A Hit Piece of Legislation: Will a Transparency Bill Reform Affordable Housing or Just Open It Up to a Union Takeover?

There are two cardinal arguments for excluding unions from affordable housing. One is that it will cost more. Union labor generally costs a 30 percent premium over non-union jobs. This means either fewer projects are built or building the same number costs more money. HPD insists that it is not seeking to underpay anyone, but simply the jobs are less technical, and even more problematically, union work rules make it hard to hire all the subs to get the projects done in the time frame required. “When we are spending public funds, we ought to get the best value for our money,” Mr. Wambua said.

The other issue is diversity. “I want people on these sites who look like me,” Mr. Wambua said. “Frankly, the unions do not have a good habit of hiring locally, of hiring minorities, of hiring women. I see that as as much a part of my mission as building affordable housing, to help these people find work and get jobs.”

The unions argue from the other side. Better wages are better for workers, and their workers  provide a level of quality not found on non-union jobs. (Mr. Weiss also bridled at the notion that his workers were not from the community. “At least 50 percent of my guys are minorities,” he said.)

This issue of quality has been the underlying argument for the bill. A number of developments have been revealed to have suffered from poor craftsmanship, particularly some associated with the Wendel Walters schemes. There are particularly problems with a number of home-ownership projects. Owners have had problems with leaky roofs and cracked foundations, issues that have gotten considerable play in the press. But they only account for some 598 units. That is 11 percent of all home-ownership developments (though it happens to be largely contained to three troubled developments), but also less than 1 percent of the 141,000 units HPD has developed over the past decade.

The unions argue that wage reporting will help put a stop to such construction problems. “Bringing transparency to projects that receive enormous sums of public funds and tax breaks will promote better housing construction, safety and economic opportunity for tenants, taxpayers and workers,” Building and Construction Trades Council president Gary LaBarbera said. But so far no one has explained how knowing whether a guy gets paid $12 and hour rather than $13 an hour to hang sheet rock will ensure better construction.

“We’re the ones who have to fix these mistakes, so it is an issue for us,” Mr. Weiss said. The question is, are things really as bad at HPD as he and his union buddies insist, or are they capitalizing on a few bad actors, like Wendell Walters, to win entree to billions of dollars in construction jobs.

“The whole place is corrupt,” Mr. Weiss insisted.

In July, the council voted unanimously for Intro 730, but reservations persist about the wage reporting issues. A number of council members spoke about the potential for adversely affecting minority and women owned businesses, but they voted for it anyway. After all, Council Speaker (and mayoral hopeful) Christine Quinn strongly supports the bill, and the unions play a critical role in city elections.

“These are not people you want to cross, especially with the elections coming up next year,” one City Hall source said.

In a statement, Speaker Quinn dismissed complaints about the bill: “It’s preposterous to suggest that requiring developers to report payroll information that they’re already required by law to collect and keep would hurt small businesses. The Council voted unanimously to bring transparency to how taxpayer dollars are spent on affordable housing. We will override the mayor’s veto on Monday.”

HPD maintains that the reporting standards go beyond those required by law, nor would they somehow ensure quality work is done. When asked about this, a spokeswoman for the Ms. Quinn only said that more transparency would lead to more accountability.

So is this transparency for transparency’s sake? The mayor has already said he may challenge the bill in court if it becomes law. In the meantime, the little guys are scrambling.

“I guess we could try and partner up with some other guys and muddle through,” Mr. Huston said. “But you have to wonder what’s in it for them? And what’s in it for me if I’m not the one calling the shots anymore.”