Mere Fractions

The number of new-home permits issued this year is down sharply across Pima County

After climbing to remarkably high peaks just a few years ago, local single-family home construction has fallen off a steep cliff.

But not only have many building-related jobs disappeared as a result; some governmental inspection positions have been eliminated, too.

In the first nine months of 2005, almost 4,000 new-home permits were issued by Pima County for the region's unincorporated areas. That historically high figure then began to fall rapidly; during the first nine months of this year, that total was only 818.

According to Carmine DeBonis Jr., Development Services director for Pima County, the nearly 80 percent decline in permits has affected the county's residential building inspectors in several ways.

DeBonis says the number of inspectors has dropped from 27 to 19 through attrition; nobody was laid off to achieve the reduction. With the continuing downturn, however, he says the county may be forced to let people go.

"We're contemplating layoffs," DeBonis says, "or transferring people to other departments, such as Wastewater Management, to meet their needs."

Layoffs, if there are any, could happen within the next several months. In the meantime, he says, residential inspectors are doing some things differently than they did a few years ago.

"The time the inspectors spend at each stop has increased," DeBonis says, "because the workload done in 2005 was above national standards." That benchmark, DeBonis e-mails, is 12 inspection stops per day, but county workers were performing up to 22 daily visits during the peak years.

The types of homes being built now, DeBonis adds, also require more time to inspect.

"The (housing construction) work done in 2005 was mostly production homes in subdivisions," DeBonis says. "Now it's larger custom homes on unsubdivided lots, which means travel distances have increased. Three years ago, an inspector could look at three to five homes per stop in a subdivision, where now, it's one."

Another job the residential inspectors are currently undertaking is implementing the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards program for residential construction. This, DeBonis states, adds some additional work.

That same environmental effort has somewhat affected inspectors with the city of Tucson. At the same time, the city has also seen its number of single-family housing permits drop dramatically.

After issuing 1,922 permits from January through September in 2005, the figure fell to just 491 this year, a decline of 75 percent.

Reflecting that change, the city now has eight residential inspectors instead of the 14 it employed three years ago. In addition to doing LEED work, they have also taken over some inspections of duplexes, triplexes and even signs, says Ernie Duarte, director of the city's Development Services Department.

"In 2005, inspectors were making an average of 22 stops per day. That figure is now 14, which is a more manageable number and closer to the industry standard," Duarte says.

Duarte mentions that some of the housing construction going on within the city limits is found in several small clusters, including Starr Pass on the westside, the Civano development on the eastside, and near the airport. "But otherwise, it's pretty spread out," he notes.

The town of Marana has also seen a sharp decrease in new-housing construction. Marana issued more than 1,300 permits in the first nine months of 2005, but this year, the number was only 238, many of which were for homes in a couple of subdivisions near Interstate 10.

The drop of more than 80 percent in Marana's home-building means the town now has four inspectors compared to the six it had three years ago. It also means the building inspectors are doing other things.

"One is working full-time on the Ritz-Carlton project," says Marana spokesman Rodney Campbell, about the resort hotel presently under construction. The other Marana inspectors, Campbell reports, are involved with a building-code study as well as plans-review work, in addition to their normal duties.

Inspectors doing plans-review work--something that was not done much in the heady building days of only a few years ago--is also happening in the town of Sahuarita.

"We reorganized in February and eliminated five positions," says Andy Kelley, head of the town's building-safety division. That move required laying off two plan-review specialists, he adds.

The town now has five inspectors, down from an authorized high of seven last year. The number of building permits issued in Sahuarita for single-family homes has gone from a peak of 1,335 in the first nine months of 2004 to a figure less than half that amount this year.

Oro Valley appears to be the only jurisdiction surveyed which hasn't seen a dramatic decline in single-family home construction. Figures supplied by the town show the total number of housing permits issued so far this fiscal year is 75, down only about 20 percent from 2007.

According to town spokeswoman Mary Davis, commercial building has taken up some of the slack in Oro Valley. "While our housing market has slowed," Davis writes in an e-mail, "our commercial construction market has been healthy, and our inspectors are indeed very busy."

The same can't be said for other governmental agencies in Pima County. The question remains for all of them: Has the bottom for new-home construction been hit yet, or is there still farther to fall?

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