July 14, 2014
By Joe Maniscalco
New York, NY – As the de Blasio administration looks to ramp up investment in 200,000 units of new and existing affordable housing over the next 10 years, critics of the plan continue to fear that the progressive mayor is actually being disastrously short-sighted in not guaranteeing that the resulting construction jobs uphold union standards.
Workers safety advocates already dread the impact further use of contractors who do not participate in state-of-the art union training might have on a dangerous construction industry. While those in the Building Trades wonder just how utilizing companies that historically pay workers a pittance and forego benefits, helps the mayor effectively tackle economic inequality and “The Tale of Two Cities.”
“Every construction program has an opportunity in it,” says Jack Kittle, political director, District Council 9 of the International Painters and Allied Trades. “And if you’re just going to allow a contractor to come and pay cash – which a lot of the construction industry is – you’ve missed an opportunity. To me, a truly progressive agenda in housing would include housing and a component on jobs.”
Thus far, according to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) and the New York City Housing Development Corporation (HDC), the de Blasio administration has invested $250 million in its affordable housing plan.
And more is on the way. But the level of union involvement, under the auspices of Alicia Glen, deputy mayor for Housing and Economic Development, remains sketchy.
“They’re going to tell me that it costs more money to do that,” Kittle says. “Well, maybe it does. But let’s talk about 10 or 20 years from now. If you can wait that long to see the return on investment, I think you’re going to find that it’s cheaper to do it right the first time. Number one, the building is gong to be better. And number two, there’s going to be young people who have an opportunity they wouldn’t have had. And that’s how you raise the workforce that you’re looking for.”
Among the hundreds of apprentices learning and perfecting their craft at DC 9’s Finishing Trades Institute of New York in Long Island City, Queens – is a crop of bright and eager high school students from the Edward J. Malloy Initiative for Construction skills. They're a group of young people who all hope their union involvement will be their ticket to the middle class.
Whether or not any of them become part of New York City’s affordable housing boom remains to be seen.
“It’s our goal that the jobs generated through our affordable housing plan pay good wages that can support a family,” says Wiley Norvell, deputy press secretary for the mayor. “And certainly, we recognize that the Building Trades are an essential part of that. We have had very positive and productive talks with the trades about increasing their participation in affordable housing projects so we can lift up not only those in need of more affordable homes, but those in need of good jobs as well.”
So far, the union has agreed to cut its rate some 40 percent, in an effort to work with the de Blasio administration on its affordable housing plan.
KIttle, however, wonders about the viability of the offer.
“My sense is that every single trade would have to have a separate local, just for affordable housing, because you can’t have people in the same local making different rates of money,” the DC 9 political director says. “Either you’re going to get that – or you’re going to get the guy who’s already doing affordable housing, and he’s getting paid off the books. He’s getting $100 a day in cash. To him, 60 percent of what we make is still way better then what he’s making now.”
Despite some notorious examples to the contrary, HPD maintains that the agency takes issues of safety and wage compliance “very seriously,” subjecting general contractors to a sponsor review process and requiring them to uphold all labor laws.
But Kittle and other labor leaders argue that elected officials continue to miss opportunities to build the kind of workforce that used to make the American Dream a reality.
“It’s a shame, because if somebody did have a little vision, they might see the value in doing it the right way,” Kittle says. “It makes me really sad when I see them with the silver shovels talking about the good jobs they’re creating. But I know what kinds of jobs are going to be there. I know that they are going to be off-the-book jobs. And I have a different definition of what good jobs are.”