Area home builders say ban on construction will worsen Austin’s housing crisis, force residents to live in unsafe conditions

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin home builders sent a letter Monday to city and Travis County officials asking them to allow residential construction to continue while the Stay Home – Work Safe order is in place.

The order, which city and county officials signed on March 24, prohibits apartment or single-family home construction from continuing.

In its letter, the Austin Infill Coalition said the current order will worsen Austin’s housing crisis and pose new safety risks.

The order also bans remodeling for the time being. So, according to the coalition, homeowners could “potentially be forced to live under hazardous conditions.”

For many builders in Austin, the pause in construction means a pause in paychecks.

“This is putting me, my trades and the employees of my contractors in a position where we don’t know what’s going to happen. We’re very, very stressed out,” said Guillermo Carrillo, owner of LECASA Homes and Renovations. “A lot of people that work in construction, the actual labor force, they live paycheck to paycheck. They may have a stay-at-home wife with two kids, and they’re the sole provider, and this thing is really really hurting.”

Carrillo said he’s also in the process of remodeling his own home. “And my lease expires in 30 days, and I don’t think I’m going to finish in 30 days because I’m not allowed to be back there working,” he said.

According to Metrostudy, about 2,900 people could potentially deal with some sort of delays in their moving processes due to this pause in home building.

Vaike O’Grady said, “This is a scenario where people thought they could move in, and some of them have already sold their current house. Most cases, you probably let your current landlord know, or you sold your current house, in anticipation of moving to Austin or Travis County within the next couple of weeks.”

The coalition says it’ll impose strict health and safety guidelines if the city and county allow home construction and remodeling to resume.

  • All workers shall have their temperature taken before entering the site. No one with a temperature of 99.5 or above may enter a work site until they are fever free —without any fever reducing medication — for at least 24 hours.
  • Anyone with COVID-19 symptoms must leave the work site immediately. Contractors will help the worker contact a doctor or public health official for instructions on treatment and testing. The worker will not be allowed to return to the job site until they are symptom-free for at least 72 hours.
  • If a worker tests positive for COVID-19, contractors must immediately notify city/county officials and other workers that may have come in contact with the individual.
  • Workers will maintain a 10-foot distance between themselves whenever possible and a 6-foot minimum distance at all times. If an installation method requires less than 6 feet of distance between workers, PPE must be used that meets the standards set by the city health officials, otherwise, the installation method cannot be used.
  • Contractors must provide workers with hand washing stations with soap. If water is not available, then hand sanitizer must be provided.
  • Frequently touched surfaces such as padlocks, knobs and portable toilet handles must be sanitized at least twice a day.
  • Access to work sites must be restricted. Only inspectors, contractors, vendors and subcontractors’ personnel that are directly engaged in that day’s ongoing construction activities will be allowed access to the site.
  • Contractors must minimize tool sharing to the greatest extent possible, and tools must be sanitized daily.
  • All contractors will post general CDC COVID-19 preventative guidelines as well the new industry-specific COVID-19 safety requirements listed above at all job sites.
  • AIC will work with the City to create an infographic — in English and Spanish — explaining the new COVID-19-related construction safety measures and require all workers to review before returning to a job site. It will relay COVID-19 safety measures, contextualized for the industry.
  • Sites will be cleared of all workers except one contractor representative when inspectors are present.
  • Failure to abide by these regulations shall entail a violation of the Order punishable by a fine and a stop-work order that can only be lifted when an inspector and/or other public official deems the site to be in compliance.

Mayor Steve Adler told KXAN, “I’m finding that in many of the decisions I’m being asked to make now, I don’t get to choose between two good choices. I’m choosing between two choices neither of which is perfect.”

He said it’s not likely that the city will make any changes immediately to the order.

“Austin and Travis County, we erred on the side of bringing down the number of physical interactions that we’re going to have because that’s the best way to save lives,” Adler exlained.

Travis County’s Public Information Officer also said because the Health Authority is recommending that people limit interactions, it doesn’t have any immediate plans to amend the current order.

Carrillo and other builders said there is a way, however, to keep proper distance and continue building.

“Social distancing is much easier to control in smaller scale projects such as mine,” Carrillo said. “Because as most builders will tell you, labor is really tight in Austin right now, I’m lucky sometimes to get two to four people to show up at any one of my projects on any given day. So it’d be much easier for us to manage and be proactive in taking all preventive measures.”

The Austin Board of Realtors said in a statement:

“Our primary concern is the health and safety of our REALTORS®, their clients and the entire community. While we support the city’s efforts to keep our community safe, we are disappointed that commercial and residential construction were not included in the list of essential services for our community. Construction sites are a unique workplace with their own levels of social distancing built in as many workers are isolated completely or separated by large distances. Cities across Texas, notably Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, and their respective counties have all recognized commercial and residential construction as essential services at this time. 

The prohibition on construction is especially concerning in light of the acknowledged shortage of housing in Austin. If left unchanged, the Orders and subsequent Guidance for Construction document could have the unintended consequence of leaving individuals and families without access to safe housing during this critical time, especially those who have homes under contract and may not have a place to live if construction halts. We have urged an amending of these policies to allow for residential and commercial construction to continue.”

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