Lawmakers might remove local constraints on home construction

A state legislative study committee recommends restricting local governments control over residential construction, like how much vinyl siding is allowed. These homes are under construction in McDonough. Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder

A state House committee supports taking away much of the discretion local officials have to prohibit inexpensive materials in new home construction.

The workforce housing committee’s final report essentially revives a controversial bill that earlier this year pitted many cities and county governments against home builders, realtors and the construction industry.

The committee approved a report Thursday that says developers are more likely to build homes that attract people who might be priced out of most houses in that area if local governments prohibit the use of lower cost materials.

At play is whether a local government can regulate everything from a home’s exterior color, the amount of square footage, the amount of vinyl siding, or whether a home can be built on a concrete slab.

While this year’s legislation had bipartisan support, it also drew strong opposition from legislators. Opponents are again expected to try to fend off House Bill 302, which remains alive for the 2020 legislative session.

But State Rep Vance Smith is ready to try again in January.

“We have a lot of young people out there that want starter homes and want to work in these new industries that are coming to Georgia so we need to have accessible housing,” he said following the committee meeting.

“What we’re talking about is let’s not put additional restrictions on the citizens of Georgia that are above and beyond the building code like the number of windows you have on a house,” Smith said.

The associations that represent the majority of the state’s county and city governments say local officials know best what works in their communities. Removing local officials from the decision-making process gives developers final say over what’s reasonable.

And some of those aesthetic regulations are what makes cities unique, said Charlotte Davis, a senior governmental relations associate with the Georgia Municipal Association. Local governments create plans to improve workforce and affordable housing options, as well as other types of housing, she said.

About 80 cities and counties have passed resolutions opposing losing local control.

“For the state to come in and say local councils and citizen groups don’t know what they should be doing or aren’t setting appropriate standards, we should have concern with that,” Davis said following the meeting.

State Rep. Susan Holmes gained insight into why local design standards are important while spending 12 years as the mayor of Monticello. She said she’ll continue fighting legislation that harms residential property values.

“If you don’t have some kind of guidelines, you’ll have some kind of mess,” the Republican said. “The guidelines are always simple and logical.”

DeKalb County Commissioner Jeff Rader said this is a home rule issue.

“It’s really ironic when Georgia proclaims to be a small government state but is proposing to take the power out of the hands of a small government,” Rader said. He is a former vice president of the Greater Atlanta Homebuilders Association.

The members of the Georgia Home Builders Association appreciate the study committee’s acknowledgment of the housing gap between market rate and affordable housing, government affairs director Austin Hackney said.

The state’s building code would remain intact even if the bill passes.

“I think people heard those aesthetic regulations add serious costs to a new home and prices certain people out of the market and don’t have anything to do with safety,” Hackney said. “There was some confusion around whether the state was taking away design standards or building standards. My understanding was being respectful of the building standards and state building codes, but just had to do with design elements.”

The legislation provides local governments some wiggle room around the proposed  deregulation, including allowances for designated historic neighborhoods and private homeowners associations.

State Rep. James Beverly, a Macon Democrat who served on the committee, said he’s now more aware of how some restrictions can impede workforce housing construction and also housing for low-income residents.

“I think when there are local restrictions to keep people out of the market, that becomes a problem,” he said. “Something as simple as crawl space versus a slab, can be a difference of $15,000 and structurally the house is no different.”

Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.