Let’s say there’s a nice house, around 100 years old, on a street. It’s been well-maintained and had normal renovations done over time to keep it comfortable and practical to live in (electrics upgrades, HVAC improvements, new roof when necessary, etc.). Now, suppose an inventor buys the empty lot next door. This inventor loves the old house so much he creates a machine to duplicate it in every detail down to the last molecule. Now there are two identical houses next to each other on the street.
The new one will immediately be deemed uninhabitable by the city.
The problem is that construction needs to adhere to building codes, which are the minimum standards to which a building must be built. These get stricter and stricter over time, so there is no chance that the 100-year-old house complies with them (likely offenders include insulating-ness of walls and windows, stair width, porch railings, and hundreds of other things). The weird thing is that the building code is supposed to be the minimum standard, but it obviously isn’t: literally most of the US lives in houses that wouldn’t be approved if they were new construction.
So building codes are too strict in one direction (new housing) and too lenient in another (old housing). There’s obviously a distinction between the true minimum (below which a building is uninhabitable) and the desired minimum (our current building code). Let’s call them BMBC (Bare Minimum Building Code) and DBC (Desired Building Code).
My modest proposal: allow people to build houses that only meet the BMBC. However, tax property for every standard in the DBC that the house fails to meet. Want that spiral staircase? No problem, but it’ll cost you $4k/year for the rest of your life.
Note that this does not exempt old houses. If you have a 23-bedroom house built by a robber baron at the turn of the century and the new DBC says all windows must be triple-glazed, you can either make sure all 6,000 windows are triple glazed or pay your new tax on being energy ineffecient.
This will have a stimulating effect on real estate. Housing prices, particularly for older houses, will be much more affordable to young people. This will create a virtuous cycle of young people with money and energy bringing old houses up to the DBC, and meanwhile older people can move into more modern housing. Modern housing will be more compatible with seniors’ mobility constraints and have lower carrying costs (since property taxes will be lower and more predictable). Plus, it’ll create ongoing employment in the construction industry and keep US housing in tip-top shape.
To sum up: housing is either safe or not. We should encourage more safe and efficient choices, but right now old houses are absurdly advantaged. If we want more and cheaper housing, the BMBC makes it easier to build new housing and the DBC incentivizes keeping old housing up-to-date.