The City of Tacoma announced Tuesday that many construction projects will be “essential,” making it the first municipality in Pierce County to do so. Included in the list of essential projects are the downtown Convention Center Marriott Hotel, the Hailey Apartments, Tacoma Town Center, all Tacoma Housing Authority projects, and the YWCA Family Housing.
This comes after many construction companies found themselves not included on the list of essential businesses that are able to continue operations despite Gov. Jay Inslee’s March 23 “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” mandate.
The City’s three-page document, called the First Determination of Essential Construction Activity during the COVID-19 Emergency, “follows the governor’s public statements regarding the authority of local governments to determine their own approaches to enforcement based on local conditions.”
The announcement means that City of Tacoma will determine essential any public or private project that meets one or more of the following four qualifications: It is owned by a government agency or is developed under an agreement with a governmental agency; it increases the supply of affordable or market rate housing in Tacoma or maintains habitability of existing housing; it makes commercial facilities ready to open or reopen post-pandemic; it is necessary to repair or prevent damage to structures or remedy unsafe conditions.
Pursuing construction of any such essential projects may require project owners to submit a COVID-19 safety plan to the City and execute an agreement “indemnifying the City of Tacoma from any claims arising from pursuing construction during the COVID-19 emergency,” according to the document.
Several other cities and counties in the state have taken these matters into their own hands as well, according to Jennifer Spall, director of communications and PR for Building Industry Association of Washington, a statewide agency that educates and influences Washington’s government on the housing industry.
“We’ve seen an uptick in these kinds of resolutions and proclamations in the last week,” she said. “We think it’s great that cities are recognizing this as a huge problem, but at the end of the day, the easiest thing would be for Gov. Inslee to declare construction statewide as essential.”
Inslee is one of five governors in the United States who has stopped or severely constricted construction during the COVID-19 crisis, with almost all other states, including California and Oregon, deeming many construction projects essential.
Specifically to the subject of residential construction, the halt has had a big economic impact statewide.
“Based on the most recent economic data from 2018, we support 165,000 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 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 brews because representatives of the industry feel workers would be able to practice appropriate safety measures and social distancing that would protect them, keep them in jobs, and continue to create more of what most would deem essential: housing.
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 Jessica Gamble, government affairs director of the Master Builders Association of Pierce County, residential home projects especially seem fit for these safety practices, as usually only a few people are working on a house at a time.
The Construction Roundtable continues to meet and is now working to define the specifications of Phase 2 projects. Rather than piecemealing construction proclamations city by city, both Spall and Gamble hope that Inslee will respond to the letter and make a decision that gets every area of the state on the same page.
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, Gamble said it is unclear.
“Everyone’s expecting hopefully to go back to work May 4,” she said, “but it feels a little bit like wishful thinking at this point. We hope there is a slow reopening of the economy, and that residential construction is in that first stage.”