The negative impacts of ‘stretch codes’
Let's not give rich towns more power to limit affordable housing
Unfortunately, good intentions are not immune from unintended consequences. Case in point, Gov. Ned Lamont’s bill to introduce stretch codes to Connecticut (House Bill 5008: An Act Concerning the Establishment of High-Performance Green Building Standards For Voluntary Adoption By Municipalities). Governor Lamont’s intention to hold the line on climate change is truly laudable. However, there are ways to achieve better energy efficiency and resiliency that would not harm potential homeowners and small business nor further exacerbate socioeconomic disparities in Connecticut.
Our statutes currently forbid municipalities from adopting codes that differ from those found in the State Building Code. And for good reason, since 1971, Connecticut has benefited from a uniform statewide building code that has brought constantly improving codes and predictability to our code process. As a result, new home construction has never been more resilient nor energy efficient than homes built to current state codes and standards. In fact, homes built to today’s code can be more than twice as energy efficient than the average resale home.
If passed, HB 5008 would require the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) to develop its own unvetted and costly resiliency and energy efficiency codes that would likely far exceed our state code and grant municipalities the authority to voluntarily adopt said codes. Do we want to give DEEP the authority to create stretch code without public scrutiny or balanced voices with varying perspectives?
The current process of adopting codes in Connecticut works extremely well. It should be noted that our statutes already explicitly require our code-making body, the Codes and Standards Committee, to take energy efficiency and resiliency into consideration when adopting our codes. The Codes and Standards Committee is a diverse group of professionals appointed by the Commissioner of the Department of Administrative Services. All of the committee members are codes experts with at least 10 years of practical professional experience within their respective fields.
These code experts include energy efficiency experts, architects, engineers, commercial and residential builders, building officials, local fire marshals, building trade unions, public health officials, ADA experts and plumbing and heating professionals. HB 5008 would take the code making process out of the hands of a diverse volunteer, citizen board of code experts and place the development of the stretch code within the DEEP bureaucracy, which is singularly focused and will not likely take into account construction cost or impacts on housing affordability in communities that adopt them.
If passed, HB 5008 will set a bad precedent and lead to unintended consequences — not the least of which, stretch codes will make it harder to build affordably in towns that adopt them. We need look no further than to our neighbors to the north for a cautionary tale. Early adopters of the Massachusetts 2010 stretch codes were more affluent shoreline communities and posh Boston suburbs. Whether intentional or not, these new codes had the effect of keeping affordable housing at bay.
HB 5008 will give wealthier communities in Connecticut yet another tool to circumvent their affordable housing responsibilities under the guise of embracing energy efficiency. Passage of HB 5008 would be in direct contradiction to the stated goal of our state leaders and policymakers to expand affordable housing, especially in communities that heretofore have been reluctant to do their part. Decades of antiquated land use policies and regulations have already caused Connecticut to be one of the most racially and economically separated states in the country. The imposition of stretch codes will only serve to further exacerbate these fair housing issues.
There are better ways to encourage increased energy efficiency in our homes. Greatest gains can be made by bringing existing housing stock up to existing code by further incentivizing the retrofitting and remodeling of existing homes which, as mentioned earlier, can be on average less than half as energy efficient as home built to current code standards. In addition, the state could provide modest tax incentives to new homebuyers that purchase new homes with energy efficient standards beyond what is required in existing code. This approach would alter consumer habits, thereby increasing demand and incentivizing the market to produce more energy efficient homes.
In the end, a modest state tax credit targeting purchasers of new energy efficient homes would more than pay for itself in the economic activity it would create and the new property, sales and income taxes it would generate. A tax credit would achieve better results without the heavy hand of government mandating a stretch code adoption that would potentially price thousands of potential households out of the market where stretch codes are adopted.
The hallmark of good public policy is not just policy that minimizes negative consequences but rather provides multiple socioeconomic benefits. HB 5008 does not strike a proper balance and should be set aside in favor of a more business and consumer friendly solutions that encourage responsible growth and socioeconomic diversity in all Connecticut cities and towns.
Jim Perras is the Chief Executive Officer of the Home Builders & Remodelers Association of Connecticut.
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