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Archive for Saturday, March 12, 2005

Energy-saving requirements would add to housing woes, some worry

Amid lack of affordable homes, proposed building code could raise prices as much as $6,000

March 12, 2005

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Members of the area building community are concerned that a proposal to make Lawrence homes more environmentally sound will produce a red light for low-income homebuyers.

City commissioners Tuesday night will discuss whether Lawrence's new building code should include a chapter requiring homes to be built to higher energy-efficiency standards.

Commissioners are expected to hear from builders who will argue the new regulations will be a blow to affordable housing efforts.

"We don't have an affordable housing problem in this town. We have an affordable housing crisis," said Lee Queen, an area builder and member of the city's Uniform Building Code Board of Appeals, which reviewed the requirements. "This will be like throwing a can of gas on the fire and saying, 'Let it burn.'"

Builders estimate that the new code -- which would create standards for the efficiency of windows, doors, insulation and other building materials -- would add between $3,500 to $6,000 to the cost of a new home.

Some city commissioners believe that may be a price worth paying.

"I think it is a great idea," City Commissioner Boog Highberger said of the new standards. "It will lead to higher quality housing stock, and it will save energy and money in the long run without a doubt."

City Commissioner David Dunfield, who also is an architect, said he wasn't yet convinced the standards would derail affordable housing efforts. He said a $3,500 increase in the price of a home likely would add $35 a month to a mortgage payment.

"If you can save $35 a month on your energy bill, it really isn't going to cost you anything," Dunfield said.

Bobbie Flory, executive director of the Lawrence Home Builders Assn., said she feared that the increase in the price of the homes would stop low-to-moderate income residents from qualifying for a mortgage in the first place.

"I think $3,500 could be huge for someone who is trying to get a loan for a starter home," Flory said.

Plus, Flory said, nobody had a good idea of how much residents could expect to save in energy costs as a result of the new requirements. She said city officials ought to have an energy expert study the code and determine what the costs savings would be.

If the city does decide to implement the new regulations, it may require an increase in staffing in the city's building permit department, said Victor Torres, director of the city's Neighborhood Resources Department.

Torres said the new regulations would require additional inspections and would require his staff to spend more time reviewing plans before a building permit could be issued.

The city's Uniform Building Code Board of Appeals declined to make a recommendation on the proposed energy code. Board members said the possible effect on affordable housing meant whether to adopt the code was more of a policy decision than a technical building code decision.

The proposed regulations only would affect single-family and duplex construction. But commissioners are expected to discuss briefly a larger energy conservation code that would cover additional types of construction. That code needs to be reviewed by city staff members and additional building boards before city commissioners are ready to discuss it.

Commissioners will discuss the issue at their meeting at 6:35 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, Sixth and Massachusetts streets.

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