December 14, 2015
By Steven Wishnia
Can an alliance of carpenters and churches help solve New York City’s housing crisis?
That was the hope expressed at Riverside Church Dec. 12, when the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust and the United Clergy Task Force, a coalition of religious institutions and labor unions, announced plans to invest $300 million to build affordable housing and community facilities at seven sites in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Jersey City. The projects are expected to create more than 800 apartments, 1,400 union jobs, and apprenticeships for neighborhood residents.
In my father’s house there are many mansions,” Bishop Angelo Rosario of the Bronx orated, his voice reverberating off the church’s stone arches. “Somebody had to build these mansions. “We need more housing, and we must build it with union labor,” said Public Advocate Letitia James. What exactly will be built hasn’t been determined yet, says Housing Investment Trust vice-president Eric Price. The first two will most likely be on sites owned by St. Paul Community Baptist Church in the East New York section of Brooklyn, the church that started the Nehemiah Plan to build single-family homes in the 1980s, and the Heavenly Temple Church of God in Christ in Jersey City. The other five include a Pentecostal church in Mott Haven and a mosque in Parkchester, and there are about 35 more on the waiting list. Who the apartments built will be affordable for will depend on the site and finances, but some will be intended for people who make less than $50,000 a year—the income range usually excluded from affordable-housing schemes that leverage private investment—and some will be “workforce” housing, generally for families with dual middle-class incomes.
“Our goal is to begin all of them in the next five to seven years,” Price says. The day was more one for righteous visions than for specifics. David Aviles, director of the United Clergy Task Force, said that while the plan would build houses and get people union jobs, it was also about “rebuilding hope in our communities.” Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, a minister’s son, said the projects would “shed light on the darkness of the spiraling abyss of homelessness” and that the plan was “in the spirit of Joseph and Mary. They were immigrants. They were homeless. Joseph was an unemployed carpenter.” Unions’ participation is part of the labor movement’s greater social mission, said Vincent Alvarez of the New York City Central Labor Council, quoting Cesar Chavez—“when we go out and pursue prosperity, make sure we include the hopes and aspirations of others.” “Organized labor is standing up for what is right and just,” said Gary LaBarbera of the Building and Trades Construction Council of Greater New York, saying that unions were giving back to the community in the same way that 20,000 union construction workers had “stood up strong and loud” two days before at a rally for 14 nonunion immigrant construction workers killed on the job in the last year. Is it financially feasible to build affordable housing while paying union wages, trust fund CEO Steve Coyle asked rhetorically: “We’ve only built 145,000 apartments with union labor.” City Comptroller Scott Stringer said New York’s municipal pension funds had $1 billion in the trust “because it’s a good investment” and will help “solve the problems of the city.”