By Congressman Dan Newhouse

April 6, 2020

Life has temporarily changed for many during this pandemic, and as we adjust our schedules, work environments, and daily activities to keep our communities safe and flatten the curve, we must ensure that our economy can recover and that families are able to provide for their loved ones.

Much of my work in Congress has transitioned online or to phone calls, and I am in daily communication with the Governor’s office, federal officials tasked with handling the COVID-19 outbreak, and local community leaders and healthcare providers. The health and safety of the people of Central Washington are my top priority, and while I applaud and respect the Governor’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order, one glaring discrepancy has become clear.

Governor Inslee’s list of “essential” activities that are permitted to continue throughout our state’s response to the coronavirus outbreak excludes residential construction. The agriculture industry has earned this designation, as farmers and ranchers are working in overdrive to keep food on shelves and tables across the country. Families recognize the essential nature of food production, and at the same time, having a roof over their heads is equally critical. In fact, the majority of states that have issued stay at home orders have deemed residential construction as “essential.”

On April 1, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and I sent a letter to Governor Inslee urging him to make this critical change – both to keep our state’s economy stable and to allow these contractors and homebuilders to provide for their families while ensuring that our state’s housing affordability and homelessness crisis isn’t exacerbated during this time of crisis.

One family in Yakima currently displaced from their home due to an accidental house fire is now unable to move forward with rebuilding. They are currently living in temporary month-to-month housing without certainty of when or how they will be able to return home.

Families across the state are facing similar challenges, including one family whose home previously burned down in a wildfire. They had been living out-of-state while they attempted to rebuild their lives but returned home to Washington at the start of the pandemic. Now, construction has halted, and they are once again faced with the uncertainty of not knowing when they’ll have a roof over their heads.

These are circumstances beyond their control, and Governor Inslee’s restriction on residential construction is negatively affecting their quality of life. Additionally, the impacts of this industry’s absence are wide-spread. For example, as paper mills seek to ramp up production to fill the seemingly-incessant empty paper product shelves at local grocery stories, they need the wood chips produced by these residential construction projects in order to do so.

Employees of Washington’s construction companies are being put on “standby” and asked to rely on unemployment benefits when there is work they can be doing – safely – to contribute to our economy and provide for their families.

The fact that public construction projects are included on the list of essential activity proves this work can be done safely and in compliance with both federal and state mandates. In fact, the Construction Industry Safety Coalition has developed safety guidelines, currently being used in many other states by residential construction companies, that go beyond the social distancing and sanitation requirements of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Why should we allow progress to be made on the new NHL arena in Seattle and not on developing housing complexes in Washington’s rural communities?

We should be doing everything we can to stabilize our economy and the availability of housing during this crisis, and including residential construction as an essential activity will help achieve that goal.