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Cleveland ties tax break to green building

Marc Lefkowitz  |  04/26/11 @ 10:41am

Cincinnati and now Cleveland are among a handful of U.S. cities connecting tax abatements to green building. Last year, Cleveland changed its policy on residential tax abatement-new or rehabilitated homes must earn LEED-Silver, Enterprise Green Communities or HBA's green building standard to earn the city's 100% 15-year property tax abatement.

Dozens of cities, for years, have offered incentives and rebates for market rate or flat out required government buildings to meet LEED or more localized green building standards. Few match Cleveland's 100% tax abatement.

Cleveland's policy went into effect in 2009 for projects that receive direct monetary assistance from the city, and in 2010, applied to all residential projects, including new, market rate and major rehabilitated homes.

It is already having an impact. Of the 929 housing units that received tax abatements from Cleveland in 2010, 338 met the new green building standard (the ones that didn't, like Battery Park, were already in the pipeline and so were grandfathered in).

"It's changing things," says Michael McBride with the city's Housing Development Office, "even in this really slow building economy."

It helps that many items which developers can purchase to earn 'points' ? CFLs, low-flow water fixtures, and low-VOC paints-are now readily available in stores, McBride says.

Cleveland added a requirement that homes match the 2006 International Energy Conservation Code; they expect homes to score at least 100* on a HERS rating (a pre-construction rating of a home's energy efficiency).

"The reason for that change is to close a 'loophole,'" McBride explains. "You could walk away without doing any insulation and still get certification."

Enterprise Green Communities, one of the more popular of the three rating systems, goes beyond building science to raise the bar on compact development. With a six-unit-per-acre requirement, the McMansions built on Chester Avenue in the 1990s would be impossible, McBride says.

"They're trying to promote smart growth and reusing infrastructure, but it could potentially become an issue with us being a shrinking city."

Cleveland's policy is a step in the right direction. It reflects a maturity for green building that City Hall feels comfortable tying tax abatements to a third-party-verified energy performance system. Back in 2007, city council opposed this very issue. A debate ensued, but tax abatements were renewed without it (proponents such as the Office of Sustainability did manage to win a promise, which led to the 2010 policy).

*By comparison, EnergyStar requires that homes earn an 85 HERS rating (or 15% better than 2006 code). Northeast Ohio's climate action plan for buildings, prepared by GreenCityBlueLake Institute, has set a target of a 50 HERS rating for all new and rehabbed homes in order to level off our carbon emissions and keep them on a stabilization curve. The PNC SmartHome, a passive house being built at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, will have a HERS rating of 20 (at an estimated premium of 10-20% and payback of under 10 years and that's before adding any PV or solar thermal).

See the city of Cleveland's green tax abatement policy and project checklist.

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