April 7, 2014
By Steven Wishnia
About 20 members of Laborers Local 79 joined a protest April 3 against tax-subsidized luxury housing in downtown Brooklyn—much of it constructed with nonunion labor.
“We’re here for affordable housing, good jobs, and responsible development,” Local 79 organizer Lenny Anselmo said, as about 100 people assembled in front of the 42-story Avalon Fort Greene building. “If they’re going to use taxpayers’ money, they should use union labor, and people should be able to afford to live here. I make a decent living, and I can’t afford to live in these places.”
The protest marked the release of “Luxuriou$ Loophole: How Developer$ Use Taxpayer$ to $ubsidize Housing for the Rich,”a report by the Real Affordability for All Campaign, an umbrella group of housing and community organizations that includes New York Communities for Change, Make the Road New York, and the Metropolitan Council on Housing. From 2008 to 2012, the report said, there were 61 buildings constructed in the downtown Brooklyn area, from Brooklyn Heights and Dumbo to Prospect Heights and Park Slope, that got tax breaks through the 421(a) program. The 61 will see their property taxes reduced by a total of $158 million—but less than 6% of their almost 4,400 apartments rent for less than $2,000 a month, and almost all of those are receiving other government subsidies. At Avalon Fort Greene, which is getting more than $22 million in tax abatements, the apartments currently available start at $2,660 for a studio and go up to more than $5,000.
“This was my home and now I can’t afford to live here,” Local 79 member LeCarl Ellison, who grew up in nearby Fort Greene, told the crowd. “All these buildings are being put up nonunion, and we still can’t afford it.”
Anselmo pointed toward City Point, a retail and mostly luxury residential complex being built on the former Albee Square Mall site at Flatbush and DeKalb avenues, which has so far received at least $20 million from the New York City Economic Development Corporation. Ironworkers Local 361 has been picketing the site with the traditional giant inflatable rat.
The entire workforce there now is nonunion, says Local 361 business manger Matt Chartrand. Last year, several Ironworkers locals, community groups, and then-City Councilmember Letitia James sued developer Acadia Realty Trust to halt construction, charging that the nonunion workers were getting $15 an hour with no benefits.
The union is now negotiating with Acadia and another developer, Donald Capoccia’s BFC Partners, Chartrand says, and he hopes to reach an agreement “by Tuesday or Wednesday.”
In contrast, he praises Barclays Center developer Bruce Ratner, who he calls “the biggest advocate” for bringing local residents into the industry and has worked with Local 361 to get them into its apprenticeship program.
Real Affordability for All is urging Mayor Bill de Blasio to require that at least half the apartments in tax-subsidized new buildings be affordable, with “affordable” defined as $600 to $1,200 for a family of making $24,000 to $48,000. The current standard allows apartments renting for $3,000 to qualify as “middle income.” This, the report argues, could “achieve a much greater level of real affordability across the city” than former mayor Michael Bloomberg’s policies did, and it would also “give city taxpayers a much better return on their investment” while “still enabling real-estate developers to reap significant profits.”
The 421(a) program was created in the 1970s to encourage housing construction and counter the tide of abandonment. The law was changed in 2008 to require buildings getting 25-year abatements to include more affordable apartments, the report said, but developers in the area evaded that by taking 15-year abatements, which don’t carry that requirement, or getting their permits in before the change went into effect.