Guest Opinions

Are homebuilders so powerful that legislators will abandon their constituents and principles?

Idaho State Capitol.
Idaho State Capitol.

Two sacred conservative principles are:

▪  Governments closest to the people should prevail over those more distant.

▪  Families can spend their money better than government can.

On March 2, the Idaho House of Representatives advanced a bill that violates both principles. H547 prevents local jurisdictions from adopting safety or energy cost-saving building codes that are stronger than the outdated state building codes, and it would result in wasteful, unnecessarily high energy bills for homebuyers. The long-term homeowner implications are terrible.

The powerful Building Contractor Association of Southwestern Idaho (BCASWI) paid lobbyists to help draft H547 after Boise joined other Idaho cities by adopting the most recent update (2015) of America’s Model Energy Code (the IECC), bringing savings to their residents when the state failed to act. Now, the Legislature wants to undo this progress.

The bill’s support comes almost exclusively from BCASWI, and it’s based on several myths that fall apart under the slightest scrutiny:

Myth 1: Imagine the chaos if local governments adopt stronger energy codes. Allowing local jurisdictions to engage in a “race to the top” for safer, more efficient homes is not chaotic – it’s what homeowners demand. Homes built in both Idaho Falls and Sun Valley already meet stronger energy codes. In fact, stronger energy codes are commonplace in several Western cities and counties.

Myth 2: Stronger codes increase cost. Yes, efficiency has greater upfront costs. But homebuyers appear willing to support those costs to reap lower energy bills – a National Association of Homebuilders poll found that 9 out of 10 Americans will pay 2-3 percent more for homes with permanent efficiency features. And two independent studies show that utility bill savings recoup the added efficiency outlays in an Idaho home in just one year, then add between $4,139 and $5,515 in net savings to the family wallet over their mortgage term. That’s real money redirected to help with tight family budgets, car payments or college funds.

Myth 3: Stronger energy codes price people out of homeownership. If this were true, why are stronger energy efficient codes supported by low-income housing advocates? Their data finds that inability to pay energy bills is the leading reason for foreclosure after loss of income ... not surprising since energy is the highest and most unpredictable cost of home maintenance.

Myth 4: The 2015 IECC (adopted by Idaho Falls and Boise) will add $5,000 - $7,000 to the cost of a new home. Builders give no specifics for this wildly exaggerated claim, but two independent analyses costed out each new requirement and found that the actual incremental cost of the 2015 IECC is:

▪  $1,438-$2,568 (US DOE), and

▪  $1,350-$1,892 (ICF International/Building Code Assistance Project)

The cost variance is due to climate: lower in Boise, Lewiston, Coeur d’Alene, Twin Falls; higher in colder Idaho Falls, Pocatello, Sandpoint.

While I understand that builders don’t want to be told to build more efficient homes, America still imports too much energy from unstable sources and suffers from peak energy demands. And because of more efficient factories, cars and fuels, buildings are now America’s largest energy consumer, using 71 percent of electricity and 54 percent of natural gas.

Idaho legislators shouldn’t allow powerful special-interest opponents of current residential energy codes thwart local efforts to respond to their communities and save their constituents thousands of dollars in energy bills.

William Fay leads the Energy Efficient Codes Coalition, a broad-based national alliance of government; businesses; low-income housing, energy consumer and environmental groups; utilities; regional energy efficiency networks; architects; and insurance. He is a native Idahoan and University of Idaho graduate who worked on the legislative staffs of Idaho Republican Senators James A. McClure and Steve Symms (1978-85).