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You can’t make housing more affordable by making it more expensive

I’ve been a builder for 17 years and have seen many changes in our industry, good, bad, and those with unintended consequences; one of these decisions with consequences being the 2018 changes to the state energy code. As a co-founder of Built Green, I am a proponent of energy-efficient housing. When asked by former Governor Christine Gregoire to look into how to make housing better, we took it seriously and did it without being mandated.

The state building code council completed its work late last year and submitted the Washington State Energy Code report to the Legislature. Throughout the update, the building community advocated for rationality to be incorporated into the code adoption process and requirements. We repeatedly cautioned that proposed changes would be cost-prohibitive to build homes affordably for housing needs, adding upwards of $30,000 to the price of a new home.

We were ignored and the state-building council continued to overstep. Thankfully, we are represented by Rep. Mike Chapman (D-Port Angeles), who listened and understood that with our state’s housing crisis, you can’t make homes more affordable by making them more expensive.

He introduced HB 2267 this session, which seeks to delay the implementation of the 2018 Washington State energy code update for residential construction and ask the state building code council to take another look at more cost-effective options.

The proposed code includes many new devices, which are not currently used nationally or in Washington State. Availability is a huge issue and will lead to delays in construction and price increases.

We are asking the code council to take a hard look at consumer costs. I’m an in the dirt builder and I hate telling people they can’t afford to do something on their dream home because of costs of code compliance. Energy code changes are intended to save consumers money, but we have reached the land of diminishing returns. This water pump change is just one example of an easy way to get the right amount of energy points from the 2018 energy code, but these new water heaters will have venting and draining issues their whole lives, which only decreases the amount of efficiency and raises the price for my clients.

Energy code compliance is not only a problem for new construction, but it affects any home remodel or addition. Homeowners in a 20-year-old house with no issues to their current heating pump or system, may have to replace it during a remodel just to achieve these energy code points. As the codes are currently written, builders and clients will reach for the easiest and most cost-efficient way to comply with the energy code update, but in doing this, will only make the house less efficient.

Clearly, no one considered charities like Habitat for Humanity, who implored the legislature to delay implementation by a year. They are very concerned about the exceedingly short period of time to implement changes, making unit redesigns, and finding appliances that comply for tens of thousands of units across the state.

The irony of it all is that we are told the market will adjust. That is correct, it will adjust. It will make housing more expensive. We will build it and we will charge more for it. These costs impact both market-rate and subsidized housing across our state, making our tax and market dollars go far less into building housing units. In Washington State, for every $1000 in the increase of the price of a home, 2100 people are priced out of the market and that’s not fair.

When do we stop saying affordable housing? It’s not here anymore. We keep increasing the cost with every change. You simply cannot make housing more affordable by making it more expensive. I want to thank Rep. Chapman recognizing just that and working to find solutions to our affordable housing crisis.

Kevin Russell is the owner of Kevin Russell Construction, past president of both the Building Association of Washington and of the North Peninsula Home Building Association.

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