Monday, April 16, 2007

"Casualties of America’s Housing Bust"

From the NY Times:

Some of the casualties of America’s housing bust are easy to spot up and down California’s Central Valley.

From Fresno to Sacramento, big tangles of wire and PVC pipes clutter vacant lots in silent subdivisions, waiting for houses to be built — some day. Dozens of “For Sale” signs already dot the lawns across new residential communities. And right next to the ubiquitous billboards from builders are fresh signs offering homeowners help to avoid foreclosure.

But another set of losers is less visible: the immigrant workers, mostly illegal, who rode the construction boom while it lasted and now find jobs on building sites few and far between.

Offering more than $10 an hour as well as new skills and a shot at upward mobility, construction provided many illegal immigrants the best job they ever had, a step up from the backbreaking work reserved for those toiling without legal authorization, which in the Central Valley mostly meant pruning and picking in fruit and vegetable fields.

The growing presence of illegal immigrants in home building, mostly working for small labor contractors, might help explain why government statistics have recorded only a small decline in construction employment, despite the collapse in residential investment.

“Technically they don’t fire them,” said Myrna Martínez, coordinator for the Fresno office of the American Friends Service Committee, a nonprofit organization working on social assistance projects for immigrant workers. “They just tell them that there is no more work.”

As building jobs have grown scarce, many of the workers who left farm labor a few years ago are returning to where they came from. They can be seen once again hunched in clusters under the unremitting sun, cutting heads of lettuce or slicing off spears of asparagus for minimum wage, clinging to the hope that home building will resume again.
“There are quite a few in this situation,” Ms. Martínez said. “This construction boom that started five or six years ago just suddenly started to fall apart.”
Adrián L. and José Manuel J. have resisted going back into the fields, making do with piecemeal work: putting up a roof here, re-tiling a bathroom there. But they are near the end of the line. “If work doesn’t pick up,” José Manuel J. said, “in May I am going to have to go to pick in the cherry crop.”
José Carlos J., José Manuel’s nephew, has not formally lost his job as a roofer. But the contractor he works for has hardly called him in recent months. “Since November I’ve laid only four roofs,” he said.

Most of the workers disgorged back into the fields are in a similar situation. Milling about in a park near downtown Stockton after work on a recent afternoon, José Manuel’s brother, Raymundo J., who is the foreman of a crew picking asparagus near Stockton, pointed to several former construction workers from his hometown in Mexico who are now in the field.

There was his other nephew, Roberto, who used to tear roofs down for $15 an hour, and Manuel S., who used to spray stucco on houses in the San Francisco Bay Area. Antonio R. lost a $14-an-hour job cutting wood last October. Chuy R., who got a job wiring homes immediately after arriving in the United States in May 2006, lost it at the end of the year.

They all hang on to the hope that construction will rebound. Most fear, however, that times will never again be as good. Said José Manuel J., “I don’t think building houses will pick up for several years.”
[T]he lull in construction, combined with the frosts this year that devastated the state’s citrus crop and part of the nut crop, are freeing workers for other farms...“There are too many people for too little field work,” José Manuel J. complained. “People are scattering up to Oregon and further north because there is little work here.”

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