NEW YORK, N.Y.—Building-trades workers protested against one of the city’s main “affordable housing” developers in Staten Island Apr. 26, demanding that it use union labor on a largely publicly financed project.
The developer, BFC Partners, “always builds nonunion,” Joe Scopo, head organizer for Cement and Concrete Workers District Council 16, told LaborPress.
BFC has “a long history of jobsite violations. If they have a bad past, they usually have a bad future,” Scopo told the crowd in front of a dark-green wood fence at 475 Bay St. “It’s no secret jobs in the nonunion sector are being bid based on what corners they can cut, which is their way of profit, which I get, but it’s wrong. Their way has led to the mass exploitation of brown workers, wage theft, and leading the construction industry in worker deaths.”
The 12-story building, in a former parking lot about a mile south of the ferry terminal, is the first project being built under the city’s 2019 rezoning of a 14-block strip of Bay Street along the waterfront in the Tompkinsville and Stapleton neighborhoods.
It will contain a mix of stores and 269 apartments, which will be “100% affordable,” according to BFC’s announcement from January. Slightly less than half will be for tenants whose household income is at most 80% of the metropolitan area median income (AMI), about $86,000 for a family of three, and the rest for formerly homeless elderly people or tenants whose income is at most 30% of AMI, about $25,000 for an adult living alone.
A $99.9 million loan from the New York State Housing Finance Agency, funded by tax-exempt bonds, will cover about two-thirds of the project’s $151 million cost. It will also receive an annual subsidy for frail and older adult residents from the state’s Empire State Supportive Housing Initiative, according to the BFC announcement.
“That money should be used to hire people from the communities of Staten Island and to hire workers from the unions,” not “untrained workers making less than prevailing wage,” Scopo told the rally. “These jobs in Staten Island could be made good by Governor Hochul.”
BFC Partners did not respond to phone and email messages from LaborPress.
Nonunion ‘affordable housing’
Almost all the publicly subsidized “affordable housing” constructed in the city in the past 25 years has been built by nonunion labor, although some building-trades unions have expressed optimism that Mayor Eric Adams will change that.
The 2019 Bay Street rezoning allowed buildings up to 13 stories high. The city’s goal was to spur the construction of 1,800 new apartments along the waterfront, 1,350 of them luxury and 450 “affordable,” with another 850 below-market apartments slated for two city-owned sites nearby. Community activists and then-City Councilmember Debi Rose persuaded then-Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration to designate most of the lower-cost housing for people making at most 60% of AMI, about $48,000 a year for a family of three, rather than the original plan for it to be “middle income” housing at twice the rent.
The neighborhood’s median household income was then about $43,000, according to Census Bureau figures, with about one-third of the households making less than 30% of AMI. “It’s totally unaffordable for the people of the North Shore,” local activist Dulce Rivera told Gothamist in 2019.
BFC describes itself as “the first developer in New York City to mix low and middle-income restricted apartments with market-rate rentals.” Its managing partner, Donald Capoccia, rose to prominence in the late ’90s, building middle-income housing on the sites of former community gardens on the Lower East Side. (31 protesters were arrested when one garden was bulldozed in early 2000.)
Capoccia’s campaign contributions to then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani — at least $2,300 over the legal limit in 1997 — may have eased the way. One Lower East Side activist told Tenant/Inquilino in 1998 that the city was selling up to 400 vacant lots that had been used for community gardens “at bargain-basement prices to cronies of Giuliani.”
More recently, BFC has been involved in major developments such as Essex Crossing on the Lower East Side, the City Point mall in downtown Brooklyn, and the partially finished Bedford Union Armory in Crown Heights, which was delayed four years by community opposition. BFC promises that 250 of its 415 apartments would be “affordable to low- and middle-income families.”
Throughout, the company has consistently used nonunion contractors. At the 38-story Toren luxury condo development in downtown Brooklyn, workers were paid as little as $12 an hour for 72-hour weeks, and “when they look in their pay envelopes, they’re short a lot of hours,” Ironworkers Local 361 organizer Omar Lopez told the Village Voice in 2008. One of the contractors on that job was U.S. Crane and Rigging, a longtime union target for its long record of accidents, wage theft, and racial discrimination.
In 2013, the union-led Build Up NYC coalition protested BFC’s plans to use mostly nonunion labor for its Empire Outlets development on Staten Island’s North Shore. The development went into foreclosure in February, after 12 stores moved out after they were closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
“With over $19 million in stolen wages documented since 2010 in the affordable-housing industry on projects predominantly overseen by New York State Association for Affordable Housing developers, it cannot be argued that the problem is caused by a few bad apples,” said a 2015 report by the Real Affordability for All coalition, which included the Iron Workers District Council and Laborers Local 79. “Donald Capoccia of BFC Partners is infamous for hiding behind contractors that violate wage-theft laws and abuse workers.”
“BFC Partners has gotten away with exploiting workers on the taxpayers’ dime for way too long,” Tafadar Sourov of Local 79 said in a statement to LaborPress. “Their last major project, the Bedford Armory in Brooklyn, was built 100% nonunion, and that project has a long list of [Department of Buildings] violations and fines. They went back on their promises to help Crown Heights, after getting public subsidies while workers labored without health care and pension benefits. Now they want to bring their business model to Staten Island. BFC needs to do the right thing.”