April 23, 2105
By Joe Maniscalco
New York, NY – Bad building contractors and subcontractors with long track records of outrageous worker abuses — everything from wage theft to sexual harassment — have little reason to fear their actions will stop them from doing business with the city.
That reality became painfully clear during a sometimes testy oversight hearing on the mayor’s ambitious housing plan held at City Hall on April 21.
Committee on Housing and Buildings Chair Jumanne Williams [D-45th District] and Committee on Contracts Chair Helen Rosenthal [D-6th District] led the inquiry which saw the head of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development [HPD] try repeatedly to distance the agency from embarrassingly bad contractors and subcontractors, while also lamenting its inability to adequately address allegations of widespread workplace abuses.
“We rely on workers themselves [to report abuses],” HPD Commissioner Vicki Been said. “We really need workers to step forward…and that is difficult because workers fear retaliation. They fear being blacklisted…and losing their job. That is a very unfortunate fact of life on these jobs.”
Striking ironworkers Carol Turner, Ithier Lopez and LaFondra Brown continued their very public awareness campaign testifying about the horrendous worker abuses they say they and many of their colleagues have suffered in the employ of one of the city’s biggest building contractors — the Thomas Auringer family of companies.
Turner, a 52-year-old non-union construction worker who walked off an Auringer affiliated job site in the Bronx last spring, testified that the company’s principal Thomas Auringer, once causally dismissed charges of worker abuses saying, “This is my city. I do what I want.”
HPD, along with the Mayor’s Office of Contract Services, works with affordable housing developers around the city to get their projects off the ground with the help of handsome public subsidies — but supposedly only on condition that those developers are responsible players in the industry.
Those who don’t play by the rules can end up on what the city calls its “Enhanced Review” list. Ostensibly, placement on the Enhanced Review list is be avoided because it negatively impacts a developer’s ability to follow through on lucrative projects.
But as Tuesday’s hearing showed, developers — and the contractors and subcontractors they hire — can slip any type of sanction merely by convincing HPD that they have “cleaned up their act.”
“People’s lives are ruined by things like carrying open containers,” a frustrated Councilman Williams told Commissioner Been. “Then there are people stealing wages, and it seems they get put into time-out and then get put back in the game. We have to find a way to punish them. And I’m not sure that has happened the way it’s set up here.”
Commissioner Been defended city oversight of developers and their building contractors and subcontractors, saying that being placed on HPD’s Enhanced Review list is and of itself a form of punishment because it costs builders “millions of dollars.”
The HPD head also suggested that the de Blasio administration, in its drive to build or preserve 200,000 unites of affordable housing over the next decade, is reluctant to scare away any developer interested in building here.
“We’re not wiling to say once you have made a mistake you can never be rehabilitated,” Commissioner Been said. “We don’t have a surplus of firms doing affordable housing work. We are trying to attract developers outside of the city. There are people who made a mistake who correct them and do a good job on affordable housing.”
HPD stoked the ire of council members right out of the gate, showing up to Tuesday’s hearing almost an hour-and-a-half late. Representatives from the Mayor’s Office of Contract Services who were also expected to participate, didn’t show at all.
Councilmember Elizabeth Crowley [D-30th District] was perhaps the most irate, lacing into Commissioner Been’s tenuous defense of HPD’s Enhanced Review list.
“Affordable housing is not the answer to let contractors run wild,” the Queens council member said. “How many strikes are we going to allow contractors before we debar them? This is not a ballgame. This is people’s lives.”
Organized labor fully supports the mayors affordable housing goals, but has long been critical about how it is costing those actually hammering the nails and hoisting the beams.
“Over and over again we have seen how a small group of corrupt, well-connected contractors have been awarded contracts in the millions of dollars — taxpayer dollars — only to find them brought up on charges ranging from wage theft, to tax evasion, to substandard work,” Laborers Local 79 Business Manager Mike Prohaska said in a statement. “Too much is at stake to continue to turn a blind eye.”
Contractors attached to the East Harlem project Mayor de Blasio had previously called the “epitome” of what affordable housing development should look like, were recently hit with charges of stealing $800,000 in unpaid wages.
“No less than four previous HPD commissioners, as well as the current commissioner, Vicki Been, have been made aware of the rampant corruption in the affordable housing industry in New York City,” Mason Tenders District Council PAC Director Mike MacGuire added in a statement.
Robert Bonanza, Mason Tenders District Council business manager, charged New York City is "neither inclined nor equipped to deal with the rampant corruption taking place in the affordable housing industry which it facilitates through HPD."
"The only answer is for the City of New York to stand up and take a proactive stance, rather than relying on federal and state authorities to take reactive stances to clean up our city's messes," Bonanza said in a statement.
During this week’s hearing, Commissioner Been insisted that the city would cease to do business with developers who repeatedly “goof up.” When asked later, however, the HPD chief failed to say exactly how many times that has actually happened in the past.
Councilman Williams, who first told LaborPress back in December that he would convene a hearing on the mayor’s affordable housing plan, said wage theft, and other workplace abuses constitute a lot more than an industry faux pas.
“These are not mistakes,” Councilman Williams said. “They are planned criminal behavior.”