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Data shows more housing unlikely to ease inflated costs

As the cost of housing continues to rise, some North Texans could be looking to new developments to ease some of the market pressure and contribute to lower prices as inventory increases. But data from construction industry leaders suggests prices for new builds likely will remain elevated as the industry grapples with high material and labor costs, which ultimately will get passed down to consumers.

Contractor labor shortages have hit new highs, with 93% of firms reporting they have open positions to fill and 91% having trouble filling them, according to a new report from Autodesk and Associated General Contractors of America. Construction companies are paying as much as 45% more for labor and increasing benefits to attract talent, compounding already-high construction prices, which hit record levels in February. In most cases, those excess costs are being passed down to developers, who in turn pass them off to buyers and renters.

The employee deficit has contributed to project delays, increasing already long project lead times caused by material shortages and project owner hesitancy. Building permits for single-family homes declined more than 20% in the Dallas area in July, with all building permits down 23% in Denton from July to August. Meanwhile, the home price index is up nearly 25% year over year for Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, reflecting a longtime association between construction and home prices.

“Labor shortages and supply chain problems are making it more expensive and more time-consuming to build projects, undermining demand for construction,” Ken Simonson, chief economist at AGC, said during a webcast about the report last month.

Shortages are impacting companies of all sizes across the U.S. and are affecting both union and non-union worksites at similar rates. The cause, industry experts say, is a lack of skilled applicants. National construction unemployment numbers are lower than in other industries — though they rose last month to 3.9% from a near-record low of 3.5% in July — meaning few job seekers are on the market.

“At 3.5%, that essentially means there’s almost nobody out there with construction experience looking for a new job in construction,” Simonson said. “Most job candidates simply are not qualified to … work in the industry.”

At Lithko Contracting, which has 21 offices, including one in Flower Mound, company leadership has seen competition for qualified craftsmen increase dramatically among subsets of the construction industry.

“In order to fulfill that talent, we’re grabbing people from out of state,” said Brandon Bull, area lead for Lithko. “That cost is coming out of our fee on jobs that we priced the wrong way and on future jobs; that cost is coming out of the customers’ pocket to bring that craft in, in order to execute the work that we have here.”

Major construction firms are investing in workforce training as they hope to recruit more candidates to the industry in the future, but for now, the inflated costs of building are likely to persist.

“We’re focused on a lot of internal training and talent development, a lot of experience our recruiting folks are bringing on board, and then just super competitive on retaining the best talent and paying for it,” Bull said.

In case you missed it:--> Stoke is inviting Denton businesses to apply for its new pitch competition, with $10,000 in prizes up for grabs.

--> New retail and residential developments are being considered by Denton city officials this month — here’s a roundup.

--> The Denton Central Appraisal District ousted Chief Appraiser Hope McClure last week after months of public criticism.

Book bans aren't stopping future librarians, UNT and TWU professors say

PEN America, a nonprofit that champions freedom of expression, put its report on school book bans in simple, stark terms.

“More books. More districts. More states. More students losing access to literature,” the organization said in a statement that accompanies its report on the surge of book challenges that has swept schools in the last year.

The report has troubling findings for Texas. Between July 1, 2021, and June 30, 2022, Texas public schools removed more books from campuses and catalogs than any other state. The report, which is based on documented book bans reported directly to PEN America, shows Texas schools enacting between 750 and 1,000 bans.

The Texas Education Agency reported that 5.3 million children were enrolled in public schools across the state in the 2020-21 school year.

“Many Americans may conceive of challenges to books in schools in terms of reactive parents, or those simply concerned after thumbing through a paperback in their child’s knapsack or hearing a surprising question about a novel raised by their child at the dinner table,” the statement said. “However, the large majority of book bans underway today are not spontaneous, organic expressions of citizen concern. Rather, they reflect the work of a growing number of advocacy organizations that have made demanding censorship of certain books and ideas in schools part of their mission.”

Professors specializing in library and information studies at the University of North Texas and Texas Woman’s University said students pursuing library science and information degrees are talking about the book bans in the state.

What they aren’t doing? Letting the challenges deter them from their degrees and dreams of working in education.

“One thing I would say is that the registration or the admissions for our program are still going really strong,” said Sarah Evans, the director of the UNT Children and Young Adult Librarianship Concentration in the university’s Department of Information Science.

“So that’s a sign, you know?” Evans said. “Yes, I think that our students are scared to some degree — some of them, and depending on which community they live in. And they’re trying to figure out, ‘How do I navigate this?’ But there’s also a little bit of rebellion here, I would say, and I think there’s also just the sense that there’s just a joke about librarians being freedom fighters.”

UNT professor Jennifer Moore, the director of the UNT School Librarianship Certification Program, said her students seem more curious about the book challenges.

“What I’m seeing with my students is they’re not talking about being afraid,” she said. “They just want to learn more about what’s going on, about what has been happening. As far as where this is going, it’s difficult to say. I mean, it does remind me of the late ’80s, early ’90s, where there was the fear of Satanists.”

In the 1980s, there was a phenomenon now known as “the Satanic panic.” Tens of thousands of unsubstantiated cases of ritual Satanic abuse emerged in the United States, but claims that the occult was performing violent rituals eventually spread to other parts of the world in the 1990s. Eventually, allegations concocted a conspiracy that wealthy and powerful people all over the world were trafficking and breeding children to use them in human sacrifice rituals, pornography and prostitution.

Claims of a global Satanic cabal preying on children resurfaced over the last five years as the chief claim of QAnon, a conspiracy theory and political movement.

Moral panics are part of American life, and they often target different media — books, movies and music — as agents of harm.

“There’s nothing new about book banning,” said Kerol Harrod, a faculty member in TWU’s School of Library and Information Studies. “If you take a look at the American Library Association ‘Freedom to Read’ statement that was published not long after World War II? OK, so, if you read like the first paragraph, it sounds like what’s going on right now.”

American Library Association: Freedom to Read Statement, 1954

Harrod said that the Moral Majority, an American religious political advocacy group, drove outrage over books in schools in the 1980s. The push led to the Supreme Court decision that Denton ISD leaders used to guide new book policies adopted this summer, the Pico decision. That ruling prohibits middle and high school officials from removing books because of their content.

“So this is not new, but there is a new sort of radicalization that I see to this and I fear where we’re headed,” Harrod said. “And I can see clear parallels we have with oppressive regimes. In regards to censorship, you look at places like North Korea, where you can get imprisoned or death sentences for possessing Western information or literature. And the reason is they call it the negative and suggestive. And that sort of sounds familiar, doesn’t it?"

Moore and Evans said that, by education and training, librarians open a dialogue with children and teens who are looking for books. In both public libraries and in schools, librarians are trained to ask questions. Sometimes, that means becoming a sounding board for students who are looking for books that might help them understand themselves.

Moore said public school libraries are meant to serve the communities represented in the school. In a place like Denton, students are coming from a range of cultural, religious and economic backgrounds. School libraries have to meet needs and requirements of the curriculum, she said, but campus libraries also need to both foster student curiosity and serve it.

“At school, the collection should open doors to other people’s lived experiences and introduce new ideas,” Moore said. “Without the introduction to those new ideas and experiences, we as a population don’t grow. We don’t develop. We don’t advance. We become stagnant in a multitude of ways.”

If communities want students to read, Moore said, schools need to provide material students want to read.

“Sometimes they want to read books with characters like themselves,” Moore said. “Sometimes they want to read books from characters unlike themselves. Sometimes they want to read books about their own interests. Sometimes they want to learn about a topic which they have very little familiarity. We can’t expect students to want to read and become strong readers, writers and critical thinkers by severely limiting their access to books, reading and writing.”

Across the country, some critics challenging books have labeled teachers and librarians as pedophiles for offering books about human sexuality, especially books about LGBTQ characters. In Oklahoma, Secretary of Education Ryan Walters called for the revocation of an Oklahoma teacher’s license after she provided students with a QR code to the Brooklyn Public Library’s “Books Unbanned” project, which offers an electronic library card to readers ages 13 to 21, regardless of where they live. Walters insisted the teacher gave students access to pornography. The project’s virtual teen book club is tackling one of the most challenged books in the country, Gender Queer, by Maia Kobabe.

For librarians like Evans and Harrod, both of whom are Christian, being part of a group labeled as sexual abusers stings.

“I’m a mom with Christian beliefs, and there may be things that I may not be comfortable with my kids reading,” Evans said. “But I never would have extended that to anybody else’s kids. That was my children, not anyone else’s. That was what I would do. Have a conversation with my kid about why I don’t feel comfortable with it.”

Evans said she confronted her own discomfort when her oldest child announced he wanted to read The Satanic Bible.

“We had to have a conversation about in the context of, you know, where did it come from? Why am I not comfortable, you know, but I couldn’t go ‘OK, we’ve got to ban that from the world,” Evans said. “Do you really want liberty? People have rights to do things, and you have rights to talk with your kids without infringing on every other child in the world. So that’s what frustrates me.”

Harrod, an elder in his Presbyterian church, said claims that challenged books are pornographic remind him of authoritarian regimes that eliminate literature by labeling it decadent and suggestive.

“We’ve got some people, and I would call them radical, who think that words on a page in some graphic novels are pornography,” Harrod said. “So I would invite them to do a side-by-side comparison with actual pornography and see for themselves the obvious difference. I can call asparagus poison because I don’t like it. But that doesn’t make it so. And calling books pornography that portray experiences that are real in our world, that exist and that may not be straight or white, or approved by political or religious leaders, doesn’t make it pornography.”

Evans, Moore and Harrod said librarians have the training, education and expertise to guide children to find material that will challenge their abilities and their beliefs. Parents should be able to determine what is appropriate for their children, they said, but shouldn’t determine what is appropriate for other people’s children.

“I would remind parents that they aren’t raising children,” Harrod said. “They’re raising adults. ... If you’re looking for somewhere to mirror your prejudices or confirm your biases, libraries are not a good choice. Libraries are not safe spaces for the narrow-minded. Personally I prefer freedom, intellectual freedom. I don’t need the government or any group of ideologues on the left or the right to tell me what to think by curating my access to information. That that’s not appealing to me. I know some people prefer that. But I would say leave that to private or parochial collections, because when it comes to the public, one size does not fit all. Untested virtue that cowers in fear of ideas is not what makes the strong mind of an adult. Or a strong democracy. It’s deleterious to us as a society.”

The Texas Library Association released a statement cautioning state residents to consider the source of book challenges, which the association said is coming not from parents and community groups, but politicians and advocacy groups that want to impose their will on other people’s children.

"Subjective censorship robs our children and their families of the right to freedom of inquiry," the TLA says, adding that it "negatively impacts their education and ability to think critically and holistically about the world."

“Schools should be more than just places where children learn to read and write,” the TLA statement says. “They should be places where students’ access to literature fosters creativity and expands their minds to make them well-rounded members of society who are successful and self-determinate.”

Denton’s Dewayne Castillo runs for a touchdown against Gainesville last Friday. The Broncos are off to their best start since 2019 at 2-2.

City proposes lower property tax rate, but homeowners may still pay more

The Denton City Council’s public hearings on Tuesday evening included one for the proposed 2022-23 budget, which will lower the property tax rate but increase the total tax bill for homeowners whose property valuations have risen, after the city finally received certified value totals from the Denton Central Appraisal District.

The revised proposed budget will raise 10.28% more in total property tax revenue, or $7,853,242, compared to the 2021-22 budget. Of that, about $3.24 million is tax revenue from new property added to the tax rolls this year.

Council member Chris Watts pointed out that the 10.28% increase comes from a rollover rate that the city hasn’t used in recent years.

The revised proposed budget also included a property tax rate of $0.56 per $100 valuation, a few cents’ decrease from the 2020 and 2021 rate of $.59 per $100 valuation. The tax bill for the average Denton home — valued at $307,283 — will be $1,723, up from $1,558 in 2021.

The City Council will reconvene Tuesday, Sept. 27, to vote on approving the budget.

Only two residents showed up for the council’s public hearing on the proposed budget.

“Just because you can raise it doesn’t mean you have to or doesn’t mean that you should,” one commenter said. “As a citizen in this town, rent went up because my landlord’s expenses went up and prices of groceries went up and gas went up. Everybody else’s expenses are coming onto me, and who do I give my expenses to? You’re going to sit here and say that you didn’t raise property taxes for two or three years and you’re going to raise it now on top of the other expenses. Where is that fair to citizens and residents of this city?”

Lowering taxes was on Mayor Gerard Hudspeth’s mind as early as January 2021, when he told the Denton Record-Chronicle that he wanted to change the property tax burden that a majority of property owners bear. He said then that the City Council wanted to reduce the tax rate again and lower service fees.

The city has been lowering the ad valorem tax rate for several years before and after the mayor took office in 2020, yet the average residential property owner has been paying an increase in taxes every year since 2017, when the tax bill was $1,349 for the average home valued at $197,379, according to Tuesday’s tax rate hearing presentation.

According to the presentation, residents’ water, wastewater, electric and solid rate will not change, for the second year in a row.

New developments

At Tuesday’s council meeting, the other public hearings tackled zoning changes for multiple projects, including a couple for the Rayzor Ranch area and an affordable apartment project, The Reserves at Magnolia. The Reserves at Magnolia calls for 60 units off Interstate 35E near Willowwood Street and Jacqueline Drive.

Watts did a good job delving into the particulars of the projects to help people understand, according to one resident.

Several council members and a resident commended the Magnolia developer for bringing it into the community.

“This is a model example of development,” one resident said.

Council members passed all zoning requests unanimously and an ordinance to amend the Denton Development Code related to two new uses — a modular data center and warehouse data center.

Council member Jesse Davis wasn’t in attendance Tuesday.

A few residents offered comments during the public hearings.

One resident claimed she had major concerns about frequent zoning changes and gave council members a warning about the planning and zoning commission. She questioned why people are receiving the notices about zoning changes via mail when it looks like junk mail, which many people throw away.

“I’m concerned about the mixed usage,” she said. “How many apartments do we need in this town? We got them looming over Hickory, over McKinney and a whole slew over them by the animal shelter. I don’t trust Planning and Zoning to have the best interest of the people in Denton.”