Effective September 1, 2019, Texas—both the State and its individual municipal governments— will be officially unable to adopt or enforce a “rule, charter provision, ordinance, order, building code, or other regulation” that prohibits, limits (directly or indirectly), or sets a standard for the use or installation of a building product or material, or aesthetic method in construction, that is more stringent than what is required by the national model code published within the last three code cycles that applies to construction, renovation, maintenance, or other alteration of a building. In other words: the State nor any its municipalities may no longer amend national model building codes (with some exceptions).
This comes as a result of Texas Governor Greg Abbott recently signing into law HB 2439.
”Everybody is going to benefit from this,” claims Ned Munoz, vice president of regulatory affairs and general counsel for the Texas Association of Builders—a group he says was integral to the inception and passing of HB 2439. “We really pushed for it. It’s one of our bills.”
Bolstering Affordability and Expanding Choice
Supporters of the bill, like Munoz, frame it like this: first and foremost, the bill’s good for housing affordability. Like a lot of places around the country, home prices in Texas have been on the rise in recent years. In Houston, for instance, one of the country's most active housing markets, median home price in Q2 2019 hit $250,000—up about $7,000 from the same time last year. And while that's $35,000 less than the nation’s median home price, it's still four times the city’s median income, according to data from the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. The balance between home price and income is what’s known as the price-to-income ratio, and it's an indicator of housing market health. A healthy ratio is about 2:1 - 3:1. Houston's was in that range less than a decade ago.
Munoz argues HB 2439 that with more exterior options, you extend downward the price range of remodels and new builds. A homeowner can now, for example, install aluminum siding on an addition in neighborhoods that were previously masonry-only—which can save them upwards of $10 per square foot. An additional result, he claims, will be the weakening of special interest in Texas.
“Many cities were abusing their code and ordinance process, requiring products that benefit certain vendors and not allowing other products that are code-approved,” Munoz says, referencing mostly to masonry. “If it’s in the national code, it’s gone through a very extensive vetting process.”
While we couldn’t confirm any legal “abuse,” as Munoz described it—nor could he provide evidence of it upon request—the Texas Masonry Council (TMC) does report that over 200 cities in the state have adopted “masonry planning,” and that those plans, typically, are: 1. City-wide; and 2. Cover all residential and commercial construction. In some cities, like Houston suburb Dickinson, specific masonry is required. In the case of Dickinson, it’s brick and tinted concrete blocks.
As of the writing of this article, neither TMC nor the national Council had responded to requests for comment. But in an interview with R.J. Davidson, chief building official of Baytown—another Houston suburb with a masonry planning ordinance on the books—he claimed that, at least in his experience, there are no hard-to-get exterior building materials being required. “I haven’t heard of any materials shortages or materials that you can get only through a small number of vendors,” he says. “You can get materials from all over the city, the state—all over the country.”
Stunting Quality and Removing Choice
The bill’s vocal opponents number beyond the most acutely-affected cities and include the Texas Municipal League (TML) and a number of Texas contractors, such as 30-year veteran and owner of the Houston-based Lacon Homes Les Albin, who’s been outspoken about the bill online.
“National codes are a good framework, but they don’t work equally all over Texas. Areas on the Gulf Coast have much different conditions than in West Texas,” says Albin, using code-approved galvanized steel trim on stucco as one example. “In a non-humid area, steel trim on stucco is fine.” The problem, he says, is that in humid areas, there are a lot of opportunities for galvanized steel to rust. Recounting a past job in which he encountered that very problem—where the trim rusted and triggered rot to spread through the wall to the studs—he said that fixing the damage cost the homeowner around $75,000. “Previously, communities could require something like a solid zinc trim, to better avoid the problem.” The bill keeps cities from doing that.
It’s a problem he believes will ultimately erode the quality of Texas’ housing stock and increase long-term maintenance costs, citing specifically concerns over big production homebuilders. “They are not long-term oriented,” he says. “It’s a very price-competitive business, and they don’t want restrictions on quality and codes.”
Baytown’s Davidson shares concerns over builders and developers exceptional price consciousness, which he says may lead to the prioritization of cheaper materials (like metal or siding over masonry).
Baytown’s Davidson shares concerns over builders and developers exceptional price consciousness, which he says may lead to the prioritization of cheaper materials (like metal or siding over masonry). But as a long time building official and former code inspector, his concern isn't over quality but rather with stripping a city and its population of their ability to collectively determine how they want their communities to look.
“Codes ensure quality construction. The bigger problem is the bill takes away a community's ability to control and beautify their environment,” Davidson says. “These ordinances that are being made obsolete were voted on by the citizenry. It forces those cities to halt the direction the population has chosen to move in.”
The Horse’s Mouth
Davidson’s position, popular among the bill’s opponents, is one with which State Representative Matt Schaefer (R, 6th District), a primary sponsor of the bill, takes specific umbridge. “Are we suppose to have the government do everything,” Schaefer asks. “It runs against the Texas spirit.”
It’s not a question to Schaefer if some building materials are better than others. “Some are,” he admits. “But who decides? When (Cities are) passing ordinances and raising costs, telling a person their new addition has to be brick instead of siding, or their windows can’t be single pane. Who decides?”
If certain builders and remodelers end up deciding and those choices lead to what Albin fears—an ultimately weaker housing stock throughout the state for decades to come—Schaefer explains that if a homeowner is purchasing a home, it’s their responsibility and their risk. Though, he standbys his skepticism, saying basic code requirements will ensure a still-quality minimum standard.
“People have a responsibility to check out their home and approve it, and there's civil action available against contractors who do poor work,” he says. “People are pretty darn smart. They buy a house and know in 10-20 years when it’s paid off, ‘I’ll be able to make repairs.’” He uses cars as an example. “How many people buy a used car knowing it’ll eventually break down? A lot.”
But whether you believe City’s and communities should dictate aesthetic requirements or that the decision should be solely left to homeowners, professionals, and the International Code Council, one thing R.J. Davidson says rings true, “It’s the law, and everyone has to follow it.”