The showdown in the Florida statehouse last year had all the drama of a knock-down political brawl: Powerful industries clashing. Warnings of death and destruction. And a surprise last-minute vote, delivering a sweeping reform bill to the governor’s desk.
The battle wasn’t about gun control, immigration or healthcare, but about making it easier to ignore national guidelines on building codes. To the surprise of the insurers, engineers and safety advocates who opposed the change, the home builders won – in a state that gets hit by more hurricanes than any other.
Three months later, Hurricane Irma smashed into Florida.
A report being released on Monday shows Florida isn’t alone in easing up on building regulations even as the effects of global warming escalate. The Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety examined building policies in 18 Atlantic and Gulf Coast states and found that despite the increasing severity of natural disasters, many of those states have relaxed their approach to codes – or have yet to impose any whatsoever.
“There’s no longer the automatic assumption that codes are good,” Julie Rochman, the head of the institute, said in an interview. “We just have an incredible capacity for amnesia and denial in this country.”
That trend leaves residents more vulnerable to climate change; it also puts states at odds with the Trump administration, which is struggling to cope with record disaster costs – costs that tougher building codes are meant to reduce.
The shift toward less rigorous codes is driven by several factors, experts say: Rising anti-regulatory sentiment among state officials, and the desire to avoid anything that might hurt home sales and the tax revenue that goes with them.
And fierce lobbying from home builders.
“There is an increase in housing costs every time a new code or rule is put upon the builder,” said Gerald Howard, chief executive of the National Association of Home Builders, the industry’s trade group. He said states shouldn’t impose mandatory building codes at all, but rather let local officials decide how homes should be constructed.
Florida is the clearest example of the trend. Until last year, the state’s building codes were viewed as among the best in the nation – largely a response to Hurricane Andrew, the 1992 storm that killed 26 people, destroyed 63,000 homes and bankrupted nine insurance companies.
After Andrew, Florida began following the recommendations released every three years by the International Code Council, a Washington-based nonprofit that brings together builders, engineers, local code officials and other experts to translate the latest science into updated model building codes.
By most accounts, the system worked: Homes built after Andrew came through Irma far better than older buildings. But it also rankled the state’s home builders, who argued that many of the changes increased the cost of homes for no good reason, other than to bolster sales for whatever company makes the latest gadgets or technology required.
Rusty Payton, head lobbyist for the Florida Home Builders Association, said his members wanted the state to stop “just making changes because some product guy found a way to get them into the ICC.”
So when Florida’s lawmakers met last year, Payton’s group pushed a measure that would turn the state’s policy on its head. Instead of adopting the code council’s updated recommendations every three years, the home builders association wanted Florida to incorporate only the changes that the members of the Florida Building Commission deemed to meet the “specific needs of the state.”
Payton said the new system would mean “fewer code changes overall, which hopefully will keep the cost of a home from increasing superfluously.”
Groups representing insurers, architects, engineers, firefighters, building inspectors and others fought back. They created a coalition, Floridians for Safe Communities; it was led Craig Fugate, who was head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under President Barack Obama and before that was Florida’s emergency-management director. “Strong, up-to-date building codes are often the difference between life and death,” the group warned.
Even the state’s powerful real-estate industry cautioned lawmakers that the reforms sought by the home builders might “degrade the quality and standards” of building codes, according to Marla Martin, spokeswoman for Florida Realtors, the industry’s trade group. “We were not supportive at all.”
None of it worked. Despite failing to make it out of committee, the measure was attached to another piece of legislation and passed at the end of the session. Governor Rick Scott signed it into law last June.
The change “reduces burdensome regulations while maintaining Florida’s gold standard of safety and innovation through an efficient and effective building code process,” a spokeswoman for Scott, Kerri Wyland, said in a statement. She noted that, by itself, the law does not remove any requirements from Florida’s current building code.
Fugate explained the home builders’ success by pointing to the seductiveness of their main argument: Cheaper homes means more homes. And more homes means more tax revenue.
“I know of no government in Florida that has yet figured out how to build wealth without building houses,” Fugate said in an interview. “It’s one of the screwy things about Florida.”
Leslie Chapman-Henderson, president of the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, agrees with the home builders that the new system will mean fewer code changes – and that’s what worries her. As engineers design better ways of protecting homes from ever-worsening storms, she warned, Florida’s rules won’t keep up.
“The system that has been dismantled in Florida is the system that gave us the successes we had this past year in Irma,” Chapman-Henderson said. “It’s an epic communications breakdown.”
Florida isn’t the only place where opposition has grown to updated codes despite the growing toll of extreme weather.
In August 2016, heavy rains in Louisiana damaged or destroyed more than 50,000 homes and caused more than $10 billion in damage, the country’s most costly flooding event in a decade.
Yet around the same time as those floods, Louisiana officials declined to adopt the latest model building code that requires homes be built at least one foot above the so-called base-flood elevation – a measure designed to limit the damage from flooding like what happened in Baton Rouge.
Michael Wich, a building inspector and board member of the Louisiana Home Builders Association, said the decision was a response to pressure from local governments, which wanted to retain the authority to set their own rules about whether homes should be required to be elevated above the flood plain.
If the state hadn’t made that concession to local governments, Wich said, “I think we would have been discussing whether or not we have a statewide building code, period.”
A state body approved other parts of the new codes. Then, last June Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards signed an executive order suspending the adoption of the new codes two weeks before they were supposed to take effect. Edwards argued that residents who were rebuilding from the record floods in 2016 needed “stability” as they repaired their homes, and that imposing stricter codes would hamper the recovery effort.
Even the home builders association objected, pointing out that hundreds of millions of dollars in construction projects had already been planned based on the new codes. In December, Edwards relented and reversed the order; the new codes took effect in February.
“After consultation with local officials in the affected communities and discussion with those involved with residential and commercial construction, Governor Edwards was able to conclude that the adoption of the codes would not slow down the recovery,” Matthew Block, executive counsel for the governor’s office, said in a statement Sunday.
In South Carolina, where Hurricane Irma damaged or destroyed more than 16,000 homes, the Legislature is considering a bill that would slow the rate at which the state updates its codes, shifting the cycle from three years to six. North Carolina made a similar change in 2013.
Still other storm-prone states have yet to adopt mandatory building codes of any kind – including Texas, where Hurricane Harvey damaged or destroyed 200,000 homes last year.
Mississippi and Alabama also have no mandatory statewide codes. Georgia has adopted a six-year-old version of the codes, but lets local officials decide whether to enforce it.
States’ reluctance to adopt building codes has worried federal officials, who are stuck paying to rebuild homes that get wiped out by natural disasters.
“Our strongly held belief is that strong and enforced building codes are among the best primary mitigation efforts that can be undertaken,” Nick Shufro, FEMA’s assistant administrator for risk management, said in an interview.
As the insurance institute’s report shows, FEMA has had limited success in getting states to come around to that view.
In 2016, FEMA proposed a rule that would reduce the generosity of federal disaster aid for states that fail to prepare for extreme weather — for example, by imposing mandatory, up-to-date building codes. States lobbied against the idea, and the Obama administration didn’t pursue it.
Fugate, the former FEMA head who led the coalition against Florida’s codes overhaul last year, predicted that even as the effects of climate change worsen, states will continue to favor lowering the cost of construction – as long as the federal government keeps paying to rebuild those homes.
“The reason states and local governments can get away with crappy homes is because somebody’s always bailing them out,” Fugate said. If FEMA really wants to change states’ behavior, he added, it should change the name of the agency’s spending programs.
“I think we should quit calling them disaster funding,” Fugate said, “and just call them government bailouts.”