Opinion: Inside the lobby against tougher homes

by 07 Jul 2016
By Christopher Flavelle

In April, some 1,200 homebuilders, inspectors, architects and engineers gathered in Louisville, Kentucky, to debate the standards that should guide construction of the next wave of U.S. houses. Engineers had a seemingly unobjectionable proposal: Make roofs in coastal areas less likely to fly off in a hurricane.

The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates the shift would increase the cost of a home by less than 1 percent. The measure's sponsor, an engineer at a research group backed by the insurance industry, told me the new standard could usually be met simply by changing the way a roof's components are nailed together.

None of that mattered. The homebuilding industry wouldn't support it.

"Roofing costs in high-wind regions would increase significantly," the National Association of Home Builders wrote to its members in advance of the meeting. "Requested final action: Disapprove." It worked: The committee responsible for residential building codes, part of the Washington-based nonprofit International Code Council, voted down the proposal. It may have helped that four of the committee's 12 members also represented the homebuilders' association.

As climate change leaves Americans exposed to more extreme weather, the federal government, insurers and safety groups are pushing for building codes that will make homes more resilient. But those efforts are being slowed by homebuilders, through the byzantine system of developing and adopting new building codes.

"Only 6% of the proposals that NAHB opposed made it through the committee hearings intact," the homebuilders' association boasted on its blog after a similar event last year.

That leaves future homeowners at increased risk from stronger and more frequent hurricanes, storm surges, floods and other extreme weather events. From 2002 to 2015, presidentially declared natural disasters have destroyed more than 147,000 U.S. homes and damaged another 3.6 million. And that's just the number of homes whose owners got individual assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The full scale of harm is almost certainly greater.

Adapting to global warming can seem boring -- perhaps nowhere more so than when it comes to building codes. Every three years, the International Code Council publishes updated model building codes for homes, approaching five pounds in weight, which states and cities can then choose to adopt.

But the politics of building codes, which shape the $500 billion residential construction industry, are anything but dull. In theory, power over ICC building codes is held by the roughly 27,000 government employees around the country who vote on the measures. Before those votes are held, however, new proposals are debated at meetings like those in Louisville, where committees decide whether the proposals are worthwhile; changes the committees vote down are less likely to make the final ballot. And on those committees, the industry enjoys far more influence.

Among the proposals that homebuilders have opposed are a requirement that houses built in certain flood plains stop using unreinforced masonry foundation walls less than four feet high, and that homes at risk of hailstorms use tougher roof coverings. The homebuilders' association has even used the ICC to block proposals from FEMA, including one this year that would have made homes in high-risk zones more flood-resistant.

The NAHB stresses the importance of keeping prices low to attract buyers. Fewer buyers would mean less revenue and less work for the association's 140,000 members.

"They will invariably hide behind the skirts of what's called affordability. What that really means is profitability," says Ron Jones, an NAHB board member since the 1990s and critic of its approach. "To represent themselves as the protector of the American homebuyer is pure hypocrisy."

The pushback is also cultural. "It's the most conservative industry there is, mainly because doing something new involves risk," said Peter Keyes, a professor of architecture at the University of Oregon.

Inside NAHB headquarters in Washington, the dominant motifs are tradition and influence. The atrium holds the National Housing Hall of Fame, honoring leaders of the homebuilding industry going back to the 1930s. In the conference room where I met Neil Burning, vice president of codes and standards, hung a plaque: "Dedicated to the American ideal of better living through private building."
Burning was unapologetic about opposing new code proposals, listing the hurdles each must clear to win the association's support: Among other things, the proposed change must reflect the association's existing policies, use readily available methods or materials, and have information about costs that the association finds acceptable. Finally: "We always look to make sure it does not negatively impact housing affordability."

It's not always clear which proposals make the cut. The association opposed 505 of the 1,994 proposed changes to the 2018 residential building code but won't release the full list. And the NAHB refused to tell me what position it had taken on the 12 proposals FEMA failed to get passed in Louisville.

Still, Burning wasn't shy about his views on the agency. "The reason why most of FEMA's were defeated at the hearings was because they were unprepared with substantiating data to support their positions," he said.  

The agency, not surprisingly, disagrees. "Our proposals to improve building codes across America are driven by the latest science and research available," FEMA spokesman Rafael Lemaitre said in an e-mail. "These science-based code improvements can literally save lives, make our communities more resilient, and help families recover more quickly when disaster strikes."

When I asked why the NAHB opposed the proposed rules for better protecting homes against hurricanes, floods and hail, it sent me a long list of arguments, ranging from the impact on construction costs to problems with compliance and enforcement. The NAHB also gave me a list of proposals it has endorsed even though they raise costs.

Yet when I asked Burning what code changes the NAHB was pushing to adapt to the increase in extreme weather, if not those proposed by FEMA and others, he dismissed the premise that new codes were necessary at all.

"The current codes already resist these loads," he said. "So what everybody should be pushing for is the adoption of the current codes we already have."

In the complicated ethical universe of lobbying, it's debatable whether the homebuilders' association deserves scorn or praise. It's true that not every proposed building code is in homeowners' best interests. Moreover, the NAHB's only explicit obligation is to its members; if homebuilders want to prevent tighter building codes, then the association is just doing its job.

The same defense can't be claimed by the International Code Council, which says its mandate is ensuring "safe, sustainable, affordable and resilient structures." I asked Trey Hughes, an ICC spokesman, whether it made sense to give homebuilders so much weight on the committee that decides the rules for new homes. He said part of it comes down to time and interest.

"Some of the challenges are getting people to actually serve," he said. "These committees, they do a great deal of work."

To what degree should homeowners also bear responsibility? "There's a laziness on the part of the consumer about demanding a more resilient housing stock," said Jones. But expecting the average buyer to consider the wind load of a home's roof may be unrealistic. 

"Homeowners assume, incorrectly, that the home is already being built to a high standard," said Leslie Chapman-Henderson, president of the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, an advocacy group in Florida. "Because why wouldn’t it be?"

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the MPA editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bloomberg News


Is TILA-RESPA a good or bad thing long term?