Unions May Hire Low-Wage Workers for Mayor's Affordable Housing Plan

By Colby Hamilton on April 30, 2014 6:47am 

 Construction unions are in talks to provide labor at a reduce cost, in exchange for access to the affordable housing market and Mayor Bill de Blasio's plan for 200,000 units of affordable housing, according to sources.
Construction unions are in talks to provide labor at a reduce cost, in exchange for access to the affordable housing market and Mayor Bill de Blasio's plan for 200,000 units of affordable housing, according to sources.
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DNAinfo/Trevor Kapp

CIVIC CENTER — The city’s construction unions are in talks to provide discounted labor for Mayor Bill de Blasio's soon-to-be announced plan for 200,000 units of affordable housing, DNAinfo New York has learned.

The Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York — the union umbrella that oversees 15 separate unions — is currently in talks with the mayor's office over a possible plan to give them access to the booming affordable housing market.

Unions had previously been excluded from the traditionally non-unionized affordable housing construction market because their wages were too high for the jobs. But now the union is discussing a plan to bring on a tier of new, lower-wage workers — many, if not most, of whom would be hired from the non-unionized workforce, labor officials with knowledge of the talks said.

“We think there’s a pathway to do it,” said one labor official involved in the talks. “It’s something we haven’t done before.” 

The unions are also seeking higher density, or upzoning, in the affordable housing projects that come out of de Blasio’s plan.

Officials are quick to note that no deal, either among all of the labor unions nor with the de Blasio administration, has so far been reached.

When asked about the status of labor negotiations on Monday, Gary LaBarbera, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council declined to comment, but issued a statement on Tuesday through a spokesman

“To address New York City’s affordability crisis we must build and preserve more affordable housing and assure that those who build and maintain it are not consigned to poverty themselves," LaBarbera said, adding that he looked forward to de Blasio's affordable housing plan which would "depart from the failed policies of the past.”

On the labor side, officials are worried some of the unions may not be interested in creating a new, reduced-wage tier. In addition, they say, rank-and-file members will be unlikely to be interested in taking work for less pay.

“With the [construction] market so hot, what member of organized labor will be willing to take some cut in pay to go work on an affordable housing job?” asked one labor official.

“The Building Trades is a coalition and each of the affiliates is autonomous in how they want to do this,” said another.

Talks are continuing with the administration this week, according to a labor official, but time is running out before de Blasio is set to announce the details of his affordable housing plan on Thursday.

Communities would also need to begin to come on board for taller buildings, a labor official noted, as building taller will help reduce the cost of construction.

Still, a number of labor officials indicate that there is consensus among the unions in favor of the basics of the deal.

Administration officials declined Tuesday to provide details on meetings with labor leaders Tuesday, saying only that there was no deal yet, and no negotiations over one.

“The Administration is working with the broad array of housing stakeholders to develop the best, most comprehensive plan to create or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing over the next decade," de Blasio spokesman Phil Walzak said in a statement. "This plan will not only tackle head on the affordability crisis, we expect these efforts will result in tens of thousands of quality jobs for New Yorkers.”

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