Immigrant workers are ‘scared stiff.’ Why it could make housing even more expensive

The number of townhomes for sale in the Triangle has seen a significant drop since 2013.
The number of townhomes for sale in the Triangle has seen a significant drop since 2013.

A growing shortage of workers is hurting the Triangle’s hot housing market.

“We’ve had to lengthen our construction times,” said Gian Hasbrock, whose company CalAtlantic is currently building the Southpoint Trails subdivision in south Durham. “We have a building that needs plumbing done, but our plumbing contractor doesn’t have a enough people for a crew.”

The problem, he says, is the political climate around immigration.

“It would be foolish to not acknowledge that a definite proportion of these workers are without documentation,” said Hasbrock, who is also the president of the Home Builders Association of Durham, Orange and Chatham Counties.

“They are scared stiff, and their quality of life is undermined by that,” he said, “just as you or I would be unhappy working in the shadows.”

In a letter to elected leaders Monday, the association asked lawmakers for legislation “to foster a welcome environment for foreign-born skilled laborers.” One in four of the area’s construction workers are immigrants, it said.

The association has more than 600 members in the local construction industry.

They are scared stiff, and their quality of life is undermined by that, just as you or I would be unhappy working in the shadows.

Gian Hasbrock, Home Builders Association of Durham, Orange and Chatham Counties

The association worries that, while elected officials consider reforms to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, other immigrants providing important labor are being ignored.

Builders already couldn’t find enough American workers in the trades, Hasbrock said, and now they can’t find immigrant laborers to replace them because they’re scared of being deported. .

That drives up costs, Hasbrock said.

A delayed sheetrock crew alone, for example, can set a project back three weeks, he said. In some cases, buyers might have to find expensive short-term leases while their homes are finished.

“I have been 25 years in the business, and I have never seen such demand (for new homes),” said Hasbrock. “I would hate to see the momentum be throttled because we don't have the laborers.”

Since the great recession, the number of people working in the construction trades in North Carolina has declined – even while a million new residents have been added to the state’s population, driving demand for new homes and apartments.

According to a recent survey by Associated General Contractors of America, 76 percent of North Carolina contractors reported difficulty filling hourly craft positions.

Many construction workers decided to leave the industry or retire during the last decade, when there was a dearth of work. But now, with the housing market booming, the average tradesman’s age is in the mid 50s.

“This is a big issue that will only get worse with the demands of rebuilding for (hurricanes) Harvey and Irma,” N.C. State University economist Michael Walden told The Herald-Sun last year. “Many skilled tradespersons left the industry during the recession, (and) also, immigration of such workers had slowed.”

The number of people caught trying to sneak over the border from Mexico, for example, fell to the lowest level in 46 years last year, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

In their letter, the home builders noted that using immigrant work was necessary because “Americans have little interest” in construction jobs. The association believes that’s because high schools push students toward four-year degrees and away from the trades.

“With the push for young people to go to four-year colleges, fewer new individuals are pursuing the trades,” Walden said in an earlier interview. “A long-term shift in attitudes about the attractiveness of these jobs needs to occur.”

The association thought about opening its own trade school, Hasbrock said, but decided against it because it didn’t want to overlap with the growing vocational programs at Durham Technical Community College and Central Carolina Community College.

Politicians need to fix this issue, the association said.

“I don't want to represent that we have the solutions,” Hasbrock said. “We are just raising our hands and asking to change the conversation around immigration.”

Zachery Eanes: 919-419-6684, @zeanes

Home Builders resolution

WHEREAS a vital component of the mission of the Home Builders Association of Durham, Orange and Chatham Counties is to support the American Dream of homeownership through advocacy, and

WHEREAS every new home generates up to 130 new jobs and residential construction is also vital to our local economy by providing shelter to a population whose growth rate is among the highest in the nation, and

WHEREAS there is an overall shortage of skilled tradespeople necessary to keep the residential construction industry healthy, with the average worker’s age in the 50’s and insufficient promotion to attract young people into the skilled trades industries, and

WHEREAS foreign-born workers comprise 24% of total construction employment in North Carolina, who are providing what the economy really needs: a reasonably priced and available labor source for those jobs that Americans have little interest or competitive advantage in filling, and our best construction workers are considering leaving because of the political climate or are being deported, and

WHEREAS a failure to address this perilous problem which will certainly stall the construction expansion that would otherwise occur, and our nation’s fabric and backbone has traditionally been strengthened by the sweat of immigrant labor that built this country, and is indeed today building the future of America, and

WHEREAS our elected officials are at long last considering a comprehensive immigration policy reform that although addressing the sympathetic case of the so-called Dreamers fails to positively address the legal leadership to foster a welcome environment for foreign-born skilled laborers,

THEREFORE, we, the HBA of Durham, Orange, and Chatham Counties, hereby call upon our Congressional Delegation and State Legislature to remember how important immigration is to each and every one of us for today and the future of America, and to exercise leadership in reinvigorating the state and national conversation to take into account our reasonable and justified concerns. Complacency is not an option.