While the Bay Area shelters in place, construction on mansions and luxury condos continues
SAN FRANCISCO - The Bay Area has been quiet for weeks, except for the sound of construction.
California's shelter-in-place order has forced millions of people to stay home and businesses to close to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Some construction workers, however, are still reporting for work to build and renovate Silicon Valley mansions and San Francisco luxury condos, thanks to carve-outs in shelter-in-place orders that exempt any housing construction as "essential" business.
Local officials say residential construction all of kinds is necessary to address the region's housing crisis. The exemption means affordable housing projects are moving forward, too.
"San Francisco is experiencing a housing shortage and creating more housing has consistently been Mayor [London] Breed's top priority in office," said Sarah Owens, a spokesperson for mayor. "It was deemed necessary to continue building housing so that people can afford to live in San Francisco."
Still, the sight of construction crews in the midst of a pandemic has reignited neighborhood debates in one of the wealthiest places in the world - only now, disputes are also about how construction projects impact public health and vulnerable workers, in addition to the housing crisis.
High-end construction "will never stop because the money's endless," says David Berke, owner of Executive Roofing in San Jose. On the peninsula, which is home to the headquarters of Facebook, Google, and Apple, he and others are working on construction for a high-level Apple engineer, an early investor in a public tech company, and a "massive project" for a Google executive.
In some places, the streets were so silent, you could find construction sites just by listening.
In San Francisco, residents said construction crews are working on a single-family Victorian in Pacific Heights last assessed at $3.2 million, a three-story home in Laurel Heights that sold for $3.8 million in 2018, as well as waterfront luxury condos in South Beach where three-bedroom apartments are listed for as much as $7 million.
Laurel Amberdine, a writer and editor for Locus Magazine, who lives near the condos, said she was worried about the workers, who were not wearing masks or social distancing. "They all commute from the suburbs, come here to work close to each other while touching all the same equipment, and then go back to their homes and families," she said in an email. "The only thing this is protecting is the big developers' money."
In Palo Alto, where the median property value is $3 million, according to Zillow, residential construction has been so ubiquitous that the city's new coronavirus support line was inundated with calls about what kind of construction was permitted under shelter-in-place, according to the city's daily coronavirus newsletter Monday. This week, crews showed up to work on single-family homes valued on Zillow at $7.3 million for an 8-bedroom house and $9.6 million for a five-bedroom house.
A war of words over what qualifies as "essential" construction broke out among Palo Alto residents on the neighborhood app Nextdoor.
"I am talking about fancy new home construction on a residential street, not essential hospital facility construction," wrote Phaedon Sinis, a software engineer who is working from home in Palo Alto and started the thread. "This seems like a strange exception to an otherwise reasonable rule."
Sinis told The Post that the dispute was not necessarily about class warfare, but the absurdity of the region's housing inequities. "It just highlights the disparity that these are really luxury investment properties. It's not that somebody is desperate for housing," Sinis says.
On Nextdoor, some neighbors said housing construction should continue because it is good for the economy, the region needs more housing, and homeowners were eager to move in. Some pointed out that contractors would be penalized for not meeting deadlines, and construction workers need the income.
Another contingent was focused on the health risks, arguing that the daily traffic of people in and out of construction sites during a pandemic jeopardizes workers, the safety of the neighborhood, and therefore the Bay Area at large.
Bradley, a 60-year-old construction worker who declined to give his last name, showed up at the Day Worker Center of Mountain View on Thursday seeking a gig that would help him make rent. He did not know there was an exemption on residential construction but said that workers should be able to make their own decisions. Typically, he finds jobs through his network of clients and friends, but that has dried up during the covid-19 outbreak, he said. Last week, he got a small gig building a garden arbor. This week he has yet to find one and was anxious that he could be risking his health by coming to the center.