Housing / Land Use

County’s health orders upset construction industry

Exemptions allowing some projects to continue during shelter-in-place have sparked confusion and controversy.
Bennett Ranch and another development on Southside Road have stopped because of the shelter-in-place order. Photo by John Chadwell.

As of April 17, there were over 700,000 cases of COVID-19 in the U.S., and more than 36,000 have died. The pandemic has also crippled the nation’s economy, forcing over 22 million to apply for unemployment benefits. In California, six Bay Area county health departments issued shelter-in-place orders that have temporarily closed entire industries. 

San Benito County Public Health Services appeared to fall in line with those six health officers when it issued its own shelter-in-place orders March 17, effectively shutting down “nonessential businesses.”

When County Health Officer Dr. Marty Fenstersheib signed a second, more restrictive shelter-in-place order on March 31, it appeared to be a cookie-cutter version of Santa Clara County’s order when it comes to construction. However, a minor change was made that says to continue construction during the shelter-in-place order, “the developer obtains written approval from the Resource Management Agency in advance of an Employee Health and Safety Plan.”

This small change has created conflict and uncertainty about which construction companies could continue to operate during shelter-in-place, and which could not.

RMA Director Harry Mavrogenes said, “The order only allows me to look at safety plans.” Mavrogenes also said he was attempting to put the county’s affordable housing on an even keel with Santa Clara County. “The goal is to get affordable housing built in this county,” he said. “We are mandated by the state to continue to build affordable housing and any projects that we can move forward that provide affordable housing. I continue to make an effort to do that.”

However, Supervisor Peter Hernandez told BenitoLink that Mavrogenes did not have the authority to contact Fenstersheib without first telling either his supervisor, County Administrative Officer Ray Espinoza, or the Board of Supervisors. “I said in public that was his right to speak to the health department, but it needed to go through the Board of Supervisors,” Hernandez said. “Otherwise, it’s going to make it look like we don’t know what we’re doing. We pushed back, telling him he needed to talk to us along with the public health officer to amend the order, if that was the will of the board.”

Mavrogenes confirmed he did not seek the Board of Supervisors’ approval beforehand because he found out about the order while attending a meeting with the health department, and was asked for his input, which he gave. “I worked with the doctor to develop the language because I felt it was really important to move ahead with the affordable housing,” he said. “I did inform the administration about it immediately afterwards.”  

Supervisor Mark Medina said the supervisors decided to accept the changes and approved the order to be released to the public.

Hernandez said there needed to be a consistent response between all government entities. “If you don’t, you’re going to have a failed implementation process, then you’re going to have a lot of people questioning us,” he said. “When it comes to this rollout with construction, that seems questionable.” 

Hernandez said if supervisors “decided today” to stop all housing projects, he would vote in favor of it. “I’m just one vote, but it is questionable why they’re okay with the construction,” he said. “We’re shutting down small businesses, but we’re not shutting down construction. I don’t understand and I struggle with that. It’s going to take the public to push back and go in a different direction.”

Medina said he and the rest of the board decided to sign off on Fenstersheib’s order after he talked to Mavrogenes about allowing construction to continue on affordable housing units, but is now having second thoughts.

Pressure to resume housing construction                                                                                                                  Meanwhile, on April 16, state Senator Scott Weiner (D-San Francisco) and 16 other legislators sent a letter to the boards of supervisors and health departments of the six Bay Area counties requesting they change the construction provisions in their health orders by adding construction workplace guidelines to ensure workers’ safety “while allowing desperately needed housing production to continue.”

“We also share your belief—reflected in your order, as well as the governor’s order and federal guidance—that housing construction is an essential service given our severe housing shortage,” Weiner wrote. “We believe the Bay Area health order should mirror the state and federal approach to housing—broadly classifying housing construction as an essential activity and avoiding arbitrary choices that certain housing can be built while others cannot.”

The effect on county home construction                                                                                                                                “It’s unclear how you can separate affordable housing versus full construction,” Medina said. In the unincorporated area of the county, Medina said there are just two developments that are exempted from the order. 

The first is Santana Ranch, which has, so far, built over 400 market-rate homes and is about to break ground for 56 affordable apartments and a community center that will be located behind the CALFIRE station on Fairview Road. The second is the Riverview II, a self-help housing project that will eventually include 25 low income homes to be built where the old Southside Hospital stood until May 2018. At this time, the property is an empty lot and no work has been done.

There are two other county projects on Southside Road—Bennet Ranch and KB Homes’ Sunnyside Estates—that are not exempt and have completely shut down.

San Juan Bautista City Manager Don Reynolds said the Copperleaf project is active, but “Rancho Vista was deemed less than 10% affordable, therefore non-essential.”

Supervisor Medina said the new school under construction adjacent to Santana Ranch is also exempt because it is a state project.

Just outside Hollister’s city limits, Santana Ranch has continued building market-rate houses in anticipation of its affordable housing element, but Abraham Prado, planning manager with the city of Hollister, said that even though Award Homes’ West of Fairview project also qualifies for an exemption, it will not receive one at this time.  “The entire development will be constructed in phases and the first phase does not contain any affordable housing,” Prado said. “Thus, they would not be exempt from the public health order.” Prado told BenitoLink there are nine developments under construction in the city that ceased operations after the shelter-in-place order was announced.

Hollister Mayor Ignacio Velazquez, though, questioned why county supervisors allowed affordable housing construction to continue despite the public health risks. “Who gave special authority to RMA to contact the doctor to change the order?” Velazquez asked. “And why are we allowing the person in charge of basic construction in the county to make decisions on which projects get built and which don’t? That’s not a good place to set yourself up in because you can have favoritism and that’s what happened.”

Mavrogenes responded to Velazquez’s accusation, “I’m not influenced by anybody. I make decisions in a rational way.”

Even if Award Homes were exempt, Velazquez is emphatic about stopping all Hollister city construction. He said his own electrical and solar companies have closed down, except for a small solar job in Stockton. The shelter-in-place order in San Joaquin County, where Stockton is located, differs from San Benito’s in that businesses can still operate as long as social distancing is enforced.

“We have an issue with this virus and it’s going to keep spreading as long as people keep hanging around each other,” Velazquez said. “You go to a construction site, I don’t care what you say, people work next to each other.”

He described San Benito County as an island where construction workers come from outside the area. “We get hit by our residents going to Silicon Valley and bringing it back to us. Now construction workers can be bringing it to us,” he said. “Contractors can hold off for a month or two. The more we hold off for now, the less time we have to be in this shelter-in-place. It’s going to overwhelm us if we don’t take this thing seriously.”

Local contractor Hugh Bikle, who has two infill developments on Hillcrest and Maple Streets in Hollister that were shut down, disagrees with the mayor. “They [the health department] are being arbitrary and no matter what you do to make sure your people are protected, they say we’re not an essential industry,” Bikle said. “We’re supposed to be protecting people from getting a disease; not ‘we don’t like homebuilders, so we’re going to close them down.’” He said he is willing to have his people wear masks and gloves, and have their temperatures taken. “Those would be reasonable restrictions, but to say you can’t work at all no matter what you do, that’s unreasonable,” Bikle said.

The effect on new home buyers and builders                                                                                                                          In addition to the two developments, Bikle said he has two homes that are already built, but cannot be finished for the buyers. “All that is needed is the carpeting,” he said. “We just wanted to finish the houses because the buyers had given their notices and were within two weeks of closing. The health department wouldn’t even agree to that.”

Bikle said he understands the need to protect the building tradespeople, but doesn’t understand why carpenters are prevented from working on market-rate homes while allowing carpenters to work on affordable units. “You have two roofers on the roof at a time who can’t get anywhere near each other,” he said. “You can’t swing a hammer and move shingles around if somebody’s within six feet of you.”

Another local contractor, Kraig Klauer, told BenitoLink, “Like everybody who has lost their job during this shelter-in-place, it has hit home pretty hard. We are a little different than most builders in town as we employ about 95% local subcontractors. Most of whom not only work, but live here in Hollister and spend their paychecks here, so it does have a trickle down effect on our local economy.”

David Sanson, CEO of DeNova Homes, builder of the Allendale developments on the north side of Hollister, sent a letter on April 15 to Velazquez, the Hollister City Council, and Assemblyman Robert Rivas, asking for assistance on several of the homes being built in Hollister. “For seven of our Hollister homebuyers, we are within days of completing their homes so that they can safely shelter,” he wrote. “But, because various local jurisdictions are interpreting the order differently, we are seeking confirmation from the San Benito County Health Officer that the order allows us to take the final steps to put these seven families into their homes under the rules outlined for ‘Minimum Basic Operations.’” 

Sanson went on to write that the request was consistent with the practices authorized by neighboring jurisdictions, including the City of San Jose. “In San Jose, we have received confirmation that the city will allow construction to continue through June 10, 2020 on all homes in production in order to allow families to move in as planned since they have already given notice of their intent to vacate existing housing,” he wrote.

‘You’re basically on your own’                                                                                                                                              Sanson with DeNova Homes told BenitoLink on April 17 that the seven homes remain unfinished and some prospective homeowners are living in hotels because they had already sold their homes in anticipation of moving to Hollister.

Medina told BenitoLink, “I don’t know what the right answer is when I look at construction. When we look at social distancing in stores where you are interacting with someone and in construction you’re not. You’re basically on your own. I sit here and look at an order provided by a professional doctor and my question to myself is where do you stop these exemptions? I don’t know what the right exemptions are.”

Excluding Santana Ranch outside of Hollister and Copperleaf in San Juan Bautista, where work continues, there are over 1,400 houses countywide that have not been completed. 

Bikle said Hollister is now essentially in a building moratorium. With the passing of Councilman Marty Richman, Hollister City Council no longer has a tie-breaking vote. All of these homes have already been approved and financed, but by stopping them, even temporarily, construction workers are unemployed, builders are not selling their product and the county is not collecting impact fees.



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John Chadwell

John Chadwell is a freelance photojournalist with additional experience as a copywriter, ghostwriter, scriptwriter, and novelist. He is a former U.S. Navy Combat Photojournalist and is an award-winning writer, having worked for magazine, newspapers, radio and television. He has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Chapman University and graduate studies at USC Cinema School. John worked as a scriptwriting consultant, and his own script, "God's Club," was produced and released in 2016. He has also written eight novels, ranging from science fiction to true crime, which are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to: [email protected].