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Wednesday, Oct 4, 2023

Something in the Desert Air?

Say what you want about Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris, but you wouldn’t win an argument calling him dumb, dull or in any way a typical politician. Rather, he’s an odd mixture of interesting, imperious and in-your-face obnoxious. The latter is not a reach considering he’s leading a lawsuit against neighboring Palmdale that alleges its City Council structure discriminates against Latinos. And, if you didn’t know, but might have guessed, in real life he’s a plaintiff’s attorney who has won big class-action lawsuits. Believe it or not, he’s also a registered Republican – who believes that there’s a government role in closely partnering with business to build the economy. OK. At this point, you must be completely baffled and scratching your head. Don’t feel bad. Anyone who hasn’t met Parris would be. But let’s just put it this way: this odd mixture appears to work, and here’s how in one instance. Last month, KB Home, the L.A. house builder, unveiled what is called its ZeroHouse 2.0 model in a Lancaster subdivision dubbed Dawn Creek. The house is a true technological marvel. KB boasts the structure produces as much energy as it consumes while drastically cutting water usage, no small matter in the Mojave where water is hard to find and comes at a premium. The house features a recycling system that treats so-called “gray water” – that’s the yucky stuff that flows from showers, tubs, sinks and washing machines – and uses it on the landscaping. Solar panels on the roof produce power, sophisticated insulation and sealants reduce energy loss and it’s all monitored with computerized systems that measure electrical and water usage in real time. Of course, none of this comes cheap. KB Home estimates the technology adds about $44,000 to the cost of a home, which might not be a lot in Bel Air but will eliminate buyers in a subdivision where the regular homes start at $245,000. In other words, it’s the kind of place where teachers, public safety officers and other moderately compensated workers can afford to live. But Tom DiPrima, the executive vice president of the Southern California division of KB Home who has overseen the project, figures the cost already has been cut 50 percent from the first version of the house, which was built a few years ago. I met DiPrima last month at the Antelope Valley Board of Trade annual conference in Mojave, where Parris talked to the crowd of business, civic and political leaders about his efforts to turn Lancaster into one of the nation’s first net zero cities, producing as much power as it consumes. The KB house was highlighted. The city has received national attention for its effort, and Lancaster, under the mayor’s leadership, has already taken steps to get there. It’s installed solar panels atop school parking garages, required all new homes as of Jan. 1 to have solar panels and greenlighted solar power plants. City officials have a goal of reaching net zero by 2020. Well, like they say, that’s all fine and dandy but likely strikes many as Big Government heavy handedness in what is ironically a bastion of Red State, conservative politics in liberal L.A. County. But DiPrima told me that Parris and Lancaster’s energy goals were key in prompting KB Home to pursue its ZeroHouse 2.0. Now, the mayor is pushing the company to eventually completely eliminate the extra, marginal costs for such homes. DiPrima was honest and said he didn’t think that would happen anytime soon, but he did say that the company believes it can cut the $44,000 marginal cost in half again and more. Now, that’s the truly amazing part. Working together, a small-town mayor with a vision and a big-time housing company are making radical progress in reducing energy consumption. Which leads to the obvious question: why can’t this kind of collaboration occur more often elsewhere, where the advances might come in other industries? Why not here in Los Angeles where, instead, government and business more often than not clash and produce little more than three yards and a cloud of dust. Perhaps it’s the special alchemy of Lancaster and Parris– part conservative, part progressive and part…well, I’m just not sure. It’s obviously, though, a mixture that is comfortable breaking up traditional ways of thinking about the government-business relationship. Let’s just say they do things different in the desert. But more one thing, remember I said Parris wasn’t your typical politician? Well, that’s not entirely true. When KB and the city held their press conference last month at the home’s unveiling, I can assure you Parris took public victory laps. In this case, though, they were well deserved. Laurence Darmiento is editor of the Business Journal. He can be reached at editor@sfvbj.com.

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