August 14, 2014
By Joe Maniscalco
New York, NY – Mayor Bill de Blasio calls his campaign to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing over the next decade a “central pillar in the battle against inequality” – but as time goes on, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that unless the administration gets tough – instead of fostering good jobs with real pathway to careers – the bulk of the developing plan may actually end up creating a whole lot of junk jobs.
Just last week, the Daily News reported that a contractor who the mayor had previously celebrated for building affordable housing in Sugar Hill – actually cheated laborers out of $300,000 in wages.
“I don’t know how you build a middle class under these conditions,” said Jack Kittle, political director, District Council No.9 of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades. “But they’ve set a number, and they’re going to hit that number no matter what they do. That’s why I never like to see anybody set a number – because then they start trying to figure out what corners they have to cut. And a good place to start is by cheating the workers.”
While the Building and Construction Trades Council continues to wrangle with City Hall over who actually builds affordable housing, some members of organized labor and other worker advocates, are expressing their growing disillusionment with the mayor’s affordable housing plan and its nebulous commitment to build union.
That sentiment has only grown more acute since it was announced that union pension monies will be used to help establish a $350 million fund to support the affordable housing plan.
But Jaron Benjamin, executive director, Metropolitan Council on Housing, dismisses the idea that cost precludes union labor from building affordable housing.
“After having conversations with people who are very familiar with how these numbers work overall, there seems to be no mathematical argument why this shouldn’t be done with good jobs that lead to careers,” Benjamin said.
According to the Met Council on Housing chief, the administration can achieve a development model of 50 percent affordable and 50 percent market rate housing, while also utilizing union labor. But it all depends on how tough the man who was elected to tackle income inequality, wants to get with developers.
“The ones who wind up taking the haircut are the developers,” Benjamin said. “And it’s up to the administration to drive a hard bargain with them. They’ll still make money. Every numerical scenario that I’ve seen shows that the developers will still make money – they just won’t make as much as they typically do. But it’s up to the administration to drive a harder bargain.”
City Hall spokesperson Wiley Norvell said, “Maximizing quality jobs that pay good wages is a priority for this administration in everything we do – our affordable housing programs included.”
But many are unconvinced.
Last month, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz opposed the massive Astoria Cove residential development slated for East River waterfront largely due to its limited number of affordable housing units – but also because of union concerns that the developer had not made a commitment to uphold prevailing wages and provide apprenticeship training programs that traditionally provide entry into the middle class.
Kittle fears that despite union concessions at the barging table, the overall aim might be to cut organized labor out of the affordable housing picture entirely.
“The truth is, at the end of the day, this whole affordable housing sector’s main objective, in terms of labor policy, is to get rid of the unions,” Kittle said. “And I find it insulting that they expect us to pay for that.”