The decision earlier this week by Gov. Jay Inslee to consider construction as a non-essential business has caused local homebuilders to mostly shut down and caused disruption with some homebuyers who now have to wait for completion.
Todd J. Sullivan, owner of Sullivan Homes, said he had to shut down most work on four homes in the Spokane area. One had steel rebar sticking up, so he had crews working Friday to make that job site safe.
“We all have to do our part to make this thing work and make this virus go away. That’s the most important thing,” Sullivan said. “But personally, having residential construction stopped, especially how dispersed subcontractors are, is a mistake.”
Joel White, executive officer for Spokane Home Builders Association, said the order by Inslee created widespread impacts, and some confusion, in an industry that has about 10,000 workers in the region. Most construction jobs have been halted, he said.
“The real impact is really on homeowners and the community and the tax base,” White said. “There are homeowners who were planning on moving in their homes for two weeks and have already sold their existing homes. Now they are left in limbo.”
Inslee’s order did allow contractors to continue to shore up any safety concerns or to prevent rain from ruining structures. If a contractor recently built an 8-foot concrete wall, by law, he or she could be liable if it’s left unsecured. White said he has heard rumors that some contractors are using that provision to continue working.
“Some of these housebuilders are trying frantically to get them stabilized and material off the job sites,” he said. “If we go into lockdown, there will be people … looking to steal and take that material.”
Inslee’s order added further chaos to an industry that was already showing effects of the coronavirus pandemic. In a news release on Friday, the Associated General Contractors of America reported that 39% of contractors have halted or canceled projects during the deteriorating economic conditions.
The shutdowns follow data from February that showed an increase in construction jobs in 42 states before states’ stay-at home orders went into effect.
“The abrupt plunge in economic activity is taking a swift and severe toll on construction,” Ken Simonson, the association’s chief economist, said in the news release.
The association’s online survey, conducted earlier this week, had 1,640 respondents. Of those, 45% reported project delays or disruptions, the news release said.
Another 23% reported shortages of materials, parts, equipment and personal protective equipment, such as respirators, for workers. Another 16% reported delays because they couldn’t get government workers for inspections, permits or other actions.
On Thursday, Spokane County put a hold on all inspections unless the building under construction meets Inslee’s definition of an “essential facility.” The hold also includes residential inspections, but “there may be certain items that can be done remotely, but those will be a case-by-case and addressed accordingly,” according to the Spokane County website.
White noted that Idaho Gov. Brad Little exempted contractors this week from his stay-at home order. That means contractors can leave job sites in Spokane and work in Post Falls or Coeur d’Alene.
However, contractors from Idaho would face the same restrictions as Spokane builders, White said.
“Our workers will go where the work is,” he said. “These are hourly workers. This is their trade. They don’t have significant resources to keep it going.”
White is encouraging Spokane Home Builders Association members, which include about 750 business owners, to lobby Inslee’s office to allow construction to continue with the appropriate social distancing requirements.
“The bigger frustration for us is that (Inslee’s order) appears to be somewhat political,” White said. “He allowed for nonprofit housing that is government funded to be exempted. The construction processes are exactly the same.”
Sullivan, the builder, noted that California and New York officials allowed home construction to continue despite following the same federal guidelines as Inslee.
“The hardest hit states recognize that homebuilding is an essential activity,” he said. “We do have to beat this thing. But it is really concerning the way Washington went about it.”
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