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Monday, October 2, 2023
Oct. 2, 2023

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Clark County construction industry urges Inslee to rethink its status

Builders object to being classified as ‘nonessential’

By , Columbian business reporter

When Gov. Jay Inslee announced Thursday that he would extend Washington’s stay-at-home order to May 4, he added a comment that will likely serve as the final word on one of the order’s most hotly debated aspects: A ban on residential construction.

“We made that decision,” Inslee said. “It stands.”

Inslee’s answer comes as a blow to Clark County’s construction industry, which has joined the statewide industry in calling for residential construction to be designated essential due to the urgent need for affordable housing.

“Residential construction contributes $23 million per day to the economy, making the classification of our industry’s activities as ‘non-essential’ even more devastating to our already struggling economy,” wrote Avaly Scarpelli, executive director of the Building Industry Association of Clark County, in response to Inslee’s comment.

Some exceptions

When Washington’s stay-at-home order was first announced, it included a number of construction and trade worker specializations on its list of “essential” workers, which industry groups took as a signal that construction was exempted from the shutdown.

Many job sites kept operating until March 25, when Inslee issued a memo clarifying that certain types of construction projects are essential — such as government-related projects or emergency repairs — but that all other construction projects, both residential and commercial, must shut down.

During the following week, construction business owners and industry leaders argued that housing is an essential service, citing federal guidance from the Department of Homeland Security that included residential construction on a recommended list of essential services.

The industry also argued that Washington’s construction policy makes it an outlier; most states that have instituted stay-at-home orders have exempted residential construction, including Oregon — but so far, Oregon’s new coronavirus numbers have been relatively encouraging.

“Their trends are lower than ours. Everything seems to be lower,” said Tracy Doriot, vice president of the Building Industry Association of Washington. “Our (construction industry) should be able to operate in a similar fashion with a similar result.”

Washington isn’t completely alone in its approach. New York, Pennsylvania and Michigan have applied a similar standard, along with smaller jurisdictions within other states such as Boston and the Bay Area counties in California. And while construction work has been allowed to continue in Oregon, the industry hasn’t been immune to concerns about the spread of the virus at worksites. According to multiple reports from Portland-area media, Oregon’s Occupational Health and Safety agency received more than 1,200 coronavirus-related workplace complaints in March, some of which came from the construction industry.

The other big refrain from homebuilders is that the large, outdoor nature of construction sites should allow workers to implement adequate social distancing measures. Some things would need to change, said Patrick Ginn, owner of Vancouver-based homebuilding company Ginn Group — plumbing and electrical workers often operate next to each other, for example — but the changes wouldn’t be any bigger than what other industries have had to do.

“It seems like if I can order a Jimmy John’s sandwich, a guy can be working on framing in the open air,” Ginn said.

At the Thursday press conference, Inslee said the construction issue was a difficult decision, but he credited it and other tough measures for Washington’s relative success at containing the coronavirus outbreak.

“It’s working,” he said. “The things we’re doing are showing success, and that’s what ought to give us confidence that we should continue on this road of not giving up.”

Local impacts

Despite Inslee’s comments, Scarpelli said the Clark County BIA and its state counterpart will continue to advocate for an essential exemption. The Clark County Council added its voice to the mix at its meeting Tuesday by voting 4-1 to sign a letter calling on Inslee to lift the moratorium on residential construction.

“This issue with construction, and home construction in particular, is critical not just for our county but our state,” Councilor Julie Olson said.

The impact to local builders has been severe; Doriot, who also owns Clark County-based Doriot Construction, said all of his projects have had to come to a complete halt.

The state order does still allow for emergency home construction, but Doriot said many local jurisdictions have passed their own restrictions and it’s been a challenge to make sure that an emergency project doesn’t run afoul of local rules even if it appears to comply with state guidelines.

Ginn Group is the umbrella company that handles both homebuilding and real estate sales through various subsidiaries, and Ginn said the order puts the company in a bind because it does allow real estate sales to continue, subject to social-distancing restrictions.

“We have 90 houses under construction that have pending sales on them,” he said. “Some of (the buyers) have sold their houses and made moving plans.”

Many of those buyers face a deadline to move out of their prior houses, Ginn said, and they can’t wait around indefinitely for the order to be lifted so their new house can be finished.

As a company, Ginn Group is well-positioned to ride out the shutdown because it also deals in property management, Ginn said, and it has some contracts for work on projects with the city of Vancouver, which would be exempted under the order.

Still, the loss of residential construction is damaging, and the company has been left seeking more guidance about how to handle pending sales, he said.

Washington’s rate of new cases has been slowing down in recent days, and Doriot said he and others in the industry are hoping that success may prompt Inslee’s office to allow construction to resume before the May 4 cutoff — or at the very least, to not extend the shutdown any further.

The industry has succeeded in winning one item: A delay in the implementation of new state building codes to Nov. 1. The updated codes had previously been slated to take effect July 1, and the Building Industry Association of Washington had lobbied Inslee to delay the change in order to allow for adequate training time after the stay-at-home order ends.

Columbian business reporter