Editorial other views

The following editorial published on Sept. 4 in The Dallas Morning News:

Sometimes, it’s worth taking a look at an old subject through a new lens. For example, to understand why there’s a chronic construction labor shortage in Texas, think one word: immigration.

Immigrants make up about 41 percent of the construction trades in Texas, or close to twice the share of immigrants in the U.S. construction labor force, making this region heavily dependent on foreign-born tradesmen. Factor in the perfect storm of slowed immigration from Mexico, Hurricane Harvey reconstruction and the white-hot construction market in North Texas, and the outcome is predictable. Demand continues to outpace supply, and we all are paying a price.

Now before you say that’s business nirvana, think again. Tighter labor markets pose a risk to overall economic growth. Building a house anywhere in the state costs at least $4,000 more and takes two or three months longer than a year ago, and the impact of high costs disproportionately affects buyers at the low end.

We’re in this conundrum largely due to flawed immigration policy. Immigrant workers have replaced U.S.-born workers who either retired or bailed out of the construction industry and retrained for other work after the Great Recession. Chaotic immigration policy has reduced the supply of workers in relation to construction demands.

In 2004 and 2005, more than 130,000 new immigrants nationwide joined the construction labor force annually, peaking at about 11.7 million jobs in 2005. The housing crisis trimmed that to about 10.8 million in 2008 and 10.2 million even after the housing market’s recovery.

Texas is at the epicenter of this decline, experiencing major shortages of skilled drywall installers, painters, carpenters, electricians, bricklayers, roofers and a host of other construction occupations. Builders estimate that Texas needs at least 100,000 more workers statewide – including up to 38,000 in North Texas, twice as many as two years ago – just to meet the demand for new construction.

Let’s be clear. We aren’t advocating illegal immigration or a return to the industry’s unspoken “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that allowed builders to exploit unauthorized immigrants. But here’s the economic reality: Uncertain immigration policy is hurting you in the pocketbook. The Real Estate Center at Texas A&M University estimates that a $1,000 increase in costs quickly prices thousands of would-be homebuyers out of the market. And houses that should be built but aren’t act “as a drag on new starts,” Robert Kramp, director of research and analysis for commercial real estate firm CBRE, recently told The Dallas Morning News.

Markets work best when supply and demand are near equilibrium. Our economy needs a vibrant construction industry and a functioning immigration policy that meets the demands of the marketplace.

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