Homebuilders plead for ‘essential’ status

Industry is shut down in Michigan, but not in neighboring states.
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Homebuilders are allowed to do site work needed to prevent hazards and protect materials from the elements, but those are the only activities allowed in Michigan for now. Courtesy HBAM

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer recently declared industries like housing construction are not essential under her “Stay Home, Stay Safe” executive order.

The Home Builders Association of Michigan is now calling on her to rethink the assessment and to consult with federal Homeland Security officials and her colleagues from around the country in determining whether to shut down builders and contractors.

“You can’t declare three-quarters of our industry nonessential and expect to have a ‘safety and repair’ side of the industry available to help people maintain and repair their homes,” said Bob Filka, executive director of HBAM. “The supply chain that feeds maintenance and repair activities also feeds the home construction and renovation markets. Without the latter functioning, the former can’t be sustained.”

Filka said in places like Sparta, builders are being told to vacate incomplete homes even if those structures pose health and safety hazards. He also noted places like Detroit are allowing far more activity than the governor’s order appears to authorize, and such confusion needs to be addressed by the administration.

Filka added he recently has been fielding calls from home builders based in border states and doing business in Michigan. Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Minnesota all declared the housing industry in their states essential, but HBAM has recommended to out of state builders to adhere to Whitmer’s order for the time being.

HBAM previously sent a letter asking the governor to classify the construction and renovation of housing as an “essential activity or infrastructure,” and the “permitting, inspection, construction, transfer and recording of ownership, of housing and anything incidental thereto,” be considered an “essential government service.”

Whitmer’s order does make an exception for site work that needs to be shored up to prevent hazards and protect materials from the elements.

“She did respond to our letter and clarified builders can finish buttoning up existing projects,” Filka said. “Essentially, ongoing work has to cease.”

Meanwhile, the National Association of Homebuilders celebrated a victory as the Department of Homeland Security designated single and multifamily housing construction as essential infrastructure.

“Americans depend on a functioning residential construction sector to provide safe, affordable housing for our citizens, and this need is especially acute during this pandemic,” said NAHB Chairman Dean Mon. “Moreover, a healthy housing market is critical to maintain a sound economy.”

In an effort spearheaded by NAHB, 90 companies and organizations sent a joint letter last month to Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Jack Wolf urging him to designate housing construction as essential.

The declaration from DHS is only a recommendation for states to follow. There is no mandatory federal order for states to follow on what is or is not an essential business.

For the immediate future, HBAM is encouraging members to comply with Whitmer’s order. Filka said the organization supports the governor in her attempt to protect human health.

“When you draw the line between essential and nonessential, sometimes that line is not as clear as you or I would like,” Filka said. “Lets err on the side of caution and hope we can see that curve flatten. But it is frustrating.”

At the same time, Filka stressed the importance of having a long-term plan in place for the housing industry, so it is poised to respond to emergencies like a tree falling on someone’s roof, for example.

“In the long term, the governor needs to look to DHS and the new guidelines,” Filka said. “You can’t shut off our industry and expect it to be available for emergencies. Given our worker shortages and people being a little more desperate about earning money, I’m concerned our industry will be irreparably damaged.”

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