It’s not often that John Beckman and I kind of agree on something, but it turns out we both have some issues (albeit from different perspectives) with Stockton’s proposed green renovation ordinance.
On Sunday, The Record reported that, as required by Stockton’s 2008 lawsuit settlement with the Sierra Club, the city will soon consider an ordinance requiring residential renovation projects over $20,000 to also pay for an energy audit which could lead to an extra $2,000 to $5,000 in costs or more. The goal of the ordinance is to help Stockton reduce total emissions by making sure large renovation projects make homes more energy efficient.
While noble in purpose, this ordinance is very shortsighted and may have unintended consequences that actually increase Stockton’s emissions. Addressing single home renovations overlooks the actual cause of most emissions and energy use while also discouraging people from investing in Stockton’s older, more walkable neighborhoods.
For starters, this ordinance misses the big picture: emissions and carbon dioxide come from automobiles. The amount of energy used by our homes is not insignificant, but our cars use much more, especially in Stockton where most residents need to drive everywhere. According the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles were six times higher than residential uses in 2012, while total energy use by transportation was two and a half times greater than what was used in our homes.
In addition to failing to address issues of transportation, this ordinance also disproportionately impacts Stockton’s older homes which might actually increase driving by discouraging revitalization and pushing people towards suburban housing. Homes in Stockton’s core neighborhoods generally need more extensive repairs than their younger suburban counterparts. By requiring more costs for older homes, the city disincentivizes the purchase and renovation of older homes, making it more difficult for neighborhoods like Magnolia and Midtown to draw investment and new residents to the area. As a result, this ordinance pushes more buyers to newer homes on the periphery, which means that they will have to drive more, increasing energy use and emissions overall.
Moreover, with higher costs and more time wasted waiting for inspections, homeowners will be more inclined to bypass the permit process altogether, conducting renovations without city approval. Throw in the fact that city staff is already over worked and struggle to perform inspections in a timely fashion, and you’ve added a whole new layer of bureaucracy most people don’t want to deal with. If the ordinance pushes homeowners to skip getting permits, then the ordinance becomes counterproductive; Not only will homes continue to leak energy, but the city will lose out on permit fees as well.
So if this policy is counterproductive, are there better alternatives that promote greener building? I don’t have a quick answer to that. On a broad level, rather than saddling more costs on people who want to reinvest in existing homes, the city could incentivize green building standards by offering credits or breaks in fees at some level. This would make developers and home buyers more likely to consider better insulation, new windows and other energy-saving techniques because there would be a financial incentive to do so. But a greater policy that would have a more significant impact on pollution would be to incentivize residential development in the city’s core—whether it’s renovating an old Victorian home or building apartments downtown. Getting more people in older neighborhoods closer to amenities means fewer car trips, which in turn lowers emissions from cars. Greener policies are quite important, especially here in the Central Valley where we suffer from poor air quality. But that doesn’t mean any green policy is automatically a good one.