Today, City Council will vote on a controversial bill requiring HPD to be more transparent about city funding towards affordable housing developments. The bill, known as HPD Transparency Act, was already passed 46-0 by City Council in July but vetoed by Mayor Bloomberg. Today’s vote determines whether or not the City Council will override Mayor’s veto.
There are three stipulations to the bill:
- HPD must post standards for contractors on their website
- HPD must list information on all development projects quarterly, including who is working on it, the amount of subsidy provided, any problems that arise
- HPD must provide detailed wage reports for everyone hired the project
The crux of the controversy (particularly over reporting wages) is embedded in the larger narrative of labor in New York City. Mayor Bloomberg and HPD claim that bill’s primary function is to open up jobs to unionized workers and give more power to the unions. (For them, this is a negative thing.) For example, wage-reporting is only an issue for non-unionized workers. The bill provides an additional layer of red-tape were HPD to hire non-unionized labor.
An article in The Observer lays out the tensions between the city (HPD and Bloomberg) and labor in regards to this bill. Of concern to HPD:
There is no clear explanation of what the information will be used for or even why the Council wants it. The belief among the affordable housing industry is that it will allow the unions to dig through the documents looking for firms who have made reporting errors—even a simple mathematical mistake can get a firm put on a list of disqualified firms, also a new provision of the bill that would bar them from working with HPD in the future.
As organizers, however, we support organized labor and transparency, even if it costs the city a little extra time and energy. We recognize that all small nonprofits and businesses don’t have the money to hire unionized workers, even if it’s preferable. At the same time, the we in the organizing department are idealists and support efforts to encourage hiring of unionized labor.
In the case of many affordable housing developments, this increased focus on transparency is crucial. Dan Beekman of the NY Daily News has published several articles detailing the mishandling of city money when it comes to affordable housing development. In an article published yesterday, Beekman interviews Nestor Santos, a worker who had been hired by the city to work on a affordable housing development in the Bronx. Santos has come forward claiming workers (including himself) are being paid off the record and poor wages. He says that the city contracted developers are “keeping the extra money and not paying their taxes. They’re stealing from us and from the government.”
In the same article, Beekman writes:
“Another worker says he saw other laborers get paid $100 cash off the books for work at 357 E. 150th St., a prevailing wage site. He says he was hired at $85 a day.”
These claims, if true, are unacceptable. Not only is wage theft and poor labor standards are not only unjust, but as Nestor Santos points out, our tax money is funding this shady business.
Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Councilmember Dominic M. Recchia co-authored an article published today in the New York Post in support of the HPD Transparency Act. They write that 125,000 units of affordable housing were built in the past year.
At least, we’re told it’s over 125,000 units — but there’s far too little public information about these public investments. Right now, it’s almost impossible to find out where all these units were built, just how affordable they really were, who was responsible for building them or whether they were soundly constructed.
As organizers who research and track affordable housing in New York City, we’d love to have a better and more accurate account on the amount of affordable housing in the city. In addition, preventing construction companies who have histories of wage-theft from continuing to receive city subsidy would be nice, too.
The City Council is expected to override Mayor Bloomberg’s veto today. While the bill is imperfect, the legislation symbolizes a move towards a more transparent, accountable government. In turn, NYC residents are given a great opportunity to engage with and demand responsible government. As affordable housing development becomes more visible, we hope to see similar elucidation with other powerful housing entities.