Home building decline mean less jobs

March 10, 2009 6:58:48 PM PDT
Since the economic downturn accelerated in the final months of 2008, unemployment figures for construction workers have been among the most watched statistics in the state's jobs report.

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The latest figures for January indicate more than 712,000 workers in the construction trades are jobless.

The slowdown in home building is creating a ripple effect among suppliers, purchasing agents and others whose livelihoods are tied to the homebuilding industry, from suppliers of tiles and ranges to roofers.

More than 200 members of the Home Builders Association of Northern California gathered in San Ramon Tuesday to network and to gauge the outlook for a turnaround. While there was optimism in the room, there were also people there in search of new jobs after being laid off.

Tanya Harbert lost her job last week as a top sales representative for a tile contractor. Her husband, a construction supervisor, was laid off last year.

"It's very heartbreaking," Harbert said, "because a lot of these people who used to be at the top of the food chain have lost their homes, their cars? divorcing. It's really, really hard to watch."

Robert Freed, the president and CEO of Summerhill Homes, one of the area's largest builders, recognizes that the rest of 2009 will be challenging. "The key to housing has always been job growth, so we'll watch the job growth numbers locally and nationally very carefully? and consumer confidence."

Summerhill has five projects at various stages of construction in the Bay Area, including Rosewood in Fremont.

There were about 50 trades people working at the Laiolo Road site Tuesday. Those projects will be completed by year's end or in early 2010. After that, Freed said, "If we don't see a substantial improvement, we'll remain cautious before we open any new communities."

The price on some of the smaller units at Rosewood were reduced by about 10 percent last week and the lower prices drew 60 people to look at the models over the weekend. There is a waiting list for some of the project's larger homes with four bedrooms, which are not yet under construction.

Despite the uncertainty of an economic recovery, Summerhill's president says the firm continues to look for land for new projects in anticipation of a turnaround.

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