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Opinion >  Column

Sue Lani Madsen: Drop arbitrary distinction that stops essential housing from being built

Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, writes a weekly column. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, writes a weekly column. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidelines. The Washington Department of Labor and Industries has put out posters, checklists and record-keeping forms. Construction workers are accustomed to complying with safety rules governing nearly every action on site, even if they sometimes roll their eyes. They’re ready.

And under Gov. Inslee’s order, construction is shut down unless the project serves some activity on the list of essential services. That’s where the debate starts.

The new hockey arena in Seattle is still actively under construction. So is Seattle’s addition to the Washington State Convention Center and the Spokane Public Facilities District’s new Sportsplex. Finishing a house for a family rebuilding after a fire? Shut down. Nonessential.

Rep. Dan Newhouse joined Mark Harmsworth of the Washington Policy Center for a Friday webinar on restarting construction.

Newhouse said he’s been encouraged by many of Gov. Jay Inslee’s actions during the crisis but “some decisions have fallen short.” How construction has been handled under the state’s stay-home order is one of them.

“I want to keep emphasizing the hashtag HousingIsEssential,” Newhouse said.

Washington is one of only a handful of states to declare housing nonessential under the COVID-19 restrictions, according to Harmsworth. Residential construction continues in California, Idaho and Oregon.

“This is not a partisan issue,” said Joel White, executive officer of the Spokane Home Builders Association. “Shelter is an essential element of life, especially when you’re sheltering in place.”

White thinks Inslee believes he’s doing the right thing to protect society, but said residential construction can continue in a safe manner following the CDC and L&I guidelines.

“There’s so many stories of people in limbo between houses. Are they supposed to live in hotels for months?” White said.

Most residential job sites have few workers on site at any one time, ideal for social distancing.

Then there’s the question of equity. Public housing construction has been declared essential, but all private residential work is stopped, including new construction and remodels. Even Habitat for Humanity housing projects are shut down. The reasoning behind the difference is opaque, especially when safe practices have been established.

White is also concerned about his members and their employees, who need to make their money while the sun shines. Even road construction season has been affected, as WSDOT has erred on the side of “leading by example” in its shutdown decisions, according to spokeswoman Beth Bousley.

It’s a missed opportunity. Work would be less disruptive for the public and safer for workers while traffic is drastically reduced. And as longtime Teamster Jackie Murray said in a recent Facebook rant after being shut down, road construction is “basically a solitary pursuit. Each of us is in/on our own machine.” Social distancing isn’t a challenge.

Cheryl Stewart, executive director for Inland Northwest Associated General Contractors, said her members do have a lot of large public works projects still underway.

“Not all of our workforce wants to be working right now, although others are ready to go,” Stewart said.

She said job sites are staffed at about 30% of normal both to respect workers who want to be at home and to spread out workers across the site.

The AGC represents major contractors heavily involved in both private commercial and public construction, and is one of 16 organizations participating in the governor’s ad hoc work group on restarting construction. The group includes representatives from unions, agencies, government, business and construction organizations representing both residential and commercial construction, public and private.

Private commercial construction also chafes at the essential/nonessential inequity with public projects.

Associated Builders and Contractors members are concentrated in the private commercial construction market.

“For me, it’s been really sad to see all of the small contractors laying everyone off and don’t know if they’ll be able to stay afloat,” said Suzanne Schmidt, president and CEO.

The three ABC chapters sent a letter to Inslee two weeks ago, asking for a restart on small private construction projects. Schmidt said they didn’t receive an answer, but it may have been one trigger for the work group formation.

Safety is a primary concern for every responsible contractor.

“Construction companies really do care about their workforce in every respect, whether it’s safety on the job site or if (their crew is) able to make ends meet. That’s been the hardest, knowing they’ve had to lay people off and they’re struggling,” said Schmidt.

White has his fingers crossed for a staggered start for construction with residential in the lead. Stewart is hopeful for results from the work group. Her members are using the pause to plan for ramping up.

“We don’t want to get to May 4 and then start thinking about it,” Stewart said.

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