DIY Housing Crisis: A Beginner’s Guide
In seeking to keep American housing unduly expensive, housing laws make our homes less safe, leave countless thousands of us homeless (an estimated 600,000) and have nearly 40-million of us living in more house than we can afford (Joint Center for Housing Studies, 2018). Today’s unprecedented rates of homelessness, the crashes of 1926 and 2008 and the latter’s devastating effects on U.S. and world economies are all direct results of American housing laws run amok.
Disastrous by Design
In 1915, a private corporation known as the Building Officials and Code Administrators International, Inc. (BOCA) was tasked with creating a set of housing laws that would serve both industry and government alike. By 1920, the most effective of BOCA’s prescriptions for a more lucrative housing product had been enacted as law. Industry profits, regional tax bases, homeless rates and the price of real estate soared accordingly. The crash of 1926 ensued; and, lo, the American boom-bust-cycle was born.
BOCA soon lost its share of control over code development to other corporations who would, in turn, lose control to today’s International Code Council (ICC). The acronym has changed, but the institution and its purpose remain largely the same. The ICC still maintains many of BOCA’s most profitable sections.
By now, the ICC is comprised largely of the insurance, construction, manufacturing and mortgage industries. It should come as no surprise, then, that the agency’s prescriptions for an unduly expensive housing product stipulate more than a little of its own corporate bling.
The codes increase revenues mostly by increasing the volume, mass and complexity of our country’s housing stock. Bigger houses with thicker skins fetch a relatively pretty penny, so inordinately large rooms enclosed by super-sized walls, floors and roofs are mandatory. Never mind that, all else being equal, relatively expansive rooms with beefier rafters overhead are more likely to fail under the lateral loads posed by earthquakes and high winds. That the products prescribed to achieve these already unsafe conditions can increase indoor VOC concentrations to 10-times those of outdoor air also seems to be of little consequence. These requirements were, after all, not designed to protect us or the environment so much as they were designed to serve the bottom line at our expense. And, to this end, they’ve been doing a pretty good job.
Ostensible legal protections against this sort of abuse do exist. The United States Constitution seeks to limit the scope of housing law to public health and safety. Unsafe bling for profit’s sake is not covered. State and local governments frequently bypass these legal protections through far fetched interpretations of what constitutes a safe, healthy home. They ignore safety, toxicity, efficiency and structural testing as means to eradicating more efficient, perceivably less profitable forms of housing and the relatively poor people who’d presumably live in there.
Codes were just getting started when zoning was introduced to ensure more of the same. In 1924, our country’s first model zoning ordinances were published by the United States Commerce Department. While code determines the form of our houses, zoning dictates whether or not our properties are even suitable for construction. Zoning has worked in tandem with code to create a country of inordinate debt and homelessness. The duo is responsible for the overbuilt environment known as sprawl and for an expensive campaign to keep perceived undesirables out of sight and mind.
In the case of Euclid v. Ambler of 1926, for example, a lower court found one zoning ordinance to be inoperable as it was aimed at preventing “colored or certain foreign races [from] invad[ing] a
residential section,” of its district. In the subsequent case of Nectow v. City of Cambridge (1928) the U.S. Supreme court found that a similar ordinance would do nothing to promote public health, safety, convenience or general welfare and stood as a “serious and highly injurious” invasion of property rights.
Even in its early days, while still relatively narrow in scope, zoning was already facing some serious challenges. To be Constitutional, zoning ordinances (like codes) would have to address matters of public health and safety. Insomuch as they do not, they deprive individuals of certain freedoms including some property rights guaranteed by the 5th Amendment and the Universal Human Right to Housing (Article 25 of the The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 11(1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights). Even requiring a property owner to get a permit before doing work on their home or land may constitute a felony under U.S. color of law provisions. At least that would be the case when any public official presents a right as if it were a privilege to be regulated by their state or local government agency.
Housing Crisis? No Problem.
A non-problem is like a real problem with no immediate cause for concern. A well-constructed non-problem presents enough artificial cause for fear, drama and/or problem-solving to distract us from pretty much anything, including real problems. Today’s so called “housing crisis” is just such a diversion.
To be clear, the housing situation in America is more dire than ever, but its backstory is very different from the one we, as a culture, tend to tell ourselves. Our narrative is a relatively hopeless one in which 39 million of us live in servitude to a mortgage or to rent or we die on the streets because we can’t afford either of the first two options. Like any lie worth telling, this clever non-problem contains more than a little truth. 39 million Americans are overburdened or dying because they can’t afford a place to live. The dishonest part of this red herring is mostly achieved through its lie of omission. Insert the conspicuously absent word “unnecessarily” in a couple places and our story’s outcome isn’t so easily dismissed as such a lost cause.
Millions of Americans are suffering unnecessarily because we are going out of our way to make houses unnecessarily expensive for everyone. When you consider that this undue expense is also making our homes unsafe and inefficient, the real problem hidden behind our common narrative begins to show.
In one 2010 interview, a representative of the ICC conceded that there was, indeed, never any safety, toxicity or efficiency testing done to warrant some of the Council’s most longstanding and consumptive prescriptions. By 2014, a handful of correlating laws had consequently been put on the chopping block. In 2015, the inoperable statues were duly recinded. One particularly burdensome law, requiring no less than one 120-square-foot room per home, was the first to go.
The ICC would subsequently confirm that this 100-year-old section never had anything to do with safety or anything else pertinent to Constitutional law. Scores of similarly over-reachng statutes remain on the books. Others continue to be enacted; but, with more public pushback than ever, their fate seems less certain and their standing less enforceable than would have been the case a couple of decades ago.
By the late 20th Century, the consequences of overregulation had become our nation’s new normal. McMansions, urban sprawl, deforestation, perpetual debt and homelessness had become ubiquitous, and the average American could no longer afford the average American home. In 1999, news stories began to surface about how average citizens were reclaiming their right to safe, affordable housing through acts of civil disobedience. Soon, countless thousands (roughly 10,000) would be openly ignoring codes and zoning in favor of building unpermitted dwellings in ways that made better sense to them.
When compared to code-compliant US housing stock, it has been estimated that the handbuilt homes of these renegades are, on average, 3-times more resistant to the lateral loads posed by earthquakes and high winds, 6-times more efficient in terms of embodied GOP, and cost about 1/4 as much to build. While greater safety, efficiency and affordability haven’t always been the primary goal of the amateur builders making these homes, it seems that’s just what you get when prohibitions on common sense are ignored.
An Ill Fated Strategy
We’re told the crux of our housing crisis is the necessarily prohibitive cost of a home. We’ve been led to believe the situation’s virtually beyond repair. Affordable housing is, after all, already being built in droves to insufficient avail. The term “affordable” is used somewhat loosely here, as it refers to a purported “solution” that, on average, costs $209,000 per unit. That amount is more than even the average American can muster. Current codes prohibit the construction of anything more cost-effective while prescribing the kind of “affordable” that, at its high-end, can exceed $739,000 per unit (Tilden Terrace in Culver City, CA).
The key to creating more efficient, cost-effective, safer housing in the U.S. doesn’t lie in producing a separate, sub-substandard, “affordable” category of housing but, rather, in throwing out the over-regulation that has made all American homes so needlessly unaffordable.
1. Build sensible housing in accordance with Constitutional laws.
2. Place an immediate moratorium on all sections of code and zoning that exceed any legal purpose, including those that mandate inordinate fees and permitting costs for safer, low-cost, efficient development. Offending sections of code and zoning might be most broadly identified as those having an inverse relationship to the results of credible health and safety testing or as having no relationship to any testing whatsoever. Inclusion of justifying terms like, “usability”, “livability” and “aesthetics” in certain sections serves as another red flag. The concerns referenced by such terms frequently exceed the scope of police powers extended to regulators. 3. Promptly abate all inoperable sections.