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Maya Angelou once wrote that “the ache for home lives in all of us.” For adults with intellectual disabilities, the longing for a home, a place of independence, is a longing that is rarely fulfilled.

Link Associates, founded in 1953, is a community-based nonprofit that serves more than 900 individuals with intellectual disabilities in the Des Moines area. Link has spent the past six decades helping intellectually disabled adults develop increasing independence by offering job training, residential assistance, and much more.

Last year, thanks to a generous donation from Bankers Trust and the help of Coldwell Banker and Tanzanite Homes, Link made that dream of a home come true for four Des Moines residents. The success of that project led to a second project this year.

“About three years ago, we started looking for a house to renovate,” says Linda Dunshee, Executive Director of Link Associates. “We thought we could find a ranch home that we could modify, but we just couldn’t find anything we could afford.”

After Link discussed the needs and the budget with Sarah Kavalier at Coldwell Banker, Kavalier reached out to fellow REALTOR® Robin von Gillern. “I knew Robin worked with KRM Development and Tanzanite Homes, and they had experience with new construction closer to the price range Link needed,” says Kavalier. “Link’s budget and current housing prices just didn’t allow much wiggle room for the renovations that would need to be made.”

Designer Tracie Burrell at Tanzanite Homes assisted with identifying a floor plan that would work for Link’s needs after some modifications. The next step was finding a lot that suited the residents’ restrictions.

“The lot needed to be on a bus line, have sidewalk access, and be suitable for a slab-built ranch design,” Kavalier says. “Kirk Mickelson at KRM Development put the word out, and he found four in-fill lots that were perfect.”

That first home, a four-bedroom, was completed last spring. The four adult residents moved in just as COVID restrictions went into place.

“We didn’t get to do the big celebration we wanted to with the new residents and subcontractors because of quarantine,” says Burrell. “But we started talking during the first build about doing a second home. Feedback from those first residents helped us make minor changes to the plan.”

Thanks to the sale of a Link-owned property in Ankeny, which was not handicap- accessible, funding for a second home came together quickly. The second home will feature five bedrooms, each with a wheelchair lift, and two bathrooms. “We broke ground in November on one of the other lots just a few doors down from the first home,” says Kavalier.

The floor plans on both properties include adaptations to make them suitable to safely support adults with both physical and intellectual challenges. Many of these design elements were familiar to Burrell from prior projects, but she says there were other considerations she had not addressed before in her designs. “Things like wider hallways to accommodate wheelchairs and zero-entry showers are not uncommon,” she says. “But there were other features we had to make sure accommodated every resident. So a wheelchair can fit under the counter, all the kitchen and bathroom sinks are designed for wheelchair access. Showers allow chair access so every resident can actually get in the shower and an aide can assist them.”

Dunshee says, “The four residents in the first home never had the opportunity to live with 24-hour/day staff support in their own home. This home has opened up such a world of possibility for these folks. Most of us can’t imagine what they deal with every day, just the little things like being able to take a shower. That hasn’t been possible for some of our clients because their homes or apartments can’t accommodate their needs. Imagine only being able to sponge bathe. The small things that we take for granted are impossible for them.”

Based on feedback from the first residents and to adapt the plan to suit the new residents, Burrell made additional tweaks to the second home’s design. “We’ll be installing metal frames around the doors to protect them from damage from wheelchairs,” she says. “We added special backing behind the walls, too, so they’re sturdier and can stand up to the day-to-day traffic of the residents who are in their wheelchairs.”

The new plan also features a fifth bedroom with a kitchenette and a separate entrance, much like a mother-in-law apartment. “One of the residents is more independent and doesn’t require 24-hour supervision, so we wanted to provide a little more privacy for him,” Dunshee explains.

Working with Link on these projects has not only transformed the lives of the residents who will live in the homes, it’s had a long-lasting effect on Kavalier as well. “The more I learn about what Link does and what these adults deal with every day, it’s just opened my eyes to how hard it is for them to live a normal life,” she says. “These fairly simple changes to a home make it possible for them to live like adults. It’s so exciting to be a part of that.”

Kavalier’s enthusiasm has gone beyond these specific projects. Beginning this year, she will be serving on the Link Associates Board of Directors.

“Link provides services to adults with physical and intellectual disabilities,” says Dunshee. “Our clients are fully capable of living active lives. We try to provide anything a family needs to improve the quality of life for intellectually challenged family members and for the entire family.”

Link owns or rents dozens of properties across the metro, from apartments to houses, to help those served transition to semi-independent living. Each living situation provides what the residents there need, including trained 24-hour staffing.

“We would love to do more homes like these two projects,” Dunshee says. “It’s so much more cost-effective to build a suitable home than try to adapt one. But it all depends on fundraising.”

Thanks to the generosity of donors, contractors, and subcontractors, in less than 18 months, Link has been able to provide a dream come true for nine adults who might never have been able to live such independent lives.

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Details may be altered, but the holiday spirit remains intact.

There certainly is no doubt about it. This holiday season is like no other for individuals, for families, and for businesses and organizations. No office parties, no big family gatherings, no huge cookie and gift exchanges, no school and church children’s programs. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s a major bummer all around for everyone.

But one thing is steadfast. The spirit of giving hasn’t diminished. If anything, it’s stronger with so many people facing hardships.

Two local organizations with annual holiday service initiatives are forging ahead, resolute in carrying on traditions that benefit others.

Iowa Association of REALTORS®

“We look forward to the first Friday of December,” says Mark Gavin, director of communications and marketing for the Iowa Association of REALTORS. “That’s when we traditionally participate in Iowa REALTOR Ring Day with the Salvation Army. A number of Realtors around the state team up with colleagues around the nation to stand at the iconic red kettles and collect donations.” He knows in the past that at least 20-plus states have been on board with the project.

Ring Day began with a member in Fargo, North Dakota, some years ago who wanted to give real estate professionals a way to support a cause near to them—housing. He felt the two groups could pair up easily because the Salvation Army offers a number of housing-related programs. Gavin says this is the ninth year for the central Iowa participation in the event.

He says there have been some slight changes because of the pandemic. Masks, gloves, and social distancing, of course, will be in place. “It’s hard to tell how many people participate; various boards handle the situation differently,” he explains. “Some work in one- or two-hour time slots. In some locations, Realtors might take a six-hour shift in front of a supermarket or a hardware store and provide various bell ringers for the whole time.” He says that some people go all out and wear Santa Claus or elf costumes to add to the spirit of the event.

Ken Clark, past president of the association, says, “My wife Diane and I participate in Ring Day and support the great work of the Salvation Army. The Army is unmatched in the percent of revenue that goes for its work. Because of the many volunteers, a very small percentage is used for administration.”

Gavin encourages individuals, or even other organizations, to help out the Salvation Army, too. “It’s so easy. Just sign up at RegisterToRing.com,” he says.

HBA Remodelers Council

For the Remodelers Council of the Home Builders Association of Greater Des Moines (HBA), December means collecting items for the Marine Corps Toys for Tots program. “We usually collect toys at our annual holiday party,” says Jeff Ellis, chairman of the council this year. “However, this year, like so many other groups, we aren’t celebrating with a party. So we are having our members drop off toys at the HBA office in Johnston.

Ellis, owner of FIRSTCALL, Inc., in Grimes, says various members usually offer repair services at the holidays to homeowners who need them, but not this year because of the pandemic. “Each year my wife and I go shopping for some basic, classic toys to donate, usually a truck and a doll. Every child loves those standard toys.”

Toys for Tots began in 1947, right after World War II, by Major Bill Hendricks in Los Angeles. The first year 5,000 toys were collected and distributed. The first donation was a doll handmade by his wife Diane. By 1980 only new toys were collected. The number of toys collected went to 7.9 million by 1990. A toy program for Native American children was established in 1980.

First Lady Michelle Obama volunteered for eight years. First Lady Melania Trump has participated in recent years. The Blue Angels have flown and distributed toys over the years, and corporate sponsors have been groups such as Build-a-Bear, Hasbro, and United Parcel Service.

Toys for Tots is proud that 97% of its proceeds go to purchasing toys, books, and other gifts for less-fortunate children. The remaining 3% goes to fundraising expenses, not salaries.

Ellis encourages the public to participate in the program. “If people drop off toys to the HBA office, 6751 Corporate Drive in Johnston, by December 14, we will get them to the Marine Corps.”

Bottom line for these two and other generous groups: The feel-good aspect goes two ways. While the goal is to make others have a nice holiday and feel great, those who perform the services feel good, too. It’s a win-win for both sides.

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Is a worker an employee or independent contractor? Department of Labor proposes new rule.

For many years, construction companies have been faced with the issue of whether they should treat a worker as an employee or independent contractor. Handling the issue incorrectly can have serious consequences. Various courts and regulatory bodies have enforced different standards over the years causing much confusion for construction companies and other employers and risk due to misclassification.

DOL Announces Proposed Rule

On September 22, the Department of Labor announced its proposed rule addressing how to determine whether a worker is an employee under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) or an independent contractor. Most believe the new rule will provide greater clarity for construction companies and other employers faced with this issue.

In its press release, the DOL stated:

“The Department’s proposal aims to bring clarity and consistency to the determination of who’s an independent contractor under the Fair Labor Standards Act,” said Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia. “Once finalized, it will make it easier to identify employees covered by the Act, while respecting the decision other workers make to pursue the freedom and entrepreneurialism associated with being an independent contractor.”

“The rule we proposed today continues our work to simplify the compliance landscape for businesses and to improve conditions for workers,” said Wage and Hour Division Administrator Cheryl Stanton. “The Department believes that streamlining and clarifying the test to identify independent contractors will reduce worker misclassification, reduce litigation, increase efficiency, and increase job satisfaction and flexibility.”

What’s Changing

The proposed rule:

  • Adopts an “economic reality” test
    The test considers whether a worker is in business for himself or herself (independent contractor) or is economically dependent on a putative employer for work (employee).
  • Identifies and explains two “core factors”
    1. The nature and degree of the worker’s control over the work
    2. The worker’s opportunity for profit or loss based on initiative and/or investment

    These factors help determine if a worker is economically dependent on someone else’s business or is in business for himself or herself.

  • Identifies three other factors
    These three factors may serve as additional guideposts in the analysis:

    1. The amount of skill required for the work
    2. The degree of permanence of the working relationship between the worker and the potential employer
    3. Whether the work is part of an integrated unit of production
  • Relevance
    Advises that the actual practice is more relevant than what may be contractually or theoretically possible in determining whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor.

Big Picture

Construction companies and other employers should continue to stay up to date on the latest rules and standards pursuant to Iowa and federal law and seek counsel when questions arise. Misclassification of status is a significant risk for employers, and any questions should be directed to your legal counsel.

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Increased material costs leave contractors asking about contract protections.

We are hearing about a budget pinch from many homebuilder and general contractor clients tied to the substantial increases in the cost of lumber and other materials; HBA Iowa reports about an 80% increase in lumber costs since mid-April. As the cost of materials for build projects soars, builders and contractors should review their contracts carefully to see if they have options to get some or all of the increased costs covered by the owner and consider revising their future contracts to help protect themselves against abnormal material cost increases.

Cost-Plus Contracts

Contractors and builders who signed cost-plus contracts with their owner-clients are breathing a sigh of relief, as these contracts fully protect them in this regard, all material costs are directly passed on to the owner-client. Though, contractors should carefully review any provisions in their cost-plus contracts regarding guarantees on any estimated budget and/or a guaranteed maximum price, as modifications may be prudent to these types of provisions.

Stipulated Sum Contracts

Conversely, contractors are much less protected in the typical stipulated sum contract, as contractors generally bear the risk, and gain the benefit, of downward or upward changes in material and labor costs. That said, contractors should review whether the contract has any provisions addressing delays caused by the owner-client, as such provision may provide relief. For example, as the virus took hold, many buyers reconsidered their project—putting the project on hold or delaying decisions as they dealt with the health and safety of their families. If your contract contains this type of provision and you can show that without that delay, costs would not have increased, the owner-client may be liable for the increased cost.

Future Contracts Recommendations

To help protect themselves from substantial market-wide material cost increases in the future, contractors and homebuilders should consider the following:

  • Should you start using cost-plus contracts, instead of a stipulated sum contracts?
  • Should you add one or more of the following provisions in your stipulated sum contracts?
    • Provision RE: Market-wide Material Cost Increases: Generally, this type of provision provides that the contract price is subject to change if there is an unexpected market-wide increase in the cost of a certain material above X% (often 10% or more) and if the contractor cannot obtain the same or similar material for a lesser amount; in such event, the contract price is subject to increase in the differential amount of the material cost increase.
    • Price Lock Provision: This type of provision mandates only a 30- or 60-day price lock guarantee, such that the contract price is subject to increase at the commencement of the project does not occur until after that price lock period.

    These two provisions should help contractors and builders with future substantial material cost increases in the future, but contractors should ensure that their owner-clients understand the effect of these types of provisions.

Finding Relief

We echo our friends at NAHB­—if your business is suffering from the increased costs of materials, reach out to your members of Congress. Although some of the increased cost can be attributed to the coronavirus—low supply and high demand, the ongoing trade wars add another layer to the issue. Ask your members of Congress to work with the administration to address lumber prices.

Going Forward

Coronavirus continues to teach us new ways to move forward. For builders, this includes adding contract provisions to address everything from government forced shutdowns to material cost changes. Builders are encouraged to work with their attorney to add address contractual changes going forward to avoid being on the hook for these massive cost increases.

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Mortgage industry experiences record activity.

Under normal circumstances, financial advisors recommend certain conditions before potential buyers apply for a home loan—favorable interest rates, reliable employment, and acceptable savings.

But circumstances for home buyers today are nothing like normal.

Circumstances for lenders are nothing like normal either, and financial professionals are making adjustments daily to address that.

“It’s like someone stepped on the gas,” says Green State Credit Union’s Amy Smith. “The mortgage market went from normal to beyond full speed in a matter of weeks.” She says rates had been low even before the pandemic affected markets, so activity had already been on the rise. But Green State’s mortgage lenders have never been busier. “Across the board, the mortgage industry is 70% to 100% busier than it was a year ago. But we’re not operating with 70% to 100% more staff,” she says.

The historically record lows—near 2% at press time—have opened up the possibility of home ownership to more buyers than ever, so inquiries and applications have skyrocketed.

Kim Downing-Manning of Bankers Trust says, “Even before COVID-19, we anticipated this would be a busy year. Rates were already low. And with it being an election year, we knew that would continue. But rates just kept dropping, and people are wisely taking advantage of that.”

“We’ve never had a market where there was a boom in refinances and home purchase mortgages at the same time. Both sides of the industry are experiencing unprecedented highs right now,” Smith says. She explains that typically rates fall when the economy slows down. Currently, while unemployment is rising, inflation is dropping.

“Normally there’s a bigger difference between mortgage and refinance rates,” says Downing-Manning. “Right now there really isn’t much of a difference. Rates benefit both. So whether clients are looking to buy their dream home and move up or put money into their current home or even just reduce their interest rate, the time is right for all of those.”

The months of quarantine during which homeowners were working from home and children were educating at home highlighted the need for more space or more-suitable space. This has led to a lot of motivated buyers for both new construction and resale properties.

“The resale inventory is low compared to demand,” Smith says. “I’m hearing of multiple offers on homes, more than 20 for one home recently.” Those low rates have benefited development and new construction as well. “A 30-year fixed loan is about 2.5% now [early August], and construction loans are at 3.75%,” she says.

“Although I don’t work with construction loans, it’s clear, just driving around, that builders are still moving a lot of dirt. Typically, construction and development loan rates are tied to prime, and that’s had a positive effect on those loans,” Downing-Manning says.

The steady activity during the height of quarantine resulted in occasional backlogs while many offices were closed. Many professionals, including real estate agents, appraisers, inspectors, and attorneys, were working from home or working limited hours.

Digital methods of completing sales, which were already in limited use, have been improved and implemented more consistently and are expected to become the norm in many aspects of the business.

As the busy construction season continues, mortgage activity remains at unprecedented rates. “Even with the uncertainties in the economy right now, folks who are employed feel pretty confident in their job situation after all the ups and downs lately, so they’re comfortable considering a move,” Downing-Manning says.

With rates this low, and likely to remain so at least through the end of the year, the seller’s market should continue.

As Smith says, with rates this good, anyone who qualifies is shopping.