Sunday, September 23, 2007

Green Frustrations

I hereby offer my apologies for my absence. (Max!) Blogging has been interrupted with contracts and home sales. Although most of the country is in a housing slump, the South SF Bay Area is still going strong.

It is a relief to receive emails from people requesting more writing on the subject of green real estate. Lately it feels that green real estate expertise is an unwanted commodity. I was at an office meeting last Tuesday where Bay Area real estate leaders proclaimed an anti-environmentalist agenda. Home buyers are much more interested in a home’s school district than whether or not it is oriented well for passive solar heating.

Reading my RSS feeds had to take a backseat while I studied up on the meanings behind public school API scores. My mother is known within the office as an expert on which schools are desirable. You tell her an address, and she will tell you what school district it is in. While I still have to look the address up, I feel confident in knowing on which homes buyers are still outbidding each other.

Still, within these school districts it is possible to search for home features that encourage energy efficiency, good indoor air quality and water conservation. I try to point out such features and be an environmental educator as I go. I am sure other educators will share in my frustration in not knowing whether I am getting through to anyone. People do not want to be preached to when buying a home. They want someone to listen to their needs. So my ideals should always take a back seat to my client’s ideals. In this market, public school test scores are the ideal.

Last Tuesday at our weekly office meeting, Mark Burns, president of the Silicon Valley Association of Realtors (SILVAR) came with Adam Montgomery, the Association’s Government Affairs Officer to speak to our office about the Association’s political action committee, and to ask us to donate more money to the cause. They were bragging that on a local level the Association of realtors is one of the largest PACs and whomever they back has always had enough money to win.

While speaking of whom they were backing, Mark Burns also entertained the group by talking down candidates and measures in need of defeating. The act was much in the vein of Rush Limbaugh entertainment, causing the group to laugh and shake their heads. To disagree with such statements would make one seem foolish and deserving of ridicule from all the jocks in one’s high school graduating class.

He then went on to describe with disdain an example of New Urbanism being backed by a candidate that simply must be defeated. His reasoning was entertaining, but familiar. I know of numerous studies that have proven that more lanes of traffic actually do not ease but increase congestion, but I kept quiet. The candidates had already been chosen by committee and were not up for debate.

Later he mentioned the need to block initiatives in Cupertino trying to make building and remodeling more Green. We are already Green enough and such laws would make development worthless. I was overwhelmed by the groans of agreement within the room.

I used to think that becoming a Green-focused Realtor might be redundant. SILVAR has already attained a Green business certification. The debate over the existence of global warming has ended, and the movement is well underway. If everyone has heard of a straw bale home, surely everyone knows the need for more sustainable housing.

However, the general attitudes of those in the real estate industry are far behind public opinion, especially in the Bay Area. What seems like a logical next step in action to me is impractical and inconvenient to those whom are in a position to take action.

No, being a Green Realtor is not cliché yet. All the same, your emails of encouragement are a huge help to remind me to not just give up and join the rest of the crowd. Now, if only one of you Green-minded readers would just buy a house from me! Putting your money where your mouth is sends much more of a statement than any writing or petitioning.

No study proving the value of new urbanism will change the mind of Mark Burns. Customers demanding to only spend money on environmentally conscious homes will change the mind of Mark Burns. The people in power are only following what will most easily turn a profit for them. The power to make the world a better place is in your hands.

3 comments:

Holly G. Latta said...

Below is an email I received from Mark Burns in its entirety. My response is forthcoming.

Holly,

I wanted to comment on some of the items you wrote in your blog.

First, thanks for mentioning SilVAR as being 'green' certified and
oriented. We take steps to reduce energy and increase recycling of
paper. These are easy to accomplish and don't cross over into the
areas I believe cost more environmentally and economically than they
conserve.

SilVAR's defeat of Measure A wasn't mentioned in your blog. This was
a tremendous win for environmentally concerned folks in Santa Clara
County. You'll have to read the whole initiative rather than
summaries or excerpts but I think you'll find a lot of interesting
information and the reasons why SilVAR stood against it.

You commented that you knew of studies that stated more lanes can
increase congestion. I have attended countless City Council and
Planning Commission meetings on the often proposed 'Downtown
Cupertino' issue. I can speak from vast experience that in this
instance you are completely off base. If you could gather all the
traffic studies for the Stevens Creek Corridor and read through them
I think you would find I'm correct. While the occasional statewide or
national study may point to easing of traffic with less lanes, they
are not specific to any local area like Cupertino. You said yourself
that while most of the country's real estate market is in a slump,
we're still going strong. Applying generalizations like that to
Cupertino's traffic flow and commuter pattern issues in the same way
would be misleading and inappropriate, don't you think?

While I appreciate that I can entertain folks like Rush Limbaugh, I
can honestly say I don't think I've heard more than an hour or two of
his broadcasts (usually from other news feeds) cumulatively in my
entire life. It's nice to know that my style at least communicates
somewhat clearly, if not in an entertaining way.

I didn't say further green building initiatives would make
development 'worthless.' What I said was that green practices are
already established within the building community and that further
restrictions would add too much to the cost to build. Estimates of
implementing state of the art green building restrictions would
double to quadruple the cost to build both in residential and
commercial in Santa Clara Valley. And the hidden environmental cost
is something most 'green' folks fail to acknowledge or comprehend.
Where would the greener building materials and components come from?
Their manufacture and transportation to building sites, whether
starting here in the US or overseas, would contribute mightily to the
carbon problem so many environmentalists are concerned about. And how
terrible is it that for almost two decades, new construction and
remodeling here has called for R-19 in the walls, R-30 in the
ceilings, and double-pane windows all around?

Think of it this way: If it costs around $200 a square foot to build
a new home in Cupertino, how could an $800 a square foot home (along
with the cost of the land) ever recoup the difference in energy
savings? A 3000sf new home in Cupertino would cost an extra $1.8
million to build. That $1.8 million (per house) could go a lot
farther if it was put into better recycling practices, cleaning up
our creeks and water supply, and education of the public on how to
save energy. And who would buy these homes with $4 million+ price
tags? ($1 million+ for the land, see comps in Monta Vista, $2.4
million for the building, conservative 7% financing and carrying
costs, and a paltry 10% profit margin for the builder) (or you could
say it would take 750 years to break even if you reduced a $200 a
month PG&E bill to zero with the ultimate green house)

Please take a look into what green practices the Home Builders
Association already incorporate into their recommended practices for
the 1000+ homebuilders they represent. http://www.hbanc.org

You and I could debate the mercury problems inherent in CFL
lightbulbs, the real costs of ethanol and biofuels, or even the
health hazards of air-sealing your home to save energy. Overzealous
global warming and environmental proponents seldom consider the
myriad hidden costs, both social and economic, associated with 'going
green.'

If you would like to discuss these things, I'd be game. I don't
particularly appreciate your biased comments on the work I do for
SilVAR without having the opportunity to respond and have all of it
published together. You might have mentioned your intention to put me
in your blog or voiced your opinion openly at your breakfast meeting.
I found what you said on your blog somewhat mean-spirited.

Surprise me and publish this email in its entirety on your blog. I'm
not publishing partial and misleading information on global warming
to promote myself and my business. Instead I feel it is important to
understand all the information available and then form an opinion.
And revise that opinion when new information comes up. An opinion
others can trust comes from serious education on the issue rather
than just proclaiming the debate is over.

I look forward to your comments,

Mark Burns
Coldwell Banker Premier
President, Silicon Valley Association of Realtors®
Realtor of the Year 2005
408-777-2083 direct
mark@markburns.com

Brian LeBars said...

I too am going down the green path and wrote a post for my friends to get us in the right direction. Maybe you can help point us in the right direction.

Thanks for the look.


http://blog.brianlebars.com/2007/10/part-1-green-real-estate-what-it-means.html

Rhuth said...

The sections of text in italics are quoted from Mark Burns. Please read his email in its entirety above. The sections in bold are my responses to his comments.

I have attended countless City Council and
Planning Commission meetings on the often proposed 'Downtown
Cupertino' issue. I can speak from vast experience that in this
instance you are completely off base. If you could gather all the
traffic studies for the Stevens Creek Corridor and read through them
I think you would find I'm correct. While the occasional statewide or
national study may point to easing of traffic with less lanes, they
are not specific to any local area like Cupertino.


Since I read this, I have been searching for exemptions to the generally accepted concept of induced traffic within traffic studies. I have not been able to find any evidence that specific communities might create exemptions to the rule. Could you please be more specific about the traffic studies you have read? Where does it say more lanes actually decrease traffic?

You said yourself
that while most of the country's real estate market is in a slump,
we're still going strong. Applying generalizations like that to
Cupertino's traffic flow and commuter pattern issues in the same way
would be misleading and inappropriate, don't you think?


I am not sure what the correlation to my generalizations in home sales and traffic patterns are. However, I do not feel that Cupertino’s traffic flow is the reason for its increased home sales. I believe that competition over school test scores is the reason for Cupertino’s higher prices. I do not base this assumption on any studies, but on what my buyers are saying. You have been a Realtor for much longer than I have, so I would concede to your authority if you did not feel school scores were a driving factor in Cupertino’s home sales.

I can make your next argument for you though. School scores are more a measure of a community’s socioeconomic status than they are a measure of the value of a school. If New Urbanist ideas were implemented, the school’s janitors and teachers may not have to commute from far away anymore. But the influx of less privileged students would lower Cupertino school test scores. This would take away the main reason home prices are so high here. I sincerely believe that making a community a better place to live is of greater value than what might make me more money as a Realtor.


I didn't say further green building initiatives would make
development 'worthless.' What I said was that green practices are
already established within the building community and that further
restrictions would add too much to the cost to build. Estimates of
implementing state of the art green building restrictions would
double to quadruple the cost to build both in residential and
commercial in Santa Clara Valley.


I think this is the issue in which we have to agree to disagree. I believe taking a hit to the pocket book is worth making the world a better place. You believe that hitting the pocket book takes away the vitality of a community to begin with.

And the hidden environmental cost
is something most 'green' folks fail to acknowledge or comprehend.
Where would the greener building materials and components come from?
Their manufacture and transportation to building sites, whether
starting here in the US or overseas, would contribute mightily to the
carbon problem so many environmentalists are concerned about.


If, in fact the green issues SILVAR opposed were greenwashed companies looking to do more harm than good in order to make a buck, I would agree with you wholeheartedly. I have been searching for the measures that were defeated, or in need of being defeated by SILVAR, and have not been able to find them.

This greenwashing issue was not brought up at the breakfast meeting. Only the fact that those laws were cost prohibitive was mentioned. My point was that green issues were a source of humor and disdain within the real estate industry, which I found disheartening.


And how
terrible is it that for almost two decades, new construction and
remodeling here has called for R-19 in the walls, R-30 in the
ceilings, and double-pane windows all around?


I am not certain if this sentence implies that your are frustrated with the current laws, or if you feel the current laws are sufficient.

Think of it this way: If it costs around $200 a square foot to build
a new home in Cupertino, how could an $800 a square foot home (along
with the cost of the land) ever recoup the difference in energy
savings? A 3000sf new home in Cupertino would cost an extra $1.8
million to build. That $1.8 million (per house) could go a lot
farther if it was put into better recycling practices, cleaning up
our creeks and water supply, and education of the public on how to
save energy. And who would buy these homes with $4 million+ price
tags? ($1 million+ for the land, see comps in Monta Vista, $2.4
million for the building, conservative 7% financing and carrying
costs, and a paltry 10% profit margin for the builder) (or you could
say it would take 750 years to break even if you reduced a $200 a
month PG&E bill to zero with the ultimate green house)


Again, I have not seen the data these figures have been founded on, so the numbers have no meaning to me. However, $200 a month for a PG&E bill for a 3000 square foot home sounds like a bargain!

I do not think that the condos above businesses and smaller blended use buildings of new urbanism would cost an end consumer 4 million. Yes, with green issues in mind, the McMansions would be cost prohibitive.


You and I could debate the mercury problems inherent in CFL
lightbulbs, the real costs of ethanol and biofuels, or even the
health hazards of air-sealing your home to save energy. Overzealous
global warming and environmental proponents seldom consider the
myriad hidden costs, both social and economic, associated with 'going
green.'


These are all lovely straw man issues that detract to the actual points I made, which were:
1. Green issues were a laughing matter in a meeting where dissenting views were not welcome. (Hence the Rush Limbaugh analogy.)
2. New Urbanism is being actively fought against.
3. Consumers are the only ones whom have the power to make any changes.


If you would like to discuss these things, I'd be game. I don't
particularly appreciate your biased comments on the work I do for
SilVAR without having the opportunity to respond and have all of it
published together. … I found what you said on your blog somewhat mean-spirited.


The politician you complained against had no opportunity to refute your statements against his campaign in our breakfast meeting. You were venting about a frustration there, just as I am here.

You might have mentioned your intention to put me
in your blog or voiced your opinion openly at your breakfast meeting.


Again, even if writing in my blog had occurred to me while the meeting was happening, such a comment was not welcome. You are entertaining and informative, but the subject matter which you found disdainful and humorous was saddening to me. Saying so would have only made myself disdainful and humorous to you and to the group.

I am not asking you to change your speaking style, or even change your mind on any issues. Within a political action committee, a dissenting voice is counterproductive, so your speaking style is very effective for your job.

Even if I were able to hypnotize you and make you agree with all my crazy ideas, you would not be able to make the changes I would like to see happen. What we sell as Realtors is dictated by the demand of the consumers. I am more frustrated that consumers are not demanding what I think they should, than I am frustrated by your speech.


Surprise me and publish this email in its entirety on your blog.

Done. Your email is the first comment after the offending article. Those of you that are reading here, please scroll up and read it in its entirety without my interruptions.

I'm
not publishing partial and misleading information on global warming
to promote myself and my business. Instead I feel it is important to
understand all the information available and then form an opinion.
And revise that opinion when new information comes up. An opinion
others can trust comes from serious education on the issue rather
than just proclaiming the debate is over.


If you are right about global warming being non-existent, obviously my publishing such information is not promoting myself and my business. Especially since the main focus of this article was to admonish the people reading my articles and agreeing with them.

They are the only ones with the power to make the changes I would like to see happen. I am not making money from any green issues. I am making money from memorizing school scores. If it is important to them, they are not speaking loudly enough with their consumerism.


Thank you for taking the time to read my little blog. Your response to my latest article has more than doubled my readership. Perhaps now there will be more conversation and participation within the comments. Although I may be a bleeding heart freak, I have always respected and admired you as a businessman. I am honored that you noticed me.