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Boston Community Capital moving into clean energy

Martin Desmarais
Boston Community Capital moving into clean energy
Azzie Young, president and CEO of Mattapan Community Health Center, worked with Boston Community Capital on the project that led to a new health center building in Mattapan.

Boston Community Capital Executive Director DeWitt Jones says that the organization has expanded its efforts over the last 30 years and now offers more than just lending services. It is now involved in other activities such as solar energy development and mortgages.

After nearly 30 years supporting community development through innovative lending and financing schemes, Boston Community Capital is continuing to expand its role in helping nonprofits build and preserve secure housing, schools and community institutions in the Boston area.

“We have grown steadily now over the course of 30 years. We, at this stage, have close to $1 billion that we have invested out, so we are just a whole lot bigger,” said Elyse D. Cherry, chief executive officer of the Dudley Square-based agency. “And because we are bigger we can take a bigger role, we can play a bigger role in particular projects, we can think about things differently. We have also expanded our own set of business lines.”

The company has been involved in a wide range of projects in Boston neighborhoods, including affordable housing, charter schools, community health centers, mixed-income development projects and mixed-use development projects.

Since Boston Community Capital was started in 1985, it has invested approximately $920 million to build or preserve over 14,800 units of affordable housing, support child care facilities serving almost 10,000 children, finance schools and youth programs serving approximately 3,700 low-income students, support health care facilities providing a comprehensive range of care to over 66,000 patients, renovate 1.5 million square feet of commercial real estate and community facilities in distressed communities, create more than 4,000 jobs in low-income communities, generate 9.6 million kilowatt hours of solar energy and provide fixed-rate mortgages that have allowed 425 families facing foreclosure to remain in their homes.

As an organization, Boston Community Capital has expanded its reach into different sectors by developing affiliates that provide different debt and equity services. These include Boston Community Loan Fund, Boston Community Venture Fund, Boston Community Managed Assets, Aura Mortgage Advisors, NSP Residential and Solar Energy Advantage.

Through its lending services, Boston Community Capital typically gets involved at the beginning of projects to help get them off the ground with early financing and also helps develop a strategy to make them successful.

“We are making sure we are directing our resource into places that have been identified as being really important and there is a concerted effort by layers of funding sources to direct investment there to make a big impact,” said Michelle Volpe, Boston Community Capital Loan Fund president. “We are actively looking for projects in those places that fit that criteria, where they have been identified as high-impact projects and have the possibility — because they are projects of a sufficient scale — to have a significant impact.”

Boston Community Capital’s presence can be felt in the Boston community with its involvement in such projects as the currently ongoing development of the Bornstein & Pearl Food Production Center on Quincy Street in Dorchester, the redevelopment work in Jackson Square in Jamaica Plain, the Bartlett Yard Project in Roxbury and the Blessed Sacrament Church project, also in Jamaica Plain.

The company’s work in solar energy is a good example of how it has evolved what it does to help the community.

As Boston Community Capital Executive Vice President DeWitt Jones points out, when the company first started lending money to community development projects three decades ago nobody was talking about the role solar energy could play in the affordable housing picture, but now it is very much part of a menu of options to improve low-income living.

“If you are not thinking about energy-efficient buildings or renewable energy or solar, because you think it doesn’t make sense or it is too expensive, the world is going to pass you by,” Jones said. “So we are really looking at how we can help understand what was happening in those energy markets and how to we integrate what we are learning and what other people are doing in buildings to try to make them better so they are less expensive to operate, healthier to live in and that they are adopting technologies that are going to be ones of the future.”

Jones said that Boston Community Capital’s leaders believe that new technologies such as solar energy can have a real impact on the financial performance of projects and is therefore crucial to consider.

“We saw a lot of solar going out into communities where people could afford to subsidize it themselves or they really cared about environmental stuff, but leaving the communities here behind and we decided we needed to find out how do we understand the benefits and the costs and how do we deliver something that makes it affordable,” Jones said.

Boston Community Capital’s Solar Energy Advantage affiliate was created to do just that and it focuses on evaluating and financing energy conservation and renewable energy improvements to existing multifamily properties and other nonprofit buildings.

“The cheapest way to do solar these days is for someone like us to own the solar panels on your roof and sell you electricity at a fixed price, below market, so that the affordable housing group or homeowner or nonprofit doesn’t have to become the expert in developing the solar energy,” Jones said.

In December, Boston Community Capital announced plans to finance eight solar power projects across Massachusetts in a $7.5 million deal. The new projects will provide enough electricity to power more than 300 homes.

Workers install solar energy panels on the roof of the Greater Boston Food Bank in Roxbury. Boston Community Capital owns the panels and sells electricity to the nonprofit organization at a fixed price that is below market value.

According to numbers from Boston Community Capital, the projects will see electricity savings of 30 percent to 40 percent and will save an estimated $1.3 million over the 20-year lifetime of the solar panels that will be installed.

Part of this work is the second phase of solar development on the Greater Boston Food Bank in Roxbury. Boston Community Capital financed the first phase of energy development as well. Other Boston properties that are part of the new financing are the development at 225 Centre St. that is part of the Jackson Square redevelopment and Cass House, a 41-unit low-income apartment building in Roxbury.

“The partnership between Boston Community Capital and The Greater Boston Food Bank is one we truly value,” said Catherine D’Amato, president and CEO of the organization. “The new panels and Boston Community Capital’s efforts make our 117,000-square- foot distribution facility as energy efficient and environmentally friendly as possible.”

Boston Community Capital also evolved in its work with the community to help combat the mortgage crisis that has seen many homeowners in Boston neighborhoods lose their homes due to the inability to pay mortgages.

Its Stabilizing Urban Neighborhoods Initiative has worked since 2009 to prevent the displacement of families in Boston neighborhoods, such as Roxbury and Dorchester, by acquiring foreclosed properties before evictions occur and reselling them to their existing occupants with mortgages they can afford.

According to Cherry, the initiative has prevented the eviction of about 400 Massachusetts residents and helped homeowners and tenants facing eviction reduce their monthly housing payments by as much as 40 percent.

“We have now done close to $70 million worth of lending and we are still, I think, the only initiative in the country that actually keeps people in default or foreclosure in their homes,” Cherry said. “We have figured out some ways to assess their ability and willingness to repay that makes us quite comfortable and in fact they are paying regularly.

“I sometimes describe the foreclosure situation as a tale of two communities. If you live in a middle-income or upper-income community your house values are probably fine and your levels of foreclosure are probably fine, but if you are in a lower-income urban community you are probably not fine,” she added. “We are still seeing lots of issues here in Massachusetts.”

Considering the evolution of the company since it was started, Boston Community Capital leaders have an eye toward the future to try and anticipate the next issues facing Boston’s underserved communities. Jones points to topics such as the changing ways to provide health care and food shortage problems and even climate change impact as issues to watch.

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