The first-ever statewide building code, which goes into effect for most municipalities with 2,000 or more residents on Dec. 1, is a convenient target for those who believe government reaches too far into people’s lives. The code, they will argue, not only could increase the cost of housing, but it allows government to step across that imaginary but sacrosanct line at the edge of one’s land and dictate how people live. It will create, critics will say, an elite class of housing linked to wealth, a threshold that fewer people will able to cross.
Even conceding there may be some truth to these arguments, the building code is an idea whose time has come. It has the potential to remake — albeit slowly — the face of Maine and, more importantly, the lives of Mainers for the better.
At the heart of most codes relating to housing, whether they are plumbing, heating, electrical or fire, is a concern for the safety of those living inside the four walls. Raw sewage leaking into the cellar of a substandard house, which was documented 20 years ago in some now-affluent Maine communities, had the potential to cause disease and death. Poorly installed oil furnaces and wood stoves and substandard chimneys can result in carbon monoxide poisoning or fire. Electrical work done haphazardly can electrocute someone or burn down a house. And of course, structural codes protect against roof collapse under a heavy snow load, and ventilation codes prevent debilitating exposure to mold.
Maine has one of the oldest housing stocks in the nation, which can be observed on a drive along any of the state’s back roads. Houses that might be called shacks elsewhere proliferate. A related fact is that the state has one of the highest rates of homeownership. This is undoubtedly because many Mainers have been able to gather materials and build a “homemade” house. This reflects well on native intelligence and self-reliance. But those houses generally don’t age well. And they often leak heat at costly rates.
The state building code will protect a homeowner’s investment. The houses will last longer. They will resell for more money. A key component of the new code, which clusters together several building codes in place in other states, is the national model energy code. Given Maine’s cold weather climate and its heavy reliance on No. 2 oil to heat homes, a code that begins to bring best insulating practices into houses can provide a boost to the economy by keeping energy dollars at home, rather than shipping them to the Middle East. Any increase to the cost of building homes that comes with the code will be recouped, thanks to the higher energy standards its brings.
Keeping housing affordable is another problem addressed with other tools, such as subsidizing rental units and providing low-interest loans to first-time home buyers. A better built, longer-lasting, more energy-efficient housing stock is good for Maine, and the new code begins to push the state to-ward that goal.