Let's Be Reasonable

By Hannah Wallace February 28, 2006

Construction is more of a give-and-take industry than many might recognize, according to Gulf Coast Builders Exchange executive director Jay Brady. Though many may assume that the industry would like less governmental interference, Brady says the right type of government interaction could be quite helpful by spurring the development of affordable housing, keeping building costs down and ensuring that zoning is beneficial for all involved.

How does NIMBYism affect the construction industry? When people work to "close the door behind them," they restrict housing supply and increase the price of their little corner of the world. All that accomplishes is an acceleration of urban sprawl, a leapfrogging to rural areas more removed from urban services, faster loss of agricultural and environmental lands, longer commuting and more people becoming NIMBYs. It's a vicious cycle crying for broad-focused, forward-thinking leadership from elected officials. People voted for the green lands referendum in November thinking that would help stop or further slow development. However, it may in fact help concentrate it, and by definition that's what NIMBYs most object to.

What's the most reliable way to get the industry to build more affordable housing? It's a combination of many things, including building codes, skilled labor and supply shortages. The answer is not more regulation. Government leaders [can't] solve a problem by throwing a few dollars at it or adding more regulations. Outdated zoning codes with long permitting times and excessive fees are also problems. Comprehensive zoning reform is the only real solution in the long run, but it will take other actions like eliminating [federal] tariffs on the importation of Mexican cement.

Should county government mandate inclusionary zoning to create affordable housing? Absolutely not. The county would not need to mandate anything if our inadequate land use and zoning system had not collided with higher construction costs, tougher building codes and skilled labor shortages. It's a perfect-storm situation. Since the advent of zoning, it's never been purely up to the developer or builder. We just need reasonable zoning with higher densities for these new times to offset these other factors. Zoning is more than just higher density; it's also setbacks, building height, open space and storm water regulations and fees.

Sarasota County is collecting affordable housing funds. Will this pot of money realize its purpose? It's probably the most inefficient way to solve this problem. Yes, it will address it somewhat, but there will never be enough money that can even come close to solving it. There are 41,000 cost-burdened households in Sarasota County now and it is projected by state housing experts to grow to about 47,000 in the next 10 years.

How do you foresee the price of building-material costs changing over the next year, given the damages and needs of rebuilding after Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma? Prices will moderate somewhat if oil prices stay lower than $2 per gallon. However, when the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast really kicks in we can expect materials prices to be pushed back up. Eliminating tariffs on imported cement would definitely help. What we really need is incentives and fewer disincentives to produce more cement in Florida and elsewhere in the United States.

What is the local building industry doing to combat the lack of skilled laborers? The Construction Technology Careers pre-apprenticeship program, founded in 2001 through a partnership of construction companies, Sarasota and Manatee school districts and the Suncoast Workforce Board, is growing every year, and it's being well received by the contractors who hire these kids. It's a 900-hour program, so by the time they get hired they've had 450 hours by going through the courses and taking safety training, and they can deal with workers' compensation issues on job sites at 16 years of age.

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