Affordable housing concerns tank energy efficiency proposal 

Republicans, realtors worry about ‘historic high in housing costs’

By: - February 8, 2022 12:11 am

New residential construction in Richmond. Data shows that a shortage of homes in Virginia is driving up home prices and pushing buyers out of the market. (Sarah Vogelsong/ Virginia Mercury)

A Democrat-controlled committee rejected a bill that would have allowed local governments to adopt stricter energy efficiency codes than the state, with senators fretting it could prevent badly needed affordable housing from being built. 

“I understand long-term there’s truly a cost benefit,” said Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach. “But short term, a lot of people when they go to buy their first home or even their second home, they’re on a budget.” 

Sen. Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomack, joined with Republicans on the Senate Local Government Committee to kill the proposal 8-6. He told the Mercury his vote was due to not only concerns over housing costs but his view that Virginia is already “on the right track” with building code improvements. 

Senate Bill 452 from Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Loudoun would have required the Virginia Board of Housing and Community Development to develop optional energy efficiency standards for buildings based on the latest version of the International Green Construction Code that local governments could then choose to adopt. 

Various versions of the IGCC standards, which are more rigorous than those outlined in the Virginia Uniform Statewide Building Code, have been adopted by 14 other states and Washington, D.C. They apply to construction of new buildings. 

Boysko and other Democrats characterized the proposal as a way to address climate change and emphasized that local governments would have a choice of whether or not they wanted the stricter standards. 

If a locality “feels that it would be too expensive, they would have that ability to choose not to adopt them,” Boysko said. “But in Arlington County, perhaps, or in Fairfax County or Loudoun County where there’s a real push for it, they would have the ability to make that decision for themselves.” 

But Republican senators and the homebuilding and real estate industries worried opening the door to more stringent standards could drive up already skyrocketing home prices. DeSteph said that in his experience, building residential homes to IGCC standards had driven the cost up by 18 percent. 

“We’re at a historic high in housing costs,” said Chip Dicks, a lobbyist for Virginia Realtors. “The interest rates are clearly going to go up. We’re concerned about the ability of folks to make a down payment.” 

Andrew Clark, vice president of government relations for the Virginia Home Builders Association said that while builders are willing to construct homes to higher energy efficiency standards, “we also have to think about the fact that when we set the baseline so high, there are folks who don’t have the savings to afford the down payment, the closing costs, and we’re pricing them out of the market.”

Bob Shippee, legislative chair for the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, however, said there is “no evidence that there’s a significant impact on affordability” in other states that have adopted the IGCC. And Boysko argued that savings on energy bills due to greater energy efficiency would offset any extra upfront costs. 

Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, complained that committee members who balked at the proposal were “missing the forest for the trees.” 

“We are not dealing in my opinion at all down here with global warming,” she said. “This would be one of the tiniest, teeniest little efforts to make a difference in this topic and yet we’re not even prepared to do that.”

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.