Build affordably with union workers

  • Frank Callahan—Frank Callahan Frank Callahan—Frank Callahan

Published: 12/16/2018 7:56:41 PM

For the last 30 years, taxpayers have put hundreds of millions of dollars towards tax breaks for wealthy developers and housing subsidies to solve the affordable housing crisis — and it hasn’t worked.

Perhaps now, we instead try paying workers enough to afford housing. After all, it’s the wage crisis that’s driving the affordable housing crisis. Paying good wages to workers who build affordable housing units would be a good place to start. Ironically and unfortunately, many wealthy developers are perpetuating the housing crisis by paying workers rates that actually increase the demand for affordable housing.

To make matters worse, these wealthy developers erroneously claim that affordable housing can’t be built unless they’re handed free public land with robust tax giveaways. They use this cynical formula to threaten municipalities: meet the demands for tax breaks and low wages or they won’t build. Motivated solely by profit, these developers abuse the system by commandeering public resources for themselves under the guise of assisting the working poor.

Alternatively, construction unions believe that workers who build affordable housing should be paid enough to not need affordable housing. Building affordable housing by using union labor — and sometimes union financing — is the most effective way to build not just the housing itself but to also build momentum in the fight to end the affordable housing crisis. We know it’s possible, because it’s already being done across the country.

For example, the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust (HIT) was created to provide competitive returns for labor’s pension funds, build new affordable housing and create union construction jobs. The data shows it’s possible to build affordably with local union jobs. It’s also the most effective way to increase affordable housing stock while creating good jobs.

Last year alone, HIT invested $422 million to build 6,243 housing units. About 71 percent of those were affordable units — representing 421 projects across 27 states. Paying the people who are building the affordable housing enough to not need the housing is an essential part of solving the affordable housing crisis.

That’s why construction unions promote HIT and other progressive funding sources as essential resources for municipalities who want to do the right thing by creating a cycle of opportunity rather than perpetuating a cycle of poverty.

These are blatant attempts to enrich a few on the backs of public taxpayers, workers, and families who seek affordable housing.

There are other added benefits to using union labor to develop affordable housing. On union job sites, women, veterans and people of color are more likely to be hired for the job thanks to the renewed outreach that the buildings trades have done to focus on inclusion – something that non-union contractors simply have failed to embrace. Non-union contractors also lack the licensing and high safety standards that help ensure the safety of workers and residents alike.

Throughout the nation, there needs to be a renewed commitment to expanding affordable housing and paying workers family sustaining wages. Construction unions encourage municipalities and developers to look towards successful programs like HIT when preparing to build or finance a new project. We do need more investment in affordable housing from the federal government but that should never be an excuse for handing over the public purse to wealthy developers or sacrificing standards for workers.

Frank Callahan is President of the Massachusetts Building Trades Council – representing 75,000 skilled craft professionals across the Commonwealth.


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