Law and Politics

Labor Standards an Issue in Mayor’s Housing Plan

February 11, 2016
By Steven Wishnia

New York, NY – As the City Council chambers filled Feb. 9 for the first hearing on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “mandatory inclusionary housing” program, about 40 people in orange Laborers Local 79 T-shirts occupied the front rows and the balcony, holding signs reading “MIH Zero Vision Planning for Worker Safety.” Across the center aisle were about 20 people wearing the two-tone blue circle of the Hotel Trades Council, holding “Affordable Housing: A Stronger NYC” signs.

Land Use committee chair David Greenfield (D-Brooklyn), who is sponsoring the proposal, called mandatory inclusionary housing the “centerpiece” of the mayor’s housing program. It would rezone several city neighborhoods—East New York and the Jerome Avenue area north of Yankee Stadium are likely to be among the first—to let developers build taller buildings, and then require them to rent 25% to 30% of the apartments for less than market rate.

It would not require developers to use union labor, pay prevailing wages, hire local residents, or have union-scale safety training. “Will Councilmembers support the position that to build affordable housing we must use the lowest possible bidders and favor the same wage-stealing contractors?” Pat Purcell of the Laborers-Employers Cooperation and Education Trust asked. He urged the Council to “pass a housing plan that provides real affordability, the best-trained construction workers in the state—a plan that includes local hire and pathways to the middle class for some of the poorest neighborhoods.”

The administration shares the desire for high-quality jobs, said Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen, but “we believe it’s not legal to require job standards.” Constitutionally and legally, said Housing Preservation and Development Commissioner Vicki Been, zoning regulations are limited to things like height, bulk, and land use, so “we are not allowed to address labor rules.”

Purcell disagrees. State zoning law, he said, allows cities to enact zoning regulations to ensure “safety.” Fourteen of the 16 deaths from construction accidents in the last year, he said, came on nonunion sites. “We think we’re on solid legal ground,” he concluded.

Section 24 of the state’s General City Law says cities are empowered to enact zoning regulations that “shall be designed to secure safety from fire, flood and other dangers and to promote the public health and welfare.”

Several major city unions have lined up behind the administration’s plan, on the grounds that it would provide desperately needed housing for their members. “We firmly and totally support it,” an 1199SEIU representative told the Council. The health-care workers’ union has joined with the Hotel Trades Council, SEIU 32BJ, and the city workers’ District Council 37 to form a nonprofit group called United For Affordable NYC that will promote the plan.

“In the case of health-care workers and others in fields that provide round-the clock service, lack of housing forces them to move further away from the city and even out of state,” 1199 President George Gresham’s testimony read. “These proposals will generate tens of thousands of permanent affordable housing units.” Noting that in 2014, 1.5 million people had entered lotteries for 2,500 subsidized apartments in the city, he added, “We can discuss AMIs and parking, but let’s not forget the 1.5 million New Yorkers looking for affordable housing.”

The AMI, short for metropolitan “area median income,” however, is the basis for the main criticism of the plan: that most of the housing it produces will be too expensive. Its two main options would require developers to make 30% of the housing they build affordable to people at 80% of AMI, about $62,000 for a family of three, or 25% affordable at 60% of AMI, about $46,600. Almost half the city’s residents make less than that, and incomes are significantly lower in the neighborhoods slated for rezoning.

Affordable housing is a “loosely used term that doesn’t apply to everyone,” said Vanessa Gibson, who represents the Jerome Avenue area. People at 30% of AMI “are the most in need, and this plan doesn’t get to them.”

The plan “will provide housing for people like me,” 32BJ member Mary Rosario, a Madison Square Garden custodian, testified. “I don’t want to be priced out of my community.”

Would other 32BJ members be able to afford that housing, she was asked. She hesitated, then answered, “The law has to reach everybody, from minimum wage on up.”

The Council has until March 30 to vote on the plan.

February 11, 2016

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