Harvey has highlighted the debate — between insurers, homebuilders and politicians — over whether the U.S. should respond to the growing threat of extreme weather by changing how, even where, homes are built in the U.S.
CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas —— Jerry Garcia’s home in Corpus Christi missed the worst of Hurricane Harvey by just a few miles and lost nothing more than some shingles and his backyard pier, which turned up further down Oso Bay. A 5-foot bulkhead and sloping lawn shielded it from the flooding that devastated southeast Texas.
A homebuilder, Garcia said he built this place, like all the houses he builds, “above code” —— stronger than the standards required by law, which in Texas tends to be less stringent thanother states. But he doesn’t think those tougher standards should be imposed on every builder.
“You’ve got to find that medium, to build affordable housing,” Garcia said. Tougher mandatory codes mean higher costs, which means fewer homes. And if insurers had their way, he said, every home would be “a box with two doors and no windows.”
Hurricane Harvey has highlighted a climate debate that had mostly stayed out of public view — a debate that’s separate from the battle over greenhouse-gas emissions, but more consequential to the lives of many Americans. At the core of that fight is whether the U.S. should respond to the growing threat of extreme weather by changing how and, even where, homes are built.
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That debate pits insurers, who favor tighter building codes in vulnerable locations against homebuilders and developers, who want to keep homes as inexpensive as possible.
As the costs of extreme weather increase, that fight has spilled over into politics. Federal budget hawks want local policies that will reduce the cost of disasters, while many state and local officials worry about the lost tax revenue that might accompany tighter restrictions on development.
Texas, despite being one of the states most vulnerable to storms, has one of the most relaxed approaches to building codes, inspections and other protections. It’s one of just four states along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts with no mandatory statewide building codes, according to the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety, and it has no statewide program to license building officials.
Texas policies leave homebuilding decision to cities, whose record is mixed: Corpus Christi uses codes that reflect national standards, minus the requirement that homes be built 1 foot above expected 100-year-flood levels, according to the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes. Nueces County, which includes Corpus Christi, has no residential building code.
The consequence of loose or nonexistent codes is that storm damage is often worse than need be. “Disasters don’t have to be devastating,” said Eleanor Kitzman, who was Texas’ state insurance commissioner from 2011 to 2013 and now runs a company in South Carolina that builds and finances coastal homes that are above code. “We can’t prevent the event, but we can mitigate the damage.”
Any proposal that would increase costs in Texas is resisted by homebuilders.
“They are not big on regulation,” said Julie Rochman, chief executive officer of the insurance institute. That skepticism about government was on display in 2013, when the state’s two senators voted against additional federal funding to clean up after Hurricane Sandy. But it can be applied selectively: Gov. Greg Abbott requested federal money for Hurricane Harvey before it even reached shore.
Building codes get little support in Austin, the state capital. At the end of this year’s legislative session, the Texas Association of Builders posted a document boasting of its success at killing legislation it didn’t like. That included a bill that would have let cities require residential fire sprinklers, and another that would have given counties with 100,000 people or more authority over zoning, land use and oversight of building standards — something the builders’ group called “onerous.”
The fight in Texas is a microcosm of a national battle. The International Code Council, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit made up of government officials and industry representatives, updates its model codes every three years, inviting state and local governments to adopt them. Last year, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) boasted of its prowess at stopping the 2018 codes it didn’t like.
Elizabeth Thompson, a spokeswoman for association’s D.C. headquarters, said “The vast majority of the code changes that NAHB opposes are submitted by manufacturers to promote the use of specific products.”
“These changes merely add to the cost of a new home,” she said. “They typically won’t make the home safer or healthier for the occupants.”
The homebuilders demonstrated their power again this year, when President Donald Trump reversed an Obama administration initiative restricting federally funded building projects in flood plains. “This is a huge victory for NAHB and its members,” the association wrote on its blog.
Yet on other issues, Trump’s administration appears to be siding with those who favor tougher local policies. In an interview just before Harvey, FEMA Administrator Brock Long expressed support for an Obama administration proposal to spur more local action on resilience, such as better building codes, as a condition of getting first-dollar disaster relief from D.C.
“I don’t think the taxpayer should reward risk,” Long said four days before Harvey slammed into Texas.
It may seem surprising that a Republican administration would side with its Democratic predecessor on anything, especially something related to climate change. But the prompt is less ideological than practical. Over the past decade, the federal government spent more than $350 billion on disaster recovery, a figure that will almost certainly increase without major changes in local building codes and land-use practice. And much of that money goes to homes that keep getting hit.
Some state lawmakers acknowledge the need to at least consider doing things differently. Todd Hunter, who represents this part of the coast in the Texas House of Representatives, said Harvey will ignite a conversation about the need for statewide building codes.
“The discussion needs to start,” Hunter said. And that discussion could go beyond codes: “We need to take a look at where structures are being built.”
Others are less optimistic. If people living along the Texas coast had to pay the full cost of the risk they face, some parts of that coast might empty out. That worries Albert Betts Jr., executive director of the Texas Insurers Council, the trade association representing insurance companies.
Betts said the price of real change could be too high.
“I can’t sit here and tell you, as a Texan, that I don’t want that area developed,” Betts said. “Smarter people than me have yet to figure that out.”