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While the Bay Area shelters in place, construction on mansions and luxury condos continues

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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.

Bradley, who has lived in the Bay Area for 20 years, said the lack of jobs was on par with the 2008 recession, when the housing bubble burst and construction work dried up. His contacts are staying home, so a lot of them aren't getting paychecks and are holding their purse strings tighter, he said. "It all cascades."

The Nextdoor debate was a privileged cross-section of a larger discussion around economic inequality and shared responsibility laid bare by the Bay Area's response to the covid-19 pandemic.

Here, the bridges are bare. Subways and buses are empty. Sprawling tech campuses are sparsely populated. Outside grocery stores, shoppers wait their turn to limit the number of people inside - all to help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Tech companies have been quick to allow their employees to work from home, but slow to respond to health concerns from gig workers, who make it easier for those employees to safely self-isolate. At the same time, local officials were ahead of the curve in ordering residents to shelter-in-place, in a region where thousands of people have no access to shelter.

Although Bay Area counties used identical language in their public health orders, exempting "construction of housing (in particular affordable housing or housing for individuals experiencing homelessness)," cities have issued their own rules.

Palo Alto city spokesperson Meghan Horrigan-Taylor said the rules allowing construction followed guidelines put in place by Santa Clara County's public health order.

But Menlo Park, the city next door, halted all construction last week.

Extreme precautions were necessary and everyone needed to do their part despite the loss of jobs and income, said Mayor Cecilia Taylor. "Given what we know about the extremely contagious nature of covid-19, we don't see an easy way for construction sites to comply with social distancing. The city also does not have the capacity to enforce these measures on construction sites," Taylor said in a statement.

Santa Clara County supervisor Cindy Chavez said she and her fellow supervisors wrote the order as clearly as they could. "I didn't know we were allowing for renovations," she said. "We are making guidelines and rules relatively quickly to preserve human life."

In Atherton, the richest town in America for the past four years, according to Bloomberg, where the median household income tops $500,000, residents complained that construction workers were not complying with social distancing, ate lunch in groups, shared cellphones and congregated in front of food trucks, city manager George Rodericks said. They also grumbled that workers' vehicles blocked their right of way while residents were "trying to shelter in place and recreate in place," he said.

Atherton suspended both residential and commercial construction last week, because the city did not want to put its one regular building inspector out in the field, said Rodericks.

But Menlo Park and Atherton were among the few exceptions. City officials and spokespeople from Cupertino, San Jose, Mountain View, Los Gatos and Los Altos told The Post that they followed the county guidelines for the most part, as long as construction was compliant with social distancing rules.

"Most people understand that if we keep the construction industry going, it will really help the economy," said Judd Haaland, owner of J.D. Haaland Construction company, who is working on a few sites in Palo Alto. He has broken workers into four-man crews, instead of groups of six or eight people. "Most construction guys will work through being sick, but I'm asking them not to now."

Haaland says that as a small business, he doesn't have the capacity to provide health insurance to workers, but he does provide vacation time and allows them to bank additional hours off by working more in the summer, when the days are longer. "I just don't want somebody to have to come to work because of financial reasons, and get the rest of the crew sick," he said.

Backlash from concerned neighbors is predictable, said Laura Foote, executive director of YIMBY Action, Bay Area network of advocates for increased housing supply at all economic levels. "People find new reasons to believe what they have always believed," she said. "We have a housing shortage and that is what's driving up cost. More housing also helps bring down the overall cost."

Michelle Pariset, a housing policy advocate at Public Advocates, a nonprofit law firm in San Francisco that champions equity in housing, says the data shows the lack of housing supply is for "low-income and extremely low affordable housing, which requires massive subsidies," she said. "Millionaires are going to be able to find nice places to live."

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