Second Ward, Minneapolis

This is the public policy forum of Minneapolis Second Ward (Green) City Council Member Cam Gordon and his staff. We use this space to talk about some of what Cam’s working on, explain his positions, and share a little of what life in City Hall is like. Please feel free to comment on posts, within certain ground rules. See our disclaimer, including ground rules, here:

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Watered-Down Green and Healthy Housing Ordinance Passes

This morning, the Council passed an watered-down version of the Green and Healthy Housing ordinance. I voted for it, because it's a step in the right direction, but I'm disappointed in the final ordinance. When compared to the original proposal by staff, it's clear that it's been significantly scaled back.

The initial proposal included the following requirements:

  • energy audits for every single family home and duplex rental, with a requirement to reach a certain level of air sealing

  • a furnace or boiler check every two years

  • radon testing

  • lead clearance testing for all rental units

Receiving pushback from both policymakers and rental property owners, this was scaled back even before the ordinance language was drafted. It required only the following when first brought to the Regulatory Energy and Environment (REE) committee:

  • energy audits only for single family homes, with a requirement to reach a certain level of air sealing

  • a furnace or boiler test every two years

  • lead clearance testing only for rental units that receive violations for chipping and peeling paint

The Minnesota Multi-Housing Association remained neutral, probably in part, due to these giveaways, but several rental property owners came to testify against the ordinance because of potential costs it could place on people, especially those interested in converting owner occupied homes to rental. Despite the compromises already made, the majority of Council Members moved to postpone it and asked that it limited further, to require:

  • energy audits only for single family homes that have received one of four narrowly-defined violations (lack of weather stripping, loose-fitting windows, water damage that appears to be caused by loose-fitting windows or doors or holes in the foundation or roof, or inadequate storm windows or doors), with a requirement to reach a certain level of air sealing

  • a furnace test every two years for some rental housing, every four for others, and every eight for others

  • lead clearance testing only for rental units that receive violations for chipping and peeling paint

I attempted, unsuccessfully, to improve this slightly at the Council meeting by moving an amendmend that would have expanding the violations that would have triggered the need for an energy audit.

This gutting of the ordinance has real world impacts. We've gone from a proposal to require energy audits in the majority of the rental housing in Minneapolis to an ordinance that will, on average, require about 900 single family homes per year to be audited (there are approximately 10,000 single family home rentals in the city). We've gone from a proposal to require lead clearance testing for all pre-1978 housing to just the small subset that have chipping and peeling paint (and that get caught for having chipping and peeling paint), despite the fact that we know that most childhood lead poisoning comes from dust from lead-painted windows, not from paint chips. And we've gone from a proposal to test most rentals for radon - the second leading cause of lung cancer in the US - to testing none.

As originally conceived, and even as originally presented to committee, this ordinance could have made a real difference. It would have reduced utility bills for tenants (remember, most landlords lack the direct economic incentive to improve the energy efficiency of their housing, because utility bills are usually paid by tenants), increased the health and safety of rental housing, and been a pretty substantial step towards addressing climate change.

As it is, this ordinance may make some positive difference. It's better than doing nothing. I'll be interested to see what results it is able to produce in its weakened form.

But we can't pretend that the Council took leadership on this issue. Instead, the Council's role was o constrain and water down the original proposal. Rather than policymakers leading the way on fighting climate change and protecting the health and safety of renters, we actively prevented our staff from effectively doing so.

In behaving this way we are not following many of our own adopted policies and aspirational goals. For instance, we adopted (with much fanfare and self-congratulation) a host of Sustainability Indicators and targets. They include a goal to "reduce citywide carbon dioxide emissions by 17 percent by 2020 using 2006 as a baseline." Our adopted Minneapolis 2020 Goals include the strategies "healthy homes, welcoming neighborhoods" and "use less energy, produce less waste." Indeed, that document indicates that we strive to be "Eco-Focused" and "an internationally recognized leader for a healthy environment and sustainable future."


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