July 16, 2024


Friendly Interior

Despite construction’s return, SF’s home improvement industry languishes


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Photo: Photocapy/Flickr

As San Francisco hits the three-month mark of sheltering in place, residents have found plenty of new ways to pass the time — including working on projects around the house.

That’s mostly been good news for local hardware stores, which have seen an uptick in sales related to household projects. But for other small businesses in the home improvement industry, the shift has come at a cost.

Spring is normally the busiest season for Tom’s Painters, a team of Sunset District-based residential painters led by the sibling team of Tom and Maria da Silva. 

At the beginning of March, the company was working at full capacity. But when the mayor’s March 17 shelter-in-place order required non-essential businesses to shut down, work came to a halt. 

The company’s team of residential painters were used to stepping into people’s homes on a daily basis. But even with safety precautions in place, virus-wary clients began to reconsider. Ultimately, the da Silvas had to lay off all but three of their usual 10- to 12-person crew. 

“It was hard letting my employees go home, not knowing exactly how they would survive,” Maria da Silva said.

Like many small-business owners, the da Silvas found the process of applying for government relief to be a challenge. By the time they went online to submit an application for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), funds were no longer available. 

“It was discouraging,” said Maria da Silva, noting that she and her brother had to take on part-time jobs as Instacart shoppers just to pay the bills. 

Maria and Tom da Silva of Tom's Painters. | <b>Photo: Maria da Silva</b>
Maria and Tom da Silva of Tom’s Painters. | Photo: Maria da Silva

“When [the city] locked up construction, I felt it was an injustice,” said Kevin McKee of Okell’s Fireplace. The longstanding SoMa fireplace shop, which offers installations, repairs, and chimney inspections, had to fully shut down between March 31 and May 4, when construction work was once again allowed.

McKee says he found it especially frustrating that families could still recreate at beaches and parks, but Okell’s workers couldn’t continue their largely outdoor jobs, even with social-distancing precautions. 

Like the da Silvas, McKee had no luck applying for the Paycheck Protection Program through his longtime bank, Bank of America. He said he received more automated marketing messages than updates on his application.

Okell’s was finally able to receive funding through Bay Area loan provider TMC Financing, which had been allocated PPP funds to disperse to past borrowers. (McKee had previously worked with TMC to purchase his warehouse.)

<b>Photo: Okell's Fireplace</b>
Photo: Okell’s Fireplace

McKee considers himself lucky. Out of about two dozen small business owners in his immediate circle, he was the only one to get PPP funding.

At his lowest point, he said, he felt let down by both the local government, for preventing him from working, and the federal government, for making it so difficult for small businesses to get support.

“I don’t have a problem with helping the airlines or the Lakers,” he said, referring to the multimillion-dollar loans received by larger corporations in the PPP’s first round of funding. “But why is the little guy always at the end of the line?” 

The team at Okell's Fireplace, 2014. | <b>Photo: Okell's Fireplace/<a href="https://www.facebook.com/photo?fbid=851377748262525&set=a.218689828197990" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Facebook" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">Facebook</a></b>
The team at Okell’s Fireplace, 2014. | Photo: Okell’s Fireplace/Facebook

Similar issues befell Rob Walker, owner of UpCycle Builders, a renovation and construction specializing in single-family homes, restaurants and hospitality projects. The company has 18 employees.

To apply for the PPP, “we went on a 24-hour watch on our bank’s website, waiting for the application to go live,” said Walker, a fourth-generation builder. When it finally became available, he rushed to complete the application within the first 10 minutes.

“Anyone who didn’t do that,” he said, “didn’t get money.”

Rob Walker (rear middle) and the team at UpCycle Builders. | <b>Photo: <a href="https://www.upcyclebuilders.com/about/" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:UpCycle Builders" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">UpCycle Builders</a></b>
Rob Walker (rear middle) and the team at UpCycle Builders. | Photo: UpCycle Builders

Even after construction projects were allowed to return in early May, business has remained slow. 

“The city has given us the OK to work, but many clients are afraid of having people enter their homes,” Maria da Silva told Hoodline. Most of the jobs her team can get are for vacant properties or exterior projects.

McKee says that the vast majority of his customers are still holding off on requesting fireplace services, often because they’re not sure of their own income security. Even though business has picked up in the month of May, it’s still only “about 40% of what’s normal.”

Upcycle Builders has also had several projects put on hold. For those that have resumed, the extended timelines have led to questions from clients about additional costs, Walker said. “If a project takes twice as long to complete, who pays for the workers’ salaries?” 

<b>Photo: Tom's Painters/<a href="https://en.yelp.com.ph/biz_photos/toms-painters-san-francisco-2?utm_campaign=NULL%2C5cf6c577-9ece-4aed-a11a-7cf8b7735037&utm_medium=3b4c1d20-9476-4bb7-8ba7-0900aedc17cc" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Yelp" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">Yelp</a></b>
Photo: Tom’s Painters/Yelp

However, one sector of the home improvement space has been thriving — gardening businesses. Since the work is largely done outdoors, clients aren’t as concerned about safety. And with parks and public spaces crowded, having a backyard oasis is now a major plus. 

“Since reopening, scheduling has become quite a challenge,” said Michelle Bond of Thumbellina Gardens, a Sunset District-based gardening business founded in 1995.

During the height of shelter-in-place, Thumbellina was unable to perform 80% of its regular projects, which would’ve involved accessing gardens through clients’ homes. But since reopening, business has not only returned to normal, but spiked. 

Bond says that she’s seen an especially large increase in requests for edible gardens — raised vegetable beds, herb gardens, and fruit trees — as San Franciscans try to entertain themselves at home and cut down on trips to the grocery store. 

“The past two months have made us realize how important and valuable [these spaces] have been to our clients,” Bond said. “We get messages of gratitude from them for letting them enjoy their yards while they shelter in place.”

A recent project completed by Thumbellina Gardens. | <b>Photo: Kay P/<a href="https://www.yelp.com/biz_photos/thumbellina-gardens-san-francisco?utm_campaign=f1aa0d99-bf9e-4693-b263-96d7b19744d7%2C5cf6c577-9ece-4aed-a11a-7cf8b7735037&utm_medium=81024472-a80c-4266-a0e5-a3bf8775daa7" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Yelp" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">Yelp</a></b>
A recent project completed by Thumbellina Gardens. | Photo: Kay P/Yelp

All the businesses we spoke with say they’ve made adjustments to comply with the Department of Health’s Small Construction Project Safety Protocol.

The protocol, which went into effect on April 29, states that “every effort must be taken to minimize contact between worker and building residents and users, including maintaining a minimum of six feet of social distancing at all times.”

The painters at Tom’s are required to wear masks and gloves, and disinfect all tools. Walker has been making dedicated trips to Kinko’s to print the health and sanitation signs that must be posted at every job site. Bond’s team does its garden consultations and troubleshooting sessions using video calls and Google Earth.

All remain hopeful that — with the necessary precautions — they will start to see business return to normal. 

“We’re uncertain what the future is,” said McKee. “But we have our heads down, working hard for what we can get.”

Or as Maria de Silva put it: “Any work is better than no work at all.”