PHOENIX _ A happy man, Fred Keene stood beside his yellow
bulldozer the other day as it idled among the century-old saguaro
cactuses of the Sonora Desert and said, "Busy, busy, busy."
"I'm working nonstop," he added. "I've turned down work. Just
turned down a job Monday night _ no time to do it."
Keene and the Caterpillar D-9H bulldozer he bought a year ago
are part of a building boom that is gobbling up the desert around
Phoenix at the rate of an acre an hour. Wide swaths of homes and
shops are spreading outward from the city where only cactus, jack
rabbits and rattlesnakes had been before.
"In a year this will all be houses," said Keene, standing in
the afternoon sun on a development site zoned for 4,500 homes.
Only a new two-lane blacktop road now cuts into the desert on the
eastern edge of the city, its concrete curb sides neatly finished
and already marked with speed-limit signs.
Phoenix, one of the nation's fastest-growing cities, is
expanding so rapidly that it can barely find enough construction
workers to do the job. Builders are raising wages as they bid for
one another's skilled craftsmen, and the average time it takes to
complete a typical house has increased from about three months to
more than five months.
"It's causing the contractor to pay far more today for the
same guy that he was complaining about yesterday not knowing a
hammer from a screwdriver," said David Wilkinson, an official of
the local branch of Associated Builders and Contractors. "They're
They are so desperate that the top 10 contractors in Arizona
spent an average of $14,000 each over the last three months on
national advertising to attract workers, particularly
electricians, welders, pipe fitters, masons, roofers and
Skilled workers are in short supply almost everywhere,
particularly in parts of the South and the Midwest, even though
new home construction has cooled because of rising interest
rates, said Charlie Hawkins, executive vice president of
Associated Builders and Contractors, an industry group based in
But few areas are building as fast as metropolitan Phoenix,
which has 2.4 million people, 400,000 more than in 1990. Arizona
continues to attract many new residents and businesses from
California, by cutting its taxes and keeping its regulations
Critics of the pell-mell development warn of growing
congestion and air pollution, rising crime and a strain on public
services, but they are greatly outnumbered in the city
The boom extends to commercial construction, including a
burgeoning computer-chip industry clustered along the edges of
its freeways in almost every direction, Wilkinson said.
In downtown Phoenix, construction includes a science museum,
an art museum, a museum of history, a new library and a new home
for the city's largest daily, The Arizona Republic.
Housing permits in the Phoenix area for detached single-family
houses rose from 21,896 in 1993 to 26,614 last year, the highest
since its record of about 28,000 permits in 1978, said Jay Q.
Butler, an analyst at the Arizona Real Estate Center. …