Kyle Wingfield, president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, was invited to provide testimony to the Georgia House Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Committee on February 20, 2019, regarding architectural ordinances. His prepared testimony is published below.
GEORGIA HOUSE AGRICULTURE AND CONSUMER AFFAIRS COMMITTEE
WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 20, 2019
KYLE WINGFIELD, PRESIDENT, GEORGIA PUBLIC POLICY FOUNDATION
To Chairman McCall and members of the House Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Committee:
Thank you for the invitation to provide testimony today about the issues addressed by House Bill 302. My name is Kyle Wingfield, and I’m the president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit, 501(c)(3) research institute based in Atlanta.
The Foundation does not endorse or oppose specific legislation. As a market-based, limited-government think tank, we do have serious concerns about some of the practices that “architectural ordinances” attempt to address. Our objections to the kinds of design mandates we see increasingly frequently across Georgia fall into two categories: the practical and the philosophical.
From a practical standpoint, we all know that housing affordability is an important issue, from intown Atlanta to rural Georgia and many places in between. Communities of all sizes struggle to meet workforce housing needs. Yet, virtually all of the design mandates local governments are enacting could be expected to increase the price of building a home. The result may be that local governments mandate regulations imposing higher construction costs on new homes, then turn around and subsidize rents or apply another mandate for affordable-housing set-asides or inclusionary zoning – which end up driving up prices further for those who don’t benefit from them.
Rather than compounding the problem of home prices with additional mandates to offset the cost of the original mandate, governments should stop imposing these burdensome regulations that lead to higher costs in the first place.
To the extent such mandates become common in urban and suburban areas, there is the risk that these government policies will raise price points and push people farther away from their jobs and families than they would otherwise choose. This unfortunate consequence has the potential to lengthen their commutes, worsen traffic congestion and lead to more public spending on transportation infrastructure.
As we saw last year with the legislative debate over the use of wood building materials for multifamily housing, one community’s aesthetic preferences or other interests may have an economic impact for other communities. Just last week, I visited Douglas, Georgia, and saw, among other industries, an expanding industry of aluminum extrusion and fabricating home parts. The growing job market for producing these materials is important to Douglas and other places with similar industry – yet, other communities across Georgia would, without justification, exclude these materials entirely from their housing stock. Why not let the market decide?
Finally, from the practical standpoint, legitimate health and safety concerns are valid considerations in building codes, but not the aesthetically motivated design mandates we see across the state.
From a philosophical standpoint, the defenders of these policies depict them as a matter of local control. Certainly, local control is an important concept. But nothing is more “local” than one’s own property, and the bar for government infringing on the “control” of one’s own property should be set far higher than some kind of conventional wisdom about aesthetics – which could be here today, gone tomorrow. The same goes for “home rule” – literally, in this case about who makes the rules about a Georgian’s private home.
Of course, we are assuming these design mandates actually represent some kind of consensus about aesthetics. It is quite possible instead that a relatively small group of people are enforcing their norms and preferences on others through these kinds of mandates. There are many anecdotes about a single city or county official capriciously imposing a design-driven requirement on a homeowner or builder. To the extent communities smaller than an entire city or county wish to enforce design preferences through mandates, homeowners associations already have the tools available to them.
As I already mentioned, cost is a key concern. One might argue the differences in cost shrink over time, when we consider maintenance costs or home price appreciation for one material relative to another. But again, these are personal preferences that should be determined by buyers and sellers of private property in the market, not by government. For example, a young family’s best option to become homeowners and begin building wealth may be to purchase a home with lower upfront costs. As we seek to promote opportunity and upward mobility, we should let them make the choice that’s best for them.
Finally, the types of mandates pursued today for aesthetic reasons may someday be pursued for other reasons. Consider the recent mandate in California for new houses to have solar panels on them, another large and unnecessary cost.
Georgia has prospered in large part because it has let the market – individual buyers and sellers of goods and services – dictate many matters that other states have sought to micro-manage through regulation. As we seek to continue and extend that prosperity, and to allow a larger share of Georgians than ever to participate in it, it is vital that our state and local governments not forget that.
The Foundation’s Criminal Justice Initiative pushed the problems to the forefront, proposed practical solutions, brought in leaders from other states to share examples, and created this nonpartisan opportunity. (At the signing of the 2012 Criminal Justice Reform bill.)