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Rainbows, Resilience and Housing in California

Rainbow Definition (Oxford English Dictionary): an arch of colors formed in the sky in certain circumstances, caused by the refraction and dispersion of the sun's light by rain or other water droplets in the atmosphere.

Resilience is a spectrum, much like a rainbow. From the basic element of water and fire comes heatwaves and rainstorms, causing firestorms and flooding. We are at a time akin to the ice age, where the climate is changing rapidly and we must adapt. There are so many forms of resilience that we must take into consideration within this era of change. Psychological resilience, community resilience, and making a home fire resilient are just a few elements of a much larger rainbow of abilities we need to master before our society can be set on the right path for our children’s future. Housing, which is part of community resilience, is paramount in a space where building materials are being redistributed. Saving local resources and making them available to a community is tantamount to saving people’s homes. 

In a 2022 blog from the ReBuilding Center in Portland, they stated, rightly so, that Home Repair = Affordable housing. They are at the forefront of making the connection between environmental justice and reuse, and their main home page states that Reuse + Repair = Resilience. Their 2017 Deconstruction Ordinance was spurred on by community opposition to the wholesale demolition of entire neighborhoods for high rise housing, increasing density, which is good, but also destroying valuable resources and lower-income homes at the same time. The ordinance, along with the pandemic, slowed the needless demolition of homes. What the reprieve and the deconstruction provided was perspective on the value of material banks, places that store historic and hard to find materials to enable people to fix their homes at a reasonable price. This simple act can have wide reaching implications - enabling people to stay in their homes. 

Even simple window replacements can be extremely costly, and for homeowners (and renters) on a fixed income, this can be devastating. The costs to replace a window can add up quickly when you want to do it right and replace it with new. From the permit fees, the Contractor markup and labor, replacing siding and insulation, and the window itself, could net over $1000 per window. Conversely, repairing that window with a similar size sash or glass should cost less than $200. Finding the right size is the trick. Another option is replacing the sashes with a vinyl “replacement” window which does not require a permit, or a contractor, which if you shop at a reuse store, could also be less than $200. The only downside of this technique is that you lose more light with the increased frame. 

As a building contractor myself, working on our C&D (construction and demolition ) portion of the California building code, I understand why California is such an incredibly expensive place to build. Our State building codes need serious revisions to reduce verbiage and to increase the number of resilient buildings. Local permit departments have layers and layers of fees built up over the years from reacting to different political initiatives and changes to code. On top of this, many departments are operating on antiquated permit software systems causing frustration for homeowners, contractors, and the Departments themselves. We need to review our priorities and reduce our burdens when it comes to building safety, access to housing and addressing climate change through green building if we are to ever have a chance of reducing the cost of building a home in California.

We are not the only ones opining on how out of control our permit costs are in California. The Supreme Court recently weighed in on our increasingly excessive building permit fees. El Dorado charged a retired contractor $23,000 for an impact fee (not including all the other permit fees) to install a new manufactured home on his property. The county lost, and the Court determined that the fee constituted a “taking” of his property; it was an arbitrary number not based on his cost for use of the local roads (Read article here) This will likely result in more challenges to local jurisdiction permit fees in California, and could possibly lead to some desperately needed reform.

Permit fees alone are not the cause of our housing woes; there is so much more contributing to our excessive pricing, some of which we have no control over - yet. Resilience won’t come easy. Looking into the mirrors custom built into the 15 lite french doors in our showroom, I reflect on how we’ll rise to meet the needs of our uncertain future. We need to commit to major changes to how we live in our homes and with each other. We must learn to be not only open to adaptation, but learn how to become happy in our new reality. The status quo is clearly not working, and building more housing certainly isn’t the only answer, and could possibly result in unforeseen problems down the yellow brick road.

Stay tuned for Part III of this series on California housing resilience - coming up The Power of Subtraction.


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