How shutting down construction is forcing homeowners out of their homes

By MARK HARMSWORTH  | 
Apr 20, 2020
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The COVID-19 ‘Stay in Place’ declaration issued on March 23rd, contained a list of essential businesses that are considered critical to minimizing the impact to public safety and continuity of state operations. Excluded from the essential business list, is the residential construction industry.

Despite forming a Western States Pack with Oregon and California, which both allow residential construction, Washington (with the exception of the city of Lynden) continues to keep residential construction on hold. As the moratorium has now stretched into its 2nd month, Washington families are starting to feel the impact.

There are several hundred families across the state that have been building new homes. Many of the families set move in dates based on fixed construction schedules. They also ended leases and rental agreements on their current homes. This has created a problem, potentially displacing them from their homes and time is quickly running out for alternate accommodations to be arranged.

The risk of COVID-19 infection is low in the construction business as many of the job functions, including inspectors, operate either in isolation or within the social distancing guidelines already issued by the government. Additionally, the construction industry has been diligent in working with employees to help them follow prevention guidelines issued by the CDC and is self-regulating with little government oversight.

Several ideas have been proposed by local builders to speed the opening of the industry including -

Building Submittal Packages: Allow a drop off area to submit Building Permit Packages or allow electronic submittal.    

Inspections & Certificate of Occupancies: Encourage the use of technology, video/pictures to complete regulatory retirements if staff are not available and allow photographic evidence of items complete for inspections.

Plat Recording: Allow administrative approval for final plat signoff in lieu of requiring City Council approval (required in some municipalities) if fire flow, emergency access, street signs are in place.  

Public Hearings: Allow public hearings for new plats through video broadcasts as well as emails/letter writing.

The use of technology in other industries has been able to keep people safe while allowing business to continue.

The Puget Sound area is already struggling with affordable housing prices and a delay in bringing the badly needed inventory to the market will only exacerbate the situation.

State Senator Doug Erickson, in response to Governor Inslee’s new edict, made the point that ‘If the shutdown of private construction is a medical necessity, then governmental construction should be halted as well’.

The building industry position based on the list of designated essential services, is that it is exempt from the ‘Stay in Place’ requirement and can continue operations. Supportive services, such as inspectors and permitting staff should also be exempt from the ‘Stay in Place’ requirements for not only government construction projects, but all construction projects in Washington.

In the closing statement in his letter, Senator Erickson states, ‘All construction must be treated the same. We should put the health of the populace first, and the needs of government second, and treat everyone equally under the law’.

This is sound policy and the decision to exclude only part of an industry should be reconsidered.

Restarting residential construction for homes that are partially built would prevent the displacement of the homeowners who are unable to stay in their current homes. It allows families to move into their new homes and it safely restarts a critical industry in Washington.