Don't let your schooling interfere with your education.
~ Pete Seeger

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Oregon Ballot Measure 63

I honestly believe that this measure is the least understood and most harmful measure on the ballot. It would exempt all work on homes and farm buildings valued at $35,000 or less from permits. As usual with a Sizemore initiative, it is very poorly written; for instance, there is no system identified to provide a uniform valuation. How the $35,000-per-year is figured is up to the individual. Is that the amount added per the tax evaluation? Market evaluation? Cost of materials? The amount a contractor would charge? Apparently, it's up to the homeowner to decide, which means that it will, in practice, exempt work valued at far greater than $35,000. It is reasonable to assume that some people, especially unscrupulous landlords, will legally construct entire houses, over the course of two years, without permits – they'll be able to show receipts for $70,000 in materials, or less – but would you really like to live in that house?

Let's take a look at some winners.

The main winners are slumlords. Folks who own a lot of houses that they rent cheap to poor people and college students will be able to make additions and changes that enable them to rent more rooms without complying with basic standards for fire and life safety.

Another clear winner is fly-by-night contractors. Knowing there won't be oversight of their operations, unlicensed or unscrupulous contractors will be able to undercut bids from reputable contractors, and their substandard work will be legal, even if it violates basic fire and life safety standards, or is structurally unsound. So sue them! (If you can find them.)

Large-scale farm operators will be able to make changes in buildings where farmworkers labor, eliminating regulation of fire and life safety standards from production facilities where these under-represented people will labor in worsening conditions.

Some homeowners will be able to save up to $1000 or so to make reasonable remodels or additions to their homes – and they'll do it with quality and care.

How about losers?

Firefighters are going to lose bigtime. Think about it. Would you like to enter a building without knowing whether it had been constructed to basic fire, life safety, and structural standards - or not? Or climb on a roof without knowing whether it had been remodeled with an undersized beam that's going to fail with a minimum of char? One of my colleagues has a sign in his cubicle: "God made building inspectors so that firefighters could have heroes, too." There's a good reason the fire chiefs and firefighters' unions are against Measure 63. Some firefighters are going to be injured if this measure passes. Others will die.

I'd say insurance companies would be losers, since they will experience a spike in claims due to substandard construction, but I've got a feeling they'll be proactive and start immediately raising premiums across the board to cover all the additional claims. They clearly won't be winners – they'll be dealing with a much less predictable market – but the big losers here will be homeowners with insurance.

Folks who live in or own property in flood hazard areas are going to be major losers. The only insurance they can get is underwritten by the federal government, which has strict standards. Without a permit review system to verify that construction in a flood hazard area is built according to those standards, the feds will withdraw flood insurance from Oregon. How much will your property be worth when you can't insure it?

Another loser will be reputable contractors. They'll be undercut by unscrupulous contractors, and, while their reputation may provide some assurance of continued work, in a tight market the loss of a job to a fly-by-night outfit could mean the difference between bankruptcy and solvency.

The environment will lose. Oregon has some pretty good energy efficiency codes. Throw them out the window.

Renters, especially low income families and college students, will probably be the biggest losers of all. Without any system to review and inspect for basic fire and life safety standards, such as egress windows and fire separation assemblies, they will be living in unsafe houses. Some of them will die.

I don't think saving a thousand bucks is worth it.

I make these claims based on three factors:

First, reason. When you really consider the ramifications of such a poorly written initiative, and look at winners and losers, it becomes clear.

Second, as a plans examiner, I have intimate familiarity with building codes, including the reasons for them, their shortcomings, and the mistakes people make in planning their remodels. I frequently see beams that are undersized, even grossly undersized. I see proposals to cut the webbings and chords of engineered trusses. I see bedrooms designed with windows too small for a child to crawl out of – even without windows at all. I see mistakes made by engineers – yes, they are human, too – rarely, it's true, but mistakes in math or in following load paths can be deadly. Frequently I see designers make changes after the engineering has been complete, which renders the engineered system useless. I see mistakes that have been missed by the designer, the engineer, the contractor, the homeowner, and me, which are caught by inspectors in the field. The code isn't perfect. The solution is to revise the code, not throw it out the window. Having another pair of eyes look at your project before and as it's built is the best and cheapest insurance you'll ever get.

Third, and most of all, I make these claims as the survivor of a house fire.

At around 11:30 p.m. on April 3, 2003, I awoke with my dog scratching at my bed, whining in panic. I looked out the window to see flames shooting from my neighbor's bedroom. I rushed to call 911, while Kristin grabbed our 3 year old and 6 week old sons and ran out of the house. Within seconds, just after giving the dispatcher my address, the phone and the power went dead and smoke poured into the hallway between our bedroom and the one exit door.

We lived in a duplex that did not have the 1-hour fire separation, nor the egress window, required by Oregon code.

Fires move with incredible speed. Look at the video of the Great White fire in the Station nightclub sometime. "It just -- it was so fast. It had to be two minutes tops before the whole place was black smoke." That's why so many people died. Had we not had a dog – had we awakened one minute later, our house choked with smoke and without power – at best we would have escaped through that tiny, high window in our bedroom suffering from smoke inhalation. We would have had to call 911 from a neighbor's house, so response would have been much slower. By then the fire would have broken into our apartment, and we would have lost much more than we did, perhaps everything. Very likely, in trying to save our children, one or more of us would have been seriously injured or killed.

All because of construction that did not comply with building code.

When I say that people will die will die as a result of passing Measure 63, it is, granted, only my opinion. But I make it with full confidence that I am right, based on experience, history, and reason. All to save a few thousand bucks and build whatever the hell you want.

It's just not worth it.

If you live in Oregon, please join me in voting against Measure 63.


Terri said...

Thanks for this post - that saves me time in trying to figure it out - or worse skipping, it because it's too confusing.

Anonymous said...


The argument you make is very sound, eloquent and persuasive! I am so glad someone with your expertise has broken this measure down in a true to life way. Thanks.


aj said...

you know your stuff...

you should write these "measure's"

Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing. To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable.
~Helen Keller

Reading List for Information about Transpeople

  • Becoming a Visible Man, by Jamison Green
  • Conundrum, by Jan Morris
  • Gender Outlaw, by Kate Bornstein
  • My Husband Betty, by Helen Boyd
  • Right Side Out, by Annah Moore
  • She's Not There, by Jennifer Boylan
  • The Riddle of Gender, by Deborah Rudacille
  • Trans Liberation, by Leslie Feinberg
  • Transgender Emergence, by Arlene Istar Lev
  • Transgender Warriors, by Leslie Feinberg
  • Transition and Beyond, by Reid Vanderburgh
  • True Selves, by Mildred Brown
  • What Becomes You, by Aaron Link Raz and Hilda Raz
  • Whipping Girl, by Julia Serano
I have come into this world to see this:
the sword drop from men's hands even at the height
of their arc of anger
because we have finally realized there is just one flesh to wound
and it is His - the Christ's, our