Imagine, for a moment, two homes under construction in Washington.
At one, the carpenters, electricians and plumbers are going about their business, building a home for others so they can put food on their table and pay their bills. At another, work has stopped, leaving laborers to seek public assistance while waiting for the coronavirus pandemic to retreat to a manageable level.
Both homes require framing and siding and a roof, work that can be completed despite this age of social distancing as dictated by COVID-19. The only difference is that one falls under the category of publicly financed affordable housing, while the other is privately financed. Therefore, only one is deemed essential by Gov. Jay Inslee.
Inslee has taken a thoughtful and proactive approach to the coronavirus outbreak. He was quick to recognize the danger presented by the disease and to impress upon the public the need for a robust response. But his restrictions regarding the construction industry defy logic and should be recalibrated.
In ordering the closure of nonessential businesses last month, Inslee deemed construction essential if it met one of three criteria: Relating to essential activities described in his order; addressing unsafe conditions or emergency repair; or relating to a government function, such as publicly funded housing or a school. Under any scenario, workers are expected to adhere to social distancing recommendations.
“In general, commercial and residential construction is not authorized under the Proclamation because construction is not considered to be an essential activity,” the governor wrote.
The difficulty comes in trying to delineate between commercial construction and government construction. If workers at an affordable-housing site can swing a hammer while maintaining a safe distance from each other, then surely those at another home site can manage it.
As of January, according to the Washington Employment Security Department, the construction industry employed 15,600 people in Clark County. That number will face an inevitable reduction during the pandemic; financing will dry up or a business will rethink plans to expand or workers will be unable to safely proceed. But in cases where building can safely continue, there should be no difference between government-funded projects and those that benefit the private sector.
Avaly Scarpelli, executive director of the Building Industry Association of Clark County, said: “Gov. Inslee’s clarification of the order is a devastating blow to the building industry and local economy. This order will certainly cause a backlog in builders’ ability to provide more housing units, thus exacerbating the housing affordability and homelessness crises.”
The concern is that a slowdown in housing construction will hamper residents who are prepared to move into a new dwelling. That will have a negative effect on both the short-term and the long-term health of the economy, both in Clark County and throughout the state. When one buyer’s move is unexpectedly delayed, it creates a chain reaction that ripples throughout the economy.
Working to ensure the health of Washingtonians and to stem the spread of coronavirus is a necessary and laudable endeavor. A reasonable case can be made for shutting down all construction in order to facilitate social distancing.
But if public construction is allowed to continue, it is difficult to understand the argument that private construction should be halted.