During coronavirus shutdown, real estate is deemed an ‘essential business’

by Kerrie Kennedy

With small businesses across the U.S. shuttered and deemed “non-essential” amidst the coronavirus shutdown, there’s been a lot of confusion about whether or not real estate services are considered essential.

In an effort to clear up that confusion, yesterday the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) released a list of industries considered “Essential Critical Infrastructure Workforce.”

In the report, “residential and commercial real estate services, including settlement services” are considered essential, as are “workers responsible for the leasing of residential properties to provide individuals and families with ready access to available housing.”

Developed in collaboration with other federal agencies, state and local governments and the private sector, the list is considered advisory in nature but is intended to help state and local officials make decisions about the continuation of work that is deemed critical to public health and safety as well as economic and national security. “Individual jurisdictions should add or subtract essential workforce categories based on their own requirements and discretion,” the report said. It’s uncertain how this will affect policies currently in place.

In Massachusetts, real estate closings are allowed to continue with social distancing for any in-person transactions while Realtor meetings with clients are prohibited at the Realtor’s place of business but allowed to take place remotely with social distancing measures or by phone or video. Open houses, while not prohibited, are subject to the governor’s order about limiting gathering to 10 people.

The CISA report also designates the construction of single-family and multifamily housing as an “Essential Infrastructure Business,” including:

  • “Workers performing housing construction related activities to ensure additional units can be made available to combat the nation’s existing housing supply shortage.”
  • “Workers supporting the construction of housing, including those supporting government functions related to the building and development process, such as inspections, permitting and plan review services that can be modified to protect the public health, but fundamentally should continue and serve the construction of housing (e.g., allow qualified private third-party inspections in case of government (shutdown).”

Noting that the report does not supersede state rulings, the National Association of Home Builders called it “good news for our industry” in a recent Eye on Housing blogpost. “For states that follow federal guidance in determining an Essential Infrastructure Business, single-family and multifamily construction will be included,” the blogpost read. “For states that make their own rules, there is a possibility that residential construction may not be on their ‘essential’ list.”

The report went on to say that although the list was “meant to assist public officials and employers in identifying essential work functions, it allows for the reality that some workers engaged in activity determined to be essential may be unable to perform those functions because of health-related concerns.”

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