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Realtors oppose idea; advocates say it will make housing more affordable while reducing carbon emissions

With a climate-change denier headed to the White House, city officials and environmentalists say it’s all the more important for Portland to pass cutting-edge policies that reduce carbon emissions.

In a three-hour-plus hearing Wednesday at City Council, Mayor Charlie Hales made a passionate pitch for one of those green policies on his bucket list: Home Energy Scores.

Hales’ proposal would require the sellers of homes in Portland to hire a home energy assessor for about $200, and provide the assessor’s report on their home’s energy usage — and ways to cut that usage — to prospective buyers. The results also would be posted on Portland Maps, a city database available on the internet.

Advocates say the policy will help Portlanders cut home energy use, saving money and reducing carbon emissions that are disrupting the Earth’s climate.

“Local action on climate is more important than ever,” Hales said. “We’re not sure what the federal government is going to do at that level.”

The city/county Climate Action Plan has called on the city to adopt a policy such as the Home Energy Score since 2009. That plan, which charts how Portland can do its part to avert dramatic climate change, calls for reducing carbon emissions from buildings 25 percent by 2030. Most of that would have to come from cutting energy use.

“Energy efficiency is the workhorse” to achieve those goals, said Susan Anderson, director of the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. “It’s the absolutely cheapest way to cut our carbon footprint.”

Portland and the state of Oregon have been working for decades on home energy conservation, with a variety of incentives to make weatherization and insulation cheaper. But even though such projects offer pretty decent financial and other benefits to homeowners, city officials say only about 2 percent of the public has taken advantage.

“We still have about 90,000 homes in Portland that have little to no insulation,” said Michael Armstrong, deputy director of the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.

Energy-efficiency improvements can cut the cost of owning a home by $1,000 a year, he said. As a result, the “low-hanging” fruit for addressing climate change also may be one of the best ways the city can put a dent in its housing affordability crisis, advocates said.

Most of the several dozen people signing up to testify Wednesday spoke in favor of the plan. The main exception was Realtors. Among the 800 or so public comments submitted since the city posted its draft Home Energy Score policy in September, about 600 came from Realtors.

The city’s proposal is “flawed, costly and intrusive,” testified Jane Leo, governmental affairs director for the Portland Metropolitan Association of Realtors.

Leo argues that having a Home Energy Report, which many liken to the miles-per-gallon sticker on new cars or comparable energy-usage tags on home appliances, won’t benefit home buyers. Energy audits result in relative few energy-saving projects, Leo and other Realtors asserted.

The ordinance will apply to roughly 6 percent of Portland’s single-family homes that change hands in an average year, Leo said, arguing that, as a result, the ordinance won’t affect that many homes.

Realtors are concerned that Portland’s stock of older homes can’t compete favorably on an energy-use front with newer homes when buyers are given apples-to-apples comparisons, and may become harder to sell. They also worry the Home Energy Reports, if posted on Portland Maps, might be outdated if homeowners make some energy-efficiency improvements.

Realtors generally oppose new mandates, and spoke derisively of the city meddling in an industry it knows little about.

Representatives of local homebuilders also testified against the measure, though their concern appears to be narrower. They want the city to exempt new homes from the ordinance.

“That (Home Energy) report, on new construction, would show you virtually nothing,” testified Justin Wood of Fish Construction. That’s because new homes are built to higher standards, he and other homebuilders said, and there isn’t much room for energy-efficiency improvements.

“Most homes come in at a 9 or 10” on the Home Energy Score’s 10-point scale, Wood said, although city staff dispute that.

Hales’ staff built in exemptions for homes being sold under financial duress, and provided a deferral for low-income sellers. The city hopes to raise some money, such as from foundations, to pay the $200 cost for Home Energy Scores for properties sold by low-income owners, Anderson said.

The ordinance also isn’t slated to go into effect until 2018, giving some time for tinkering and raising that money. That also will give time for the market to adapt, although there already is a robust industry here for home energy assessments.

Commissioner Amanda Fritz said she opposed putting the Home Energy Score data on Portland Maps and thus available for anyone to see. She’ll introduce an amendment to that affect for consideration on Dec. 7. That’s when the City Council is expected to take a final vote on the proposal.

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Steve Law can be reached at 503-546-5139; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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