On Tuesday, April 12, Fort Smith-based homebuilders discussed concerns they face in the industry, ranging from rising costs to a shrinking labor pool, with U.S. Senator John Boozman, R-Ark. to concentrate.
The meeting was an informal roundtable organized by the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority.
“The demand for housing in the Fort Smith area is higher than ever,” said Rocky Walker, builder, broker and real estate agent with Cobblestone Homes and board member of the Greater Fort Smith Association of Home Builders (GFSAHB ). “We’re trying to keep up, but we’re struggling with higher base costs and limited availability. It seems like every day is something new.
Walker said sales are up 47% over the past two years for major lumber makers, while their output has grown less than 2%.
“And they refuse to increase production, and they refuse to meet with the National Association of Home Builders and at least come to the table,” Walker said, often calling big lumber companies a “softwood lumber oligarchs”.
While he noted that lumber costs started falling last week, Walker said that was because of other factors, not because they increased production. Supply chain issues mean electrical components, wiring, windows and the like are increasingly difficult to acquire, the group said.
“I’m going to make the homes wait a month on the windows,” said Justin Green, owner of Justin Green Custom Homes and director of the GFSAHB board.
Inflation is also making it harder for builders as well as home buyers, with one home builder saying last year that framing packages for homes had risen by $39,000. Another big issue for the industry is labor shortages, the group said. Unfortunately, for years the trend has been to encourage young high school graduates to further their education by going to college instead of becoming a skilled tradesperson, Green said.
“We need people who are masons and carpenters and framers. I think that’s something we can do better. Put an influence towards the trades,” he said.
Fort Smith Public School’s Peak Innovation Center is helping to produce more skilled workers in the area, but the group said it hopes crafts programs will be included at the center. Stephanie Stipins, chief executive of the GFSAHB, said there needs to be a change in attitude at secondary level regarding their apprenticeship curriculum.
“There’s a stigma to being a physically working person as opposed to going to college, so they’re not necessarily promoting that,” Stipins said. “When it comes to the learning program we have for builders, it’s always for the child who has no other choice. … We need to eliminate this particular stigma of being a skilled worker.
Although Peak now appears to be more focused on advanced manufacturing, healthcare and other economic sectors, Stipins said, discussions have taken place to reintroduce business programs into schools and use available space at Peak for these programs.
“And then they can send them out into the community to work, and that builds a relationship with them. This is the best way to start because there are so many eyes on the Peak install that the community would take (mind). That’s what it’s going to take,” Stipins said.
While Carrington Creek Homes’ Cary Smallwood noted that any changes pushed by Congress at this time won’t produce results for four or more years, Boozman said there are some things his office and Congress can help with. now. One is to help further push or encourage trade certifications.
“We have to focus on what can be done now,” Boozman said. “There are good things happening now.”