Coronavirus bans hit majority of Bay Area commercial, market-rate housing construction

Author: J.K. Dineen

Date: 4/05/2020

Publication: SFChronicle

Bay Area health officials issued a sweeping new order on Tuesday banning a range of commercial and residential construction that had previously been exempt from stay-at-home mandates. The move could swell the record number of Californians seeking unemployment by putting some construction workers out of jobs.

The order requires that most construction projects shut down, but exempts health care projects related to fighting the coronavirus pandemic, as well as housing and mixed-use projects that are at least 10% affordable. It allows projects “that provide services to vulnerable populations” as well as those that are “required to maintain safety, sanitation, and habitability of residences and commercial buildings.” San Francisco will limit public works construction to essential projects determined by officials.

The order covers six counties: Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara.

All other construction is prohibited. This means that work must stop on office buildings as well as 100% market-rate developments like San Francisco’s One Stuart Lane and the Four Seasons Residences at 706 Mission St. It means hotel projects around the Bay Area must stop work. The order will shut down a number of housing developments in Oakland’s Broadway-Valdez neighborhood, where most of the developments do not have affordable units. In San Francisco, many projects have a large enough affordable component that they will go forward, while others pay fees rather than including affordable units.

The previous order allowed housing projects of all sorts to continue, whether they were luxury condo towers or housing for formerly homeless people.

“Our collective efforts have so far been beneficial in slowing the spread of the virus, but more is needed to prevent hospitals from being inundated and to save lives,” said John Coté, spokesman for San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera. “The new order does indicate that more commercial and resident construction must stop, with exceptions made for projects that help keep people safe and help keep people housed.”

The order comes as a record number of Californians seek unemployment insurance: More than 150,000 people filed for unemployment on Monday, Gov. Gavin Newsom said at a news conference Tuesday. More than 1.6 million people have applied during the coronavirus outbreak.

San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin applauded the decision.

“I salute the public health officers and the mayors for their decision,” said Peskin. “Our construction workers are as vulnerable as anyone else in the population, and they should not be used as cannon fodder.”

Ross Edwards, president of the general contractor Build Group, said his company has been “doing amazing work to be sure that our workers are safe.” The company is currently building 2,000 housing units in San Francisco and Oakland, all of which will be able to continue because they have at least 10% affordable units.

The group has other commercial projects that will not be able to go forward. These include a $25 million home in Woodside, tenant improvement jobs for tech companies, as well as other commercial work and public sector jobs.

“We are still trying to parse what this thing means,” said Edwards. “We have projects for Amazon. We have projects for Facebook. All of those will now shut down.”

Some of the ramifications of the order are still unclear, Edwards said, including a few jobs at San Francisco General Hospital that are health care-related, but don’t directly involve conronavirus treatment or research.

“We are all trying to figure out what projects you can build and what is right and what is wrong. It’s been the most chaotic three weeks we have ever experienced,” he said. “It’s unbelievable that in the United States you have to fight so hard just to work.”

Still, some construction workers — who asked to be anonymous for fear of losing their jobs — said they welcomed the order, saying they have felt pressure to work, despite concerns that they will carry the pandemic home to their spouse and kids. One carpenter who works on an apartment complex near downtown San Francisco said that “at some point the dollar amount you are making doesn’t equal the health risk.”

“If you talked to me two weeks ago I’d have been happy to still have a paycheck,” he said. “But as the numbers mount every day we are becoming more scared.”

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