A particular piece of legislation being considered in this year’s relatively tame session of the state’s General Assembly has certainly captured the attention of governing bodies across the state, and not in a good way.
House Bill 302, which has won initial committee approval but has yet to be considered by the full House, would restrict local governments in their ability to mandate certain “building design elements” for one or two-family residential dwellings.
If the bill is passed — and considering the considerable political clout of the governing agencies that oppose it there is no certainty that it will be — cities and counties would no longer be able to dictate that new homes have a certain size, or be made of a certain material, or fit a certain architectural design.
The bill brings to the forefront a couple of different serious philosophical questions about the role of government: How involved should any governing body be in dictating to the public what they can and can’t build; and, should local communities have the right to set their own standards above and beyond minimum building codes set by the state?
As for the first philosophical question, we would suggest that governments, by their very nature, tend to overreach, and as such some have gone too far in mandating that houses be of a certain size, contain a certain number of rooms, have a certain color scheme or be made with a certain building material. It is one thing to set basic standards that establish a baseline for what is safe and practical, and something else to demand that every neighborhood look like something out of Architectural Digest.
Times editorial board
- Norman Baggs, general manager
- Shannon Casas, editor in chief
- Cheryl Brown
- David George
- Mandy Harris
- Brent Hoffman
- J.C. Smith
- Tom Vivelo
We hear a lot, especially in our community, about the need for affordable housing. Yet when governments impose the sort of building standards meant to show that everyone is “keeping up with the Joneses,” the result can be inflated pricing that prevents anyone not solidly ensconced in the middle class from moving into a community.
Local building mandates can add tens of thousands of dollars to the price of a new home, often for no real purpose other than improving curb appeal.
If your city or county is one of those that thinks houses have to be built with bricks, have at least 2,400 square feet or sit on a half-acre lot, then don’t be surprised when there are no starter homes for your kids to live in when they graduate from college and take that first job, or houses for older residents looking to downsize and save money.
HB 302 would prohibit governments from enacting those sorts of mandates. While the goal for doing so is understandable, the shifting of authority for deciding such things from local communities to the state makes it hard to endorse the proposition.
It is scary to think that a simple majority of a city council can enact building design mandates on a whim, create havoc with the local housing market and economy, and then change things again after the next election cycle when new members are elected. And yet, we firmly believe that the best government is that which is closest to home, and if local voters are willing to allow that sort of authority to their representatives, shouldn’t they have the ability to do so?
If only we could mandate more thoughtful participation in the process by local voters.
As much as we would like to see more attention paid to the consequences of such building mandates, we are reluctant to endorse the idea of taking that authority away from community control.
Hopefully the simple fact that HB 302 has been introduced and is being debated will serve to fire a warning shot across the bow of governing agencies across the state and result in their giving more thoughtful consideration to the issue of establishing building design standards in the future.
While many city and county governments are on record in opposition to HB 302, the Georgia Association of Realtors favors the legislation, arguing that excessive local mandates reduce the likelihood of home ownership. The Realtor’s group notes that only 61 percent of Georgians own their own home, and say that government mandates can be responsible for nearly a quarter of the cost of buying a home.
We do think that as a matter of course any discussion of mandated design standards should include an economic impact statement that shows how much the mandate under consideration would add to the price of a new home. Truly visionary communities could then reduce the taxable value of new homes by the amount of government red tape required to build them.
Individual neighborhoods already have the ability to govern their “look” with protective covenants, which are private agreements that do not require the involvement of a government entity. In many cases, that is a better way to go than with sweeping design standards applied across larger swaths of real estate.
In order to thrive and flourish, communities need a diversity of housing options, just as they need a diversity of people. We all want the towns and counties in which we live to be enticing, but that doesn’t mean every home has to have a two-car garage, a brick façade and two rooms per family member.
Let’s leave the authority to make community decisions at the local level, then work to make sure local decision-makers, and voters, understand the impact their actions related to home building can have.