No construction order “open season” for squatting, theft, vandalism

No construction order “open season” for squatting, theft, vandalism

As stakeholders continue to discuss how to resume construction activity during the COVID-19 pandemic, builders across the state say criminals are taking advantage of empty construction sites and near-completed residential homes – and the effects are destructive and costly. In one case, a city manager has provided further guidance to the industry as it seeks to navigate the challenging circumstances.

In addition to myriad financial consequences construction businesses and employees are bearing due to the inactivity, builders say there’s been a sharp increase in vandalism, thefts and squatters on construction sites, in some cases despite enhanced security measures. Additionally, people are using the sites as dumping grounds for all manner of things from old appliances to electronics and more, likely to avoid fees at transfer stations.

It’s a message the Building Industry Association of Washington (BIAW) is hearing “from all four corners of the state,” said BIAW Communications Director Jennifer Spall.

“The crooks know that it’s open season,” Kurt Wilson with Pierce County-based SoundBuilt Homes said. “Construction is shut down, so it doesn’t take much for someone to connect the dots.”

Wilson said his company has had thousands of dollars in home appliances such as water heaters, thermostats and toilets either stolen from homes or placed in the garages to be picked up later. “It’s just very difficult to oversee these sites during the day when we really don’t have people working on site.”

It’s reached the point where some Spokane-based builders have hired private security to protect the sites. Pierce County builder Chuck Sundsmo said when he set up security cameras to help with monitoring his properties, criminals simply stole them “so they can’t be seen stealing our lumber. They steal anything.”

Although Governor Jay Inslee’s Office said in a statement that the March 18 eviction moratorium doesn’t apply to the ability of law enforcement to deal with squatters or vandals, Sundsmo said that in his experience, local law enforcement will “treat squatters like a tenant” and refuse to remove them from the property. Spall said other builders have reported similar experiences trying to have squatters removed.

And while builders carry insurance to handle damages, Wilson said those are usually for high-value claims. For lower value thefts or vandalism “we end up eating that cost.”

He added that because only emergency or safety repairs are permitted, the damage to construction sites can’t occur until either the order is lifted, or those activities receive the “essential activity” designation. “It causes delays in completing home construction. These houses have to sit damaged until we can get back into .”

Along with the property damage, sites have become dumping grounds for a variety of items, leaving builders left to bear the additional burden of disposal costs.

While the increase in issues with property occupation and damage is troubling, Wilson points out that this problem didn’t begin with the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Theft has been an ongoing problem our industry has been facing and trying to deal with. The problem is the jails are full and the crimes are considered nonviolent, so they fall to the bottom of the list. It’s very difficult to deal with this issue. The criminals know that the penalties are very limited.”

“We just want to get back to work,” Sundsmo said. “We can do it without contaminating our sites.”

TJ Martinell is a native Washingtonian and award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Bellevue, he’s been involved in the news industry since working at his high school newspaper.

His investigative reporting for various community newspapers in the Puget Sound region has been recognized by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

A graduate of Eastern Washington University, he has a B.A. in journalism and was the news editor of EWU’s student university newspaper.

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