At its height, a River City Habitat for Humanity building blitz had four houses under construction (in addition to the five it normally does annually) in its effort to confront a housing crisis that was worsened when a tornado struck the city in May 2019.
Now, it has only two houses under construction.
That's disappointing, said Susan Cook-Williams, executive director of the local nonprofit. On the bright side, if you could call it that, the pause in construction comes at a time when the agency could easily have spent 20 percent more than it typically budgets for building materials.
Cook-Williams said the nonprofit has spent 80 percent of its budget for one of the houses, but that house isn't near 80 percent done.
Jefferson City was already in the midst of an affordable housing shortage before the May 22, 2019, tornado raked through parts of the city, ripping apart rental homes and apartments, and laying waste to the affordable housing inventory.
Recovery was expected to take years.
Tornado damage coupled with the March 27, 2020, hailstorm that pummeled the eastern side of the city with 3-inch hailstones — and the ongoing pandemic, which has driven lumber pricing sky high — make a vision of recovery difficult to discern.
While the storm brought difficulties to many, it also brought opportunities to others. It created a windfall of business for local companies.
For example, Roark Aluminum of Jefferson City found itself overwhelmed with orders for siding, windows, gutters and awnings.
Chip Isenberg, a manager/estimator with Roark Aluminum, said the company received a great deal of work after the tornado.
"Actually, we're still doing a couple of them. We finished a couple last week," Isenberg said. "Homeowners were just taking their time (getting the projects completed)."
Much of the work now being completed is being done on rental properties, he continued.
The hailstorm piled on the jobs, he said.
"We'll probably be working on that until next year," Isenberg said.
The company just can't find enough employees right now. It has seven and could use two to four more. It has advertised and reached out to trades instructors, but had no luck.
"We would teach anyone, as long as they can read a tape and are not afraid of heights," he said. "We're overwhelmed with work. We've got a lot of jobs to do, and need more help."
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Businesses of all sorts are having trouble filling positions, said Gary Plummer, president and chief executive officer of the Jefferson City Area Chamber of Commerce. It's the same story Plummer has heard since he arrived in April.
"Finding skilled labor — across the board — is the number-one issue in every industry," Plummer said. "Finding people that are capable is challenging."
Other industries — manufacturing, service, financial — face the same shortages as the trades, he continued.
Gov. Mike Parson, on May 11, announced the state would stop participating in federal pandemic- related unemployment benefits June 12 to get people back to work. The chamber applauded the move, Plummer said, and added the federal unemployment helped families get through pandemic-caused hardships.
"(We don't want to take) away from the importance of providing assistance for people when they were out of work," Plummer said. "There has been a disincentive for people to seek work because of funding that has been around for almost a year now. That was an unintended consequence that federal lawmakers did not see coming."
The chamber's Jobs Board has 45 openings listed. That's a "healthy list" for a community the size of Jefferson City, he said.
It will take cooperation among business leaders and education providers (particularly those in post-secondary education) to prepare workers with the skills they need to fill positions in trades and other industries, Plummer said.
Openings on the Jobs Board range from restaurant management and kitchen help to warehouse personnel, to instructors and to various office positions. Organizations posting job openings range between fast-food restaurants, nonprofits, the City of Jefferson, Lincoln University and others.
And those are paid positions.
Will volunteers return?
Habitat for Humanity struggles to have the right volunteers at the ReStore — its reuse store that raises money for homes. At the ReStore, the trouble is getting enough sturdy volunteers with the muscle to move heavy furniture or building parts.
In general, getting help isn't a problem right now for Habitat for Humanity, Cook-Williams said.
Part of that is because the volunteers the nonprofit does have show up rain or shine. Another part is the nonprofit is following its international guidance, which continues restrictions on how many people may work in a group.
"It is yet to be seen if people are going to be comfortable coming out and working in larger groups — or, if it will stay as it is," she said.
Later this year, when Habitat for Humanity begins building four new houses, organizers will have a chance to see if volunteers will be coming back to work on them, she pointed out.
And perhaps prices will have started to drop.
The nonprofit's organizers have moved slowly on new houses, in part because of rising costs.
The average price for Habitat for Humanity to build a house has climbed from $100,000 to about $115,000 over the past year, Cook-Williams said, and continues its ascent.
Students from Nichols Career Center Building and Trades class completed their portion of construction of a Habitat home at 1120 Madeline St., about two weeks ago. The center has partnered with the nonprofit to build a home every year since 2010.
"The Nichols kids have made great progress on the Madeline house, and we've already spent 80 percent of our budget on that house. We're definitely not 80 percent done," Cook-Williams said. "Our average house price now is up to $115,000. We have yet to see what Madeline does. We are looking at that today. I think we will surpass that. I just don't know by how much at this point."
Don't blame the students. Their labor, after all, is free.
Lumber prices have skyrocketed over the past year.
Rising prices have not only affected nonprofits. The private sector is feeling stress from rising costs.
Tariffs, primarily on products from Canada, caused prices to begin climbing last year. CNBC reports lumber prices are up 340 percent from a year ago.
And that price-of-wood increase trickles down to products made from wood — window frames, cabinetry, doors, flooring and furniture.
Other media point out do-it-yourselfers had time on their hands early during the pandemic and drained lumber supplies.The surge pushed Home Depot stocks up 50 percent and Lowe's Home Improvement 74 percent, according to Fortune Media.
Right after the tornado, builders weren't butting up against any shortages, said Rachel Andrews, executive director of the Home Builders Association of Jefferson City.
"Here locally, (supply issues) didn't start until about April last year," Andrews said. "It's been up and down ever since."
The hailstorm happened to fall at a time when the supply was dwindling, Andrews said.
"There has been an issue with people getting their roofs mended back quickly," she added.
Contractors and building material suppliers who responded to questions from the News Tribune said they have been overwhelmed with work since the tornado. More than a dozen didn't respond to numerous calls.
Jefferson City data reiterate what builders say. On average, Jefferson City received 700 applications for residential building permits in 2016, 2017 and 2018, according to data provided by Jefferson City Planning. But, in 2019, permits jumped by about 27 percent (to 892). Keep in mind that the tornado occurred five months into the year.
Building permit applications skyrocketed in 2020, when the city received 3,022 (330 percent more than the average of 700 and 240 percent more than 2019).
Reason for optimism
Despite challenges buying building products, nonprofits remain optimistic they'll be able to maintain their missions.
Organizers of Transformational Housing, in Jefferson City, said they, too, had seen rising prices challenge their budget.
A number of church leaders around Jefferson City, including Mark Kiekhaefer of Living Hope Church, began discussions over outside-the-box housing resolutions about the time the tornado struck.
Although near the path of the tornado, the building at 203 Cherry St. organizers are turning into a sub-market-rate apartment building was spared damage.
However, shortly after the tornado, a kitchen fire inside the apartment house extensively damaged it. The nonprofit formed and took possession of the home. Since then, more than 100 community volunteers have helped with renovations.
With rising prices, materials will certainly cost more, Kiekhaefer said. But, so many people have come through with donations, that some of that cost may be offset.
"We don't know exactly how much the project is going to cost because we're not done yet. We've had a lot of volunteer labor," Kiekhaefer said. "We'll know over the next few months. We have projections that we're going to come out close to what we had planned six months ago.
"How that all works out is yet to be determined. We're hoping to still end up close to the projected budget."
Habitat for Humanity recently selected four families for whom the nonprofit will begin building houses this fall, Cook-Williams said. "We're going to have to look at creating next year's budget and figure out how to raise more money," she said. "I was on a conference call last week with 20 different Habitats. Even the CEO of Habitat International came onto our conference and said he knows this is a burden for all Habitats.
"They're looking at how they can help. But nobody has any good answers yet."