photo: Sonoma County

In Thursday’s New York Times, I write about how government-chartered mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are derailing an innovative program called Property Assessed Clean Energy. PACE programs finance the installation of solar panels and energy efficiency upgrades and let homeowners repay the loans through a 20-year surcharge on their property tax bills.

SAN FRANCISCO — The Obama administration is devoting $150 million in stimulus money for programs that help homeowners install solar panels and other energy improvements, which they pay for over time on their property tax bills.

At the same time, the two government-chartered agencies that buy and resell most home mortgages are threatening to derail the effort by warning that they might not accept loans for homes that take advantage of the special financing.

The mixed messages have alarmed state officials and prompted many local governments to freeze their programs, which have been hailed as an innovative way to help homeowners afford the retrofitting of a house with solar panels, which can cost $30,000 or more before incentives.

“The thing that is maddening is that this is having a real-life impact with companies laying off people and homeowners in limbo as all these projects are stalled,” said Clifford Rechtschaffen, a special assistant attorney general in California.

Under the financing programs, a local government borrows money through bonds or other means, and then uses it to make loans to homeowners to cover the upfront costs of solar installations or other energy improvements. Each owner repays the loan over 20 years through a special property tax assessment, which stays with the home even if it is sold.

The technique, known as Property Assessed Clean Energy, or PACE, was pioneered by Berkeley, Calif., in 2008, and 22 states have authorized such programs, which are intended to make it easier and cheaper for homeowners to invest in energy efficiency. So far, only a few thousand people have used them.

But the Energy Department wants to promote the programs — and give an economic boost to companies that install energy systems — through the $150 million in stimulus funds, which are intended to help communities cover setup and administrative costs.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government entities that guarantee more than half of the residential mortgages in the United States, have different priorities. They are worried that taxpayers will end up as losers if a homeowner defaults on a mortgage on a home that uses such creative financing. Typically, property taxes must be paid first from any proceeds on a foreclosed home.

In letters sent to mortgage lenders on May 5, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac stated that energy-efficiency liens could not take priority over a mortgage. “The purpose of this industry letter is to remind seller/servicers that an energy-related lien may not be senior to any mortgage delivered to Freddie Mac,” wrote Patricia J. McClung, a Freddie Mac executive.

However, the agencies did not offer guidance to mortgage lenders on how to handle properties that carry the energy liens. Backers of the programs fear that mortgage lenders, who depend on Fannie and Freddie to buy their home loans, will now start demanding that the entire lien be paid off before issuing a new loan.

That is what happened to Deke DeKay of Healdsburg, Calif., when he sold a house in nearby Geyserville in May. Mr. DeKay, who had purchased the foreclosed home as an investment, put in new insulation and heating and cooling systems, financed by $11,000 from Sonoma County’s program.

“We thought this would be an interesting way of upgrading the home’s energy efficiency without adding to the purchase price,” Mr. DeKay said. “Then right before the close of escrow, the bank discovered this stuff Fannie Mae and Freddie Mae put out and refused to approve the loan without the assessment being paid off first.”

Now Mr. DeKay is worried about his own home, which carries a $25,500 lien for a five-kilowatt solar array installed last year. “If we ever want to refinance the house, it will be impossible for us to do that,” he said.

You can read the rest of the story here.