Allen Bowen, 70, is a retired postal worker living on a fixed income in South L.A., just east of Inglewood city limits. He bought his three-bedroom house 30 years ago for about $180,000 and built the den off the kitchen himself. In it, a painting of Jesus hangs on the wall above a pool table and a small bar.
“Little man cave I call it,” Bowen said with a chuckle while giving a tour on a recent afternoon. One problem with the man cave, however; the roof leaks when it rains. Bowen pointed to a part of the ceiling covered with tarp. “That’s been like that a year now,” he said. He can’t afford to fix it.
Money wasn’t always so tight. Bowen bought this house for all cash, so he didn’t have a mortgage and was doing fine a couple of years ago, when a door-to-door salesman came by selling energy-saving home improvements, like solar panels and low-flow toilets.
Bowen eventually agreed to install solar panels and new, energy-efficient windows. Even though the contractor never explained the full cost and rushed to start work, he says, he felt reassured because he was told that the financing came through a government-backed program.
“This is what he kept pushing,” Bowen said. “I feel like an old fool.”
Bowen had signed up for something called Property Assessed Clean Energy, or PACE. Run by L.A. County, it lets homeowners take out loans for energy-saving home improvements and then pay them back over time by adding the cost to their property taxes. Cities and counties all over the country have PACE programs, including more than 400 in California.
PACE was invented to address one particular challenge in tackling climate change: often, the green choice isn’t the most convenient or most affordable one. However, the sudden availability of relatively easy and plentiful financing has brought unintended consequences.
In recent years, numerous complaints have surfaced about predatory contractors talking homeowners into PACE loans they can’t truly afford. In a situation with echoes of the subprime mortgage crisis, these debts become first priority liens on borrowers’ homes and can lead to foreclosure. In Bowen’s case, his property taxes ballooned from about $2,000 a year to nearly $12,000. Altogether he owes L.A. County almost $52,000 in contractor charges, fees and interest. If he doesn’t pay, the county can foreclose on his house.
When he finally saw his tax bill, Bowen said, “it just blew my mind.”
Now Bowen is one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed in L.A. Superior Court by the legal nonprofits Bet Tzedek and Public Counsel. It accuses L.A. County and the two private lenders it contracts to run its PACE program, Renew Financial and Renovate America, of elder abuse (among other allegations) and seeks class action status.
“There is a much better way to get green energy improvements in Los Angeles County,” said attorney Jenna Miara of Bet Tzedek. “It cannot be on the backs of low-income consumers who end up with these loans that are tied to their home.”
The lawsuit alleges that the way the county designed the program paved the way for predatory lending, because it was set up so loans were based purely on home equity rather than income or anything else reflecting actual ability to pay. That, lawyers allege, lead to unscrupulous contractors targeting elderly homeowners who’d mostly or entirely paid off their homes but lived on limited budgets and talking them into over the top upgrades.
“These are home improvement contractors,” said Miara. “They’re salespeople. And they have every motivation in the world to qualify the homeowner for as much financing as possible.”
Miara and her colleagues estimate there could be thousands of homeowners like Bowen now facing the possibility of foreclosure.
County officials declined to comment, citing a policy of not speaking about pending litigation. The two lenders in the case also declined interviews, although Renovate America provided a statement that read, in part, “Renovate America has administered PACE in accordance with California law and LA County program requirements, and in many cases provided consumer protections that exceed both of those standards. We find no merit in the allegations in the complaint, and we intend to defend PACE, our company and the program.”
Last year state lawmakers put two new laws into effect, requiring the program’s lenders to check incomes and make sure borrowers understand the terms. This week L.A. County’s Board of Supervisors is scheduled to consider a proposal to tighten up the standards for its program even more. Cracking down and requiring borrowers to go through more screening has cut the program’s impact. Since the new state rules took effect, the number of PACE loans in California has plummeted. In addition, according to data provided by Renovate America, most of the drop-off has been among the most qualified buyers – people with high credit scores, who perhaps had less incentive to sign up in the first place.
As for Allen Bowen, he’s not saving money or energy.
“I’m gonna be good on the payments,” he said, “but it’s just taken so much from me.”
He’s had to borrow money from his 92-year-old mother to keep up. Yet, nearly two years after panels were installed on his roof, he’s never had solar power. The contractor never finished the work.