Call for net zero homes is too costly

Will drive up housing costs, cost state jobs

MASSACHUSETTS IS POISED to adopt sweeping climate legislation that will set ambitious goals for the Commonwealth to reduce emissions by 2050. No one doubts the importance of this effort or the need to make commitments to the adoption of clean energy. The question, rather—particularly when it comes to housing—is how do we get there.

For those who haven’t been following, the bill, which is currently sitting on Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk, would implement an undefined “net zero stretch energy code.” That is, it would effectively allow each community in the Commonwealth to design its own building codes on how to construct net zero buildings. While flexibility sounds good on its face, the result could significantly drive up housing and building construction costs throughout Massachusetts, threatening good paying jobs and our economic recovery. What’s even more worrying is it will allow communities a back door to get out of 40B affordable housing commitments.

We need only look to our neighbors to the south to understand that constructing carbon neutral homes and buildings is anything but cost neutral. Not long ago, the New Jersey Builders Association studied the impact of that state’s net zero energy plan on new single-family home construction. Similar to Massachusetts, New Jersey’s energy plan would deliver 100 percent clean energy by 2050, requiring reductions in energy consumption and emissions from the building sector and electrification of new and existing buildings.

But what does it actually take to build a net zero home? While the Massachusetts Legislature never did a cost analysis of the bill, the New Jersey Builders Association looked at the added cost of building a typical 2,400 square foot two-story home using the US Department of Energy’s Zero Energy Ready Home program guidelines. The association found that fully electrifying a home would end up costing an extra $68,500. The total added cost to construct a typical single-family home? Approximately $83,500. This doesn’t even account for increased electricity costs as a result of grid transmission and new or upgraded distribution infrastructure.

The impact on the Commonwealth is clear: at a time when we already face high housing costs and low supply—and an economy in recovery—net zero stretch energy codes will dramatically slow housing construction, increase costs in one of the most expensive regions of the country, and threaten countless good-paying jobs in our state for working families – from plumbers to electricians.

Unfortunately, the bill would also jeopardize access to financing for homebuyers. The National Association of Home Builders has found that for every $1,000 increase in the cost of a new home, 1,974 households in Massachusetts are priced out of the market. If signed into law, nearly 165,000 homeowners would be unable to qualify for a conventional home mortgage in Massachusetts.

Perhaps most concerning is the trickle-down effect all this would have on affordable housing construction. Already, according to the Boston Foundation’s Greater Boston Housing Report Card 2019, Boston remains one of the most racially segregated of the nation’s 50 largest metropolitan areas. The report card found that 7-in-10 of the region’s Latino households and two -hirds of black households live in just 10 communities.

While architects designing million-dollar homes in our state’s wealthiest communities may welcome them, net zero stretch codes and the increased costs of construction associated with them could very easily become yet another tool to exclude communities of color from certain municipalities. If we want to have a real conversation about climate justice, we must not leave out racial and economic justice.

Climate change is the challenge of our lifetime, and requires immediate but well thought out and attainable action-oriented goals. But whether it’s harming job creation, pricing families out of the housing market, or— as Governor Baker has said—creating yet another obstacle to affordable housing, net zero stretch codes are the wrong way for the Commonwealth to meet that challenge. Lawmakers should reject this dangerous precedent in Massachusetts and protect working women and men across the Commonwealth.

Andrew DeAngelo is director of public affairs for the Greater Boston Plumbing Contractors Association, Tim Fandel is business manager of Plumbers & Gasfitters Local 12, and Harry Brett is the New England international representative of the United Association of Plumbers, Fitters, Welders, & Service Workers.