Another Wall Street Versus Main Street Scam?

The Detail

BY CATHY ANTUNES SRQ DAILY SATURDAY PERSPECTIVES EDITION SATURDAY SEP 23, 2017

A County program that loans money for energy-efficient improvements sounds like a good thing, but is it a scam? The Property Assessed Clean Energy, or PACE, program ordinance comes up a vote before the County Commission next Tuesday. The experience of other U.S. communities shows the PACE program is often a wolf in sheep’s clothing, disrupting lending standards by putting PACE “super liens” on homes, which then make it difficult to sell or refinance.

What is the PACE program? PACE permits private lenders to sell loans to homeowners or businesses for the purpose of adding energy efficient improvements—like windows or roof replacements—to their property. PACE loans are different because they are secured by a property tax lien and are collected through the property tax bill. According to the National Consumer Law Center, “typically PACE loans are first-priority liens that jump ahead of existing mortgages.” NCLC also says “many localities fund the program by issuing bonds linked to homeowner tax payments. These bonds are then sold to a private company that securitizes them and sells them on Wall Street. The local government often receives a fee for participating.”

Homeowners who go to sell their property may find that a PACE loan is an obstacle to the sale.  When there's not enough equity to pay off both the mortgage and the PACE loan in full, the mortgage holder objects to taking a loss by being paid after the PACE lien is satisfied—something they never consented to in the first place. The buyer’s mortgage lender may object to being second in line for payment behind a PACE lien that remains attached to the property.  Without satisfying the mortgage lender(s), the transaction cannot proceed. Ensuing legal hassles have prevented transactions with PACE loans attached from closing.

Other problems with PACE loans include door-to-door and phone solicitations, which can be signed electronically on the spot, with no ban on kickbacks or rules for broker compensation to avoid conflicts of interest. There may be no assessment of the property owner’s income or ability to pay & no right to cancel. Low income consumers who quality for lower-cost programs may be signed up. PACE loans typically charge 8-9 percent interest, plus a fee, which can add thousand of dollars per year to the property tax bill for 5, 10 or even 20 years, with no required energy audit and concrete evidence of savings.

The County staff memo on PACE recommends strong consumer protections, but the proposed ordinance fails to protect property owners from the fundamental problem: PACE liens taking priority over mortgage loans. The ordinance states: “the risks associated with participating in the PACE program shall be clearly disclosed… including the risks related to the failure of the eligible Participant to make payments, the risk that they may not be able to refinance the home or sell the home unless the PACE assessment is paid off in full first.” So much for strong consumer protection.

The National Consumer Law Center warns: “PACE has few consumer protections. Expensive loans that are often pushed by aggressive contractors for projects with questionable savings pose serious risks of predatory lending. Reports are already surfacing of problems that mimic the home equity scams and subprime abuses of the 1990s and 2000s.” Sarasota County must not act as a conduit for loans with put their constituents property at risk through Wall Street’s latest real estate security game. 

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