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City Council OKs Prevailing Wage for Workers in ‘Affordable Housing’

November 17, 2019

By Steve Wishnia

Building service workers rally outside City Hall ahead of Nov. 14 vote on Prevailing Wage exemption for affordable housing.

NEW YORK, N.Y.—The City Council voted 46-1 Nov. 14 to pass a law that would require the operators of many future “affordable housing” developments to pay building-service workers prevailing wage.

The bill, sponsored by Councilmember Rafael L. Espinal Jr. (D-Brooklyn), amends the city’s 2012 Prevailing Wage Law to remove the exemption that affordable-housing projects and nonprofit housing developers previously had. It will cover workers such as custodians and security guards in projects where a private developer has received at least $1 million from the city or a city economic development entity to build or preserve affordable housing. 

“Our city is facing an affordable-housing crisis, but also a good-jobs crisis,” 32BJ SEIU vice president Jose Santos said at a rally in City Hall Park before the vote. “This legislation proves a commitment to both affordable housing and providing family-sustaining jobs.”

In a statement after the bill was passed, 32BJ President Kyle Bragg called it “an IMPORTANT victory for working families and their communities across the city.” He said it was a proud addition to the legacy of the union’s late president Hector Figueroa, who “started the push for this bill.”

The measure defines “affordable housing” as projects where at least half the apartments are affordable for households earning up to 130% of the metropolitan area median income (AMI)—rents of up to about $2,425 a month for a studio or $3,125 for two-bedroom apartment. It also includes developments in which all units are affordable to households making up to 165% of AMI, as long as at least 20% of them are affordable to households earning less than 50% of AMI, $37,350 a year for a single person and $48,050 for a family of three.

It contains numerous exemptions, however. The prevailing-wage requirement will not apply in buildings with fewer than 120 apartments; some supportive-housing projects for disabled or formerly homeless people; “deeply affordable” preservation projects in which the average rent is affordable for households making less than 50% of AMI; and city public housing converted to private management through the federal Rental Assistance Demonstration program.

A 32BJ spokesperson estimated it would probably cover a couple thousand workers.

The one Councilmember who voted no was Minority Leader Steven Matteo (R-Staten Island). The Daily News also opposed the bill, saying in a Nov. 12 editorial that its increased labor costs “could significantly weigh down the city’s efforts to build apartments for the poor and homeless.”

“Subsidizing affordable housing without setting labor standards is perpetuating poverty,” Councilmember Ritchie Torres (D-Bronx) told the rally. He said that investing public funds in buildings and then not paying the people who work there a living wage was “not only bad morals, but bad economics.”

32BJ members at the rally said that earning union wages had made the difference between living in the strictures of poverty and being able to afford the small luxuries of a comfortable life. Port Authority cleaner Luciana Owens said it means she can take her children on vacations. 

“Making prevailing wage changed my life,” Raymond Perez, 49, a handyman in a Mitchell-Lama middle-income development on the Lower East Side, told LaborPress. After working there for 22 years, he feels like “everybody in my building in my family.” 

And unlike the low-wage jobs he had when he was younger, he adds, he can afford to take his family—including two adult children and a 6-year-old grandson—out to dinner in a neighborhood coffeeshop.

November 17, 2019

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