February 12, 2015
By Bill Hohlfeld
On Wednesday, February 4th, the Business and Labor Coalition of New York, (BALCONY) lived up to its name when it did an extraordinary job of bringing major players in the world of affordable housing construction together for an open dialogue about how to meet Mayor Di Blasio’s goal of providing New York with 200,000 new units of affordable housing, in a way that meets the needs of all the stakeholders.
There is no doubt as to the current administration’s commitment to the task it has set for itself. As keynote speaker, Ms. Vicki Been, Commissioner of NYC HPD, spoke in terms that were quite concrete. With 56 per cent of New Yorkers falling into the category of being “ rent burdened,” the issue of housing has reached what Ms. Been described as a crisis. In response to this crisis, the city has endeavored to streamline its processes, target a broad range of incomes,use the tools of clustering and rezoning available properties, and most importantly, earmarking 8.1 million dollars of city funds that are to be leveraged in the most extensive and creative ways possible.
As encouraging as all this is, it was also made clear by NYC Public Advocate, Letitia James that all the issues are not solely financial. For instance,there is a need to eradicate the process of the “poor door” where separate entrances to the same building are used for tenants of different socio-economic status. She also examined the crisis through the lens of homelessness, citing a shameful statistic of 50,000 homeless on the streets of New York, many of whom are children.
More of the nuts and bolts to be examined included not only the number of units to be provided but also the size. To be family friendly, apartments need to have multiple bedrooms; most being built now are studios. Finally, Ms. James was unabashed in her recognition that the workers who build these buildings should have union jobs that provide good wages, health benefits and apprenticeship training. She recounted she has seen exploited workers literally left for dead because they had to contend with unsafe conditions caused by unscrupulous contractors. Her support, therefore, for an Affordable Housing PLA is unequivocal.
These sentiments were echoed in the voice of John Skinner, President and Political Action Director of Local 46 Metallic Lathers and Reinforcing Ironworkers. He cited past successes in this area that have taken place at the Hunters Point South and Gotham West projects. Unfortunately, they are overshadowed by irresponsible contractors who do not avail themselves of the Building Trades. These particular HPD contractors not only allow unsafe conditions and fail to provide healthcare, but are collectively guilty of 13 million dollars of wage theft.
Another independent investigation, conducted by New York District Attorney Cyrus Vance’s office, according to Mr. Skinner, showed that through misclassification alone, shady contractors had cost the city and state a half billion in revenue. Add to that, the findings of another study conducted by the NYS Laborers that when a 10% sampling of affordable housing projects completed during the Bloomberg administration were surveyed, one out of every three were found to have serious defects. These statistics , presented by the Lather president were indeed sobering ones; yet he ended his comments on a positive note when he stated, “Inequality can be addressed. We have the tools to make a change.”
No less eloquent in his comments was Arthur Cheliotes, President of CWA Local 1180, when he conjured up images of Tammany Hall while he spoke of the Bloomberg administration privatizing entire city agencies and maintaining a “country club mentality.” Yet it is not merely artful use of rhetoric, when Mr. Cheliotes makes his very cogent argument that on their average salaries of $65,000/ year, the city workers he represents are often forced to commute as much as two hours each way to find affordable housing. He goes on to pose an important question as to how stressed and tired we want the people who deliver our services to be.
Another important issue discussed was the need for more clarity in the rules the city mandates of developers. Because as Ed Wallace, Co-chair of Greenberg- Traurig succintly stated, “uncertainty creates anxiety.” He went on to speak of how important design is to a community and how early outreach to the community assures it that its wishes will be respected.
The panels went on to discuss diverse matters of funding, energy needs, impact to communities, the role of rehab as opposed to new construction, and more. The conversation was kept flowing by the deft handling of panel moderators Mike Locker of Locker Associates and Joyce Miller of Tier One Strategies.
This important discussion, brought to life through the good offices of Lou Gordon’s BALCONY made two things abundantly clear. The time for more affordable housing in New York City is now, and in order for this very achievable goal to be reached, it calls for input and cooperation of all the parties involved.