinellas County homeowners are aware of all the benefits and risks involved with PACE or other consumer-financing options. PACE is a voluntary program, but consumers must be properly educated and informed in order to make good and proper decisions.

For homeowners who do choose to take advantage of PACE, the benefits are numerous. Properties retrofitted with qualifying wind-resistance improvements receive the benefit of reducing the property’s exposure to potential damage from hurricanes and extreme weather. In addition to the increased safety and confidence against severe storm damage to a home, PACE-financed wind resistance improvements may even lead to lower homeowner insurance premiums.

Additionally, properties retrofitted with energy-related improvements receive the benefit of reducing the property’s energy consumption, creating more comfortable homes and the potential of lower utility bills. Florida homeowners are projected to save 41.9 million kilowatt hours of electricity during the lifetime of the measures that have already been installed with PACE. Along with reduced energy use come benefits to our environment and doing our part in making our community more resilient to the impacts of climate change. The improvements completed to date will reduce our carbon footprint by more than 25,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases over the lifetime of the improvements; that’s like taking over five thousand cars off our roads.

Nearly 24,000 Florida homeowners have already taken advantage of PACE for these and other benefits. PACE has been, and will continue to be, a success for homeowners and communities in our state. It’s time to move forward with residential PACE as part of a sustainable future for Pinellas County.

Pat Gerard represents District 2 on the Pinellas County Commission.

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