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The ever-worsening housing crisis is top of mind for millions of New Yorkers. With rents skyrocketing and affordable housing scarce, a staggering 100,000 men, women and children are homeless in New York. Millions more are just a paycheck away from being out on the streets. In an incendiary letter to New York State Assembly members, Joseph Geiger, head of the New York City District Council of Carpenters (NYCDCC) lambastes the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) for their role in exacerbating the affordable housing crisis. 


Last year, New York nearly passed legislation aimed at tackling homelessness, but these efforts ultimately fell through. In his letter, Geiger lays the blame for this legislative failure at the feet of a greedy subset of developers within the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) that refuse to sit down at the bargaining table. While it isn’t all developers, this small subset appears to “have an iron grip on the advocacy efforts of the REBNY.” Geiger does not pull any punches, telling the NY State Assembly members that these bad actors would prefer “your constituents endure homelessness and poverty because they cannot stand the idea of making one dollar less—despite their billions of dollars in revenue.” 


But the NYCDCC goes beyond pointing fingers, they are proposing solutions. Their comprehensive housing plan is guided by four principles: more affordable housing, job creation, tenant protections, and providing stable housing for the homeless. In accordance with these principles, the NYCDCC proposed three concrete steps: an overhaul of the 421a tax break, common sense eviction protections, and expanding the Housing Access Voucher Program. 

New York unions make concessions, but a greedy subset of REBNY developers refuse to sit down at the bargaining table.

First and foremost is an overhaul of the 421a subsidy. This lucrative tax break is available to developers on projects that meet certain requirements, such as the inclusion of affordable housing units. However, under current guidelines, many units deemed “affordable” are only within reach for families making well into the six figures. Geiger describes the current 421a tax abatement as “atrocious” claiming the program “wasted billions of dollars in tax breaks for developers to build housing no one can afford.”


Proposals to revise 421a highlight a willingness on the part of New York construction unions to  compromise, and the refusal of REBNY to negotiate in good faith. For example, one proposal by the Building and Construction Trades Council (BCTC) included a wage standard less than any given trade’s Prevailing Wage rate. Geiger notes they did this “despite knowing that affordable housing has been and can be built efficiently with Prevailing Wage because unlike REBNY, we understand that in any deal, you can’t get everything you want.” In response, REBNY proposed an insulting 50% cut to the wages and benefits of union members. Geiger characterized this move as “so obstinate that it borders on childish.”


In addition to changes 421a, trade unions are proposing common sense legislation that would prevent eviction through rent gouging. They are also championing an expansion of the Housing Access Voucher Program (HAVP) that would establish a statewide subsidy program for low-income renters who are at risk of homelessness or eviction. 


The housing shortage is a national crisis with no simple solutions, but one thing is certain: it will require fresh thinking and a willingness on the part of all stakeholders to compromise. New York's construction unions, in a characteristic spirit of solidarity, are proposing practical solutions and demonstrating readiness to make serious compromises. In sharp contrast, factions within REBNY appear uninterested in addressing the crisis, instead being content to prioritize profit and refuse dialogue.


Mark Colangelo is a writer and blogger.

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