Severe labor shortage has Houston homeowners ‘begging’ for help

Jennifer and Andy Taylor describe what their Houston home used to look like.

Diana Olick | CNBC
Jennifer and Andy Taylor describe what their Houston home used to look like.

Nearly three weeks after the rain stopped falling in Houston, the work of rebuilding has barely begun. There aren’t enough workers available — not even close.

Houston’s housing market had a severe labor shortage before the storm, and that shortage doubled after Hurricane Harvey hit.

From the main thoroughfares, it looks like the city is bustling again: Offices and schools are open, retail is up and running, and freeways are jammed. But one turn onto a residential street offers a starkly different scene. Neighborhoods look like the houses were turned inside out. Everything, soggy and smelly, is rotting on the front lawn, and homes stand stripped to the studs. That work was mostly done by the owners themselves.

Jennifer and Andy Taylor did it, along with about two dozen friends, family members and volunteers.

“We’ve had our moments, to be sure,” said Andy Taylor, looking over the skeleton of what was once his living room. “But a lot of those moments were really being touched by the outreach. I mean our neighborhood created stores at people’s houses to give food, to give clothes, for backpacks for your kids for school, cleaning supplies, toys, and all you needed to do was walk in and take what you needed.”

The Taylors kept calling themselves lucky, even as they walked past the remnants of 14 years of comfortable living in their two-story home—all in a festering heap twice their height. Both having worked in the real estate business, they had the foresight to buy flood insurance, even though they are not in a flood zone. It was the dams releasing reservoir water that put them underwater.

Jennifer and Andy Taylor stand in front of the remnants of their Houston home.

Diana Olick | CNBC
Jennifer and Andy Taylor stand in front of the remnants of their Houston home.

“We have decided that we are going to put the house back together,” Jennifer Taylor said. “We’ve lived here for 14 years and never had a problem.”

They are also lucky because they were already good friends with a local contractor, Leslie King, president of Greymark Construction. They were able to get on the top of her list, which grows longer every day.

“We were already busy before, and now we’re just crazy,” said King, as she walked past home after home, each overshadowed by a massive heap of ruin. “You have homeowners begging to have you come out to their house. You have to tell them it will likely be a couple years.”

The Greater Houston Builders Association estimates that Hurricane Harvey and its relentless rain destroyed at least 30,000 homes; thousands more sustained significant damage. The city already suffered a labor shortage because so many construction workers left during the housing crash and again when oil prices slumped. When prices came back, not enough workers did.

Before Harvey hit, Houston issued permits for about 27,000 single family homes to be built this year. Now the work will more than double.

Most of Houston’s construction workers come from Mexico, and that has made matters even more difficult, as immigration policies tighten under the Trump administration. The National Association of Home Builders has already made a plea for help.

“A successful guest worker program will help alleviate the current labor shortage in the residential construction sector, quicken the rebuilding efforts in Texas and support the overall economic growth of this nation,” said NAHB Chairman Granger MacDonald in a press release.

King said she couldn’t agree more and made a similar request of Trump. “I’d ask him to please let anybody who wants to come work, is willing to make a dollar, is willing to pay some taxes let them come, please, we need them,” she said.

In the meantime there are signs stuck in the ground all over Houston neighborhoods offering to buy homes “as-is” and offering remodeling work. The trouble is that Texas does not require contractors to be licensed, and with so much work and so many desperate homeowners, there will likely be a big jump in scams.

King warns people to do their homework and make sure any contractor they hire has a good track record. She also urges them to be patient.

“Most of us who are reputable contractors will tell you that we already have 50 people on our list,” King said.

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