On March 23, when Gov. Inslee officially declared Washington’s stay at home mandate, his orders were paired with a long list of essential businesses that are exempted from measures that ask Washington residents to stay home and many businesses to close their doors.
Surprised not to find themselves on that list of essential businesses were residential construction companies.
“We’re frustrated,” said Jennifer Spall, director of communications and PR for Building Industry Association of Washington, a statewide agency that educates and influences agencies of Washington’s government on the housing industry. “As far as I know, there are not data we have seen concerning construction sites and COVID that he has used to make that decision.”
Inslee is one of five governors in the United States who has stopped or severely constricted home construction during the COVID-19 crisis, with almost all other states, including California and Oregon, deeming housing construction as essential to continue.
Economically, the halt of residential construction has had a big impact.
“Based on the most recent economic data from 2018, we support 65,000 jobs across the state — that’s $23 million a day in family wage jobs that this is costing us,” Spall said. A 2018 report on home building in Washington concluded that the economic impact of the construction of 24,000 single-family homes that year was $8.4 billion.
On top of hearing from many business owners who have had to lay off many employees or who are on the verge of having to permanently close, Spall said homeowners waiting for a final inspection or caught between rentals may be faced with a period of homelessness. Looting of construction sites, as well as squatting, also is taking place.
While there is understanding and respect for the governor’s orders, frustration stems from the fact that the industry feels it would be able to practice appropriate safety measures and social distancing that would protect construction workers, keep them in jobs, and continue to create more of what is most would deem essential: housing.
“Washington state is already underproducing housing by a massive amount,” said Nona Raybern, PR and media manager of the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties. “We believe that housing of all types, from multifamily housing like apartments, to duplexes, triplexes, single-family homes — all of it is essential.”
To spell out how it would responsibly put construction workers back on site, a working group — called the Construction Roundtable, a collection of six Washington construction industry experts that was assembled by Inslee — last week submitted a letter to the governor that lays out recommendations that are “consistent with the mission of combatting the COVID-19 virus while allowing construction work to be safely phased back into operation.”
These recommendations include restarting construction projects in three phases, with Phase 1, the lowest-risk jobs, beginning first. These construction projects could be performed with workers meeting social distancing requirements, wearing employer-provided personal protective equipment (PPE), and having ample access to soap and running water on site for frequent hand washing.
“Phase 1 includes a lot of homes that are very close to completion, or that just need inspections to get homeowners back in them,” Spall said. “Workers would have specialized COVID training, and everyone on a job site would be carefully tracked in case someone was exposed.”
Added Raybern, residential home projects especially seem fit for these safety practices, because there “are usually two to three builders on site per floor, doing tasks that are often small scale.”
Some cities, like Tacoma, have made their own resolutions to put construction workers back on site for specific projects that qualify. However, there is yet to be a statewide mandate that cohesively gives the green light on doing so, and Gov. Inslee has yet to respond to the letter submitted by the Construction Roundtable. In a recently released statement, leaders at the Building Industry Association of Washington encouraged Inslee to restart construction this week.
“The governor has had over a week to consider the safety recommendations made unanimously by the advisory group he assembled,” stated Greg Lane, BIAW executive vice president and one of the members of the working group. “Over the last few days, nearly 1,200 of our members have sent to the governor personal pledges to comply with all of the new safety requirements.”
Meanwhile, other construction projects for low income housing as well as larger projects, like the $930 million update to Seattle’s Key Arena, continue.
In terms of a timeline for getting residential construction projects back up and running, Raybern said it is unclear.
“You hope for the best and prepare for the worst case scenario,” she said. “We definitely hope we can get back to work as soon as possible, whether that’s May 4 or sooner. That said, we have the utmost respect of the governor, and we know he’s doing his best to keep us safe and make thoughtful decisions about how to reopen the economy.”