Could Unions Break New York’s Housing Impasse?

In California, getting labor on board was essential to addressing the housing crisis. In New York, unions say the governor has barely tried.

Sam Mellins   ·   September 18, 2023
“Unions are fighting for their lives," said a labor official. "Their residential market share has been so decimated." | Photo: Don Pollard / Office of Governor Kathy Hochul | Illustration: Maia Hibbett

As rents, home prices, and homelessness climbed to record highs across New York, lawmakers failed to pass any major housing legislation before leaving Albany for the year. One reason for that: a lack of support from unions, and a lack of effort to secure it.

Governor Kathy Hochul’s signature plan to double the pace of new housing statewide had the potential to create jobs for workers who build and maintain homes. But their unions wanted to ensure those jobs would be well paid and that non-union labor couldn’t underbid them. When Hochul didn’t include major provisions along these lines, she forfeited the building unions’ support, labor officials told New York Focus.

The stakes are high for the 200,000 workers who make up the New York State Building and Construction Trades Council, a coalition of construction worker unions, as the industry increasingly turns to non-union workers.

“Unions are fighting for their lives because their residential market share has been so decimated,” a union official said. “People are focusing on making sure the playing field is fair, because when that happens unions are going to win jobs and people are going to join unions.”

Nationwide, union activity is surging, with workers striking in industries from film to automobiles. It’s had a significant role in shaping housing policy, too: In California, union support was a decisive factor in passing several major recent laws boosting housing supply — many of which included wage standards and other labor protections.

“I was in favor of it, but I wasn’t going to go to war over it. I think she has no problem writing off some people in labor because they’ve gone against her.”

—James Mahoney, New York State Iron Workers District Council

“In deep-blue, strong labor states, labor is absolutely essential. In California or New York, you really need them to be supportive,” said Alex Armlovich, a housing policy analyst at the Niskanen Center, a center-right think tank. “If you talk to elected officials, one of their first questions will always be where labor stands.”

Key unions outside the construction sector have also helped get the California measures to the finish line. Things are more complicated in New York, where major unions say they’d want to see robust protections for renters alongside any effort to boost housing supply. One top priority is a law known as “good cause eviction,” which would limit rent increases in many apartments statewide and is opposed by the governor.

“We are supportive of efforts to increase development and increase development of affordable housing,” Helen Schaub, policy director at the 450,000-member health care workers’ union 1199 SEIU, told New York Focus. “But we do think that any housing package ought to be broad based and address the needs of current tenants who need protection from excessive rent increases.”

The governor’s office did not respond to questions for this article.

Hochul is expected to make another push at housing reform when the state legislature reconvenes in January. Including wage and benefit guarantees could lead to more success, the union official said. “Once you do something like that, everybody switches. Everyone’s like, ‘Oh, no, we’re playing for the other team now.’”

Hochul’s plan, which aimed to add 800,000 new homes in the state over the next decade, would have most impacted the suburbs and outer boroughs of New York City and was intensely opposed by local politicians there. That made the absence of other sources of support more damaging.

“It was always going to be controversial to people who live there. One way to get around that is getting the support of people who are going to work there. She did neither,” said Samuel Stein, housing policy analyst at the nonprofit Community Service Society.

Before Hochul unveiled the housing plan in January, the union official said, her team informed some unions of the plan — but didn’t ask for feedback.

“It was more of a briefing, not asking, ‘What do you think and how do we make this better?’” they said.

As the legislative session picked up steam, there was no major constituency pushing for the plan. Several unions called on the Governor to negotiate with them on their priorities, such as workplace protections and wage guarantees.

Another influential player in these debates is the Real Estate Board of New York, the trade association for developers in New York City — and a group known to have the governor’s ear. The group is open to discussing wage guarantees for building maintenance workers like superintendents and doormen, but more cautious about extending the same to construction workers, REBNY president Jim Whelan told New York Focus.

“We’ve supported the inclusion of their prevailing wage because good wages are important and good wages that don’t inhibit economic activity, but rather help foster economic activity,” Whelan said of building maintenance workers.

“The math is more challenging on the building trade side,” he added. Union construction workers can cost 20 percent more than non-union workers, or more.

REBNY supported the governor’s plan but didn’t see its core measures as essential to its own goals. Instead, the organization focused its lobbying on issues affecting the central neighborhoods of New York City, such as converting offices to housing and extending a controversial tax break for new apartment buildings in New York City, Whelan said. REBNY strongly opposes good cause eviction.

State Senate Housing Committee Chair Brian Kavanagh said the lack of union support was only one factor among many that prevented a deal this year. “I don’t think there was a moment where it was like, ‘Labor’s not on board, so we can’t do it,’” he said.

But he acknowledged that some wage guarantees would likely have to be part of major legislation on housing, especially if tax breaks are involved. “To the extent we’re doing programs to subsidize affordability with public funds, it’s always been a key part of the conversation to make sure that the workers are being paid fairly,” he said.

Hochul and 32BJ SEIU leaders announced new affordable housing units on July 27, 2023. | Don Pollard / Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

The powerful union Local 32BJ, a branch of the SEIU that represents building maintenance workers, opposed a key provision of Hochul’s plan: allowing developers to bypass local zoning if towns don’t build enough new housing to meet state-set targets.

That could have removed a significant source of leverage for unions to strike deals with developers, since unions can often convince local legislators to reject a zoning change if a developer doesn’t meet their demands.

“There’s a series of, you could call them concessions … in terms of labor standards and affordability levels,” 32BJ President Manny Pastreich said of New York City’s zoning process. “From our point of view, it usually ends up in a better place than it started.”

32BJ and other unions wanted Hochul to require developers that bypassed local zoning to offer union-level wages and benefits. A similar provision in California secured union support for laws simplifying the state’s stringent environmental review process, which can delay new housing for years. Despite some discussion, Hochul’s team didn’t include any such measure.

Wage guarantees could make some developments financially impossible, said Noah Kazis, professor at the University of Michigan Law School and an expert on New York zoning. But Kazis suggested there could be a compromise in which the guarantees apply only to projects in high-value locations, or above a certain size. “It is a good thing not to solve our housing crisis on the backs of construction workers,” he said.

Other powerful unions such as the 40,000-member Hotel and Gaming Trades Council, which represents hospitality workers, liked Hochul’s plan in concept, but didn’t publicly support or lobby on it.

“We need bold provisions to spur new housing, and we also believe we need tenant protections to make sure housing stays affordable,” said a spokesperson for the union.

Multiple union officials told New York Focus that the governor’s team didn’t consult them about the plan after its release or offer incentives to support it.

One union official said that they didn’t think Hochul had offered to meet any of labor’s major demands, since it was never mentioned at a meeting of the building trades council, which often negotiates on behalf of the major construction unions.

“Nothing was proposed that was even worth bringing up,” the official said.

Gary LaBarbera, president of the council, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Since it didn’t seem like Hochul’s plan was likely to become law, it wasn’t a major lobbying focus. “It was such a non-live issue that I didn’t waste my time,” the union official said. “If there was momentum around it, we would have been advocating hard” to include measures like wage guarantees.

Hochul has continued to stress the need for new homes since the legislative session ended in June. In July, she issued an executive order that offered grants to municipalities that prioritize building housing and extended a tax break for upcoming apartment buildings in the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn.

The latter step angered many construction unions, which had pushed Hochul to include a wage floor for construction workers in the executive order.

One union supported the order: 32BJ, the union representing building staff. They had already struck a deal with the local developers to ensure higher wages for their members, Pastreich said. He understands the building trades’ opposition: “They’re fighting for their members, which I appreciate. If I was in some of their shoes, I probably would have the same reaction,” he said.

Non-union labor now makes up as much as half of all construction work in the city, which can be a self-perpetuating trend. “As unions lose power that comes with density, developers can be bolder and try to use more non-union labor,” said Stein, the housing policy analyst.

In early January, Hochul alienated one labor leader who might have backed her plan: James Mahoney, president of the ironworkers union.

Mahoney wasn’t at the governor’s speech announcing the plan because Hochul had disinvited him. Earlier that week, he’d called Hochul’s nomination of Hector LaSalle for chief judge of New York’s top court a betrayal of organized labor, leading to Hochul revoking his invitation.

“I was in favor of it, but I wasn’t going to go to war over it,” Mahoney said of her housing plan. “I think she has no problem writing off some people in labor because they’ve gone against her.”

Sam Mellins is senior reporter at New York Focus, which he has been a part of since launch day. His reporting has also appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Intercept, THE CITY, and The Nation. 
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