Disunited Brotherhoods by Gregory A. Butler
Disunited Brotherhoods by Gregory A. Butler

Editor’s Note: With all of the attention on the issue of gentrification and the lack of “affordable housing” in general, its time to start talking about radical solutions. The following article tackles this problem directly. -M.P.


the only way to get housing affordable for the poor and the

working class, built by workers being paid what they are worth

by Gregory A. Butler

Excessively high housing costs are a plague on the working class and the poor across the United States. There isn’t a state in the union where a minimum wage full time 40 hour a week worker can rent a one bedroom apartment on their own.

This has caused untold misery for the working class and the poor in this country.

In the big cities, working class single adults in their 40s and 50s are living with roommates to afford rent, and families are doubling up in apartments, with multiple people per room.

In suburban areas and the outer fringe of cities homeowners are turning basements, enclosed porches, storage rooms and attics into illegal apartments – and desperate workers and poor people are renting these firetrap rooms out of desperation.

In rural areas workers and the poor are paying extortionately high monthly payments to trailer park leasing companies (the biggest one, Clayton Homes, is owned by billionaire Warren Buffett) to live in low quality high rent squalor – and often end up evicted when they can no longer afford to pay.

This is a day to day crisis for the vast majority of Americans – the poor, the working class and even large sections of the middle class – small business owners get a double barreled attack, at home and in the rents they pay for their businesses.

Does anybody have an answer?

In many communities – particularly in cities and states where the Democratic Party is in power – the answer has been “affordable housing”.

That means that the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and various state and local housing agencies (in New York that would be the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal,  New York State Housing Development Corporation and New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development) funnel low income housing funding to private agencies.

Some of these agencies are not for profit charities, others are for profit developers.

In most cases, the word “affordable” gets twisted beyond recognition.

The population that can actually afford these “affordable” apartments is usually above the poverty line – often very far above it.

In New York City’s Borough of Manhattan, for example, “affordable housing” means that the apartments are “affordable” for people who make $77,000 a year.

It’s actually quite common for the “affordable” housing cannot be afforded by people who currently live in the neighborhood where it’s being built.

Often, a large portion of the apartments – in some cases as many as 80% – are “market rate” housing, intended for a high income population. This is intended to “subsidize” the “affordable housing”.

In the case of for profit private “affordable housing” developers, the profits of the developer, the architect, the contractors and the realtors are guaranteed – nobody ever questions their God given right to profit off of funds intended to house the poor

As for the construction workers who actually build these homes….that’s a different story.

Most affordable housing is built by non union labor. Unlike the $30 to $50 an hour wages, employer paid health insurance, pensions and free apprenticeship training the city’s 100,000 union workers get, non union construction is a poverty level job here.

Wages range from below the city’s $9/hr minimum wage to around $20 an hour, nobody has health insurance, or a pension, they pay for training out of their own pockets (which means many of them have no actual training other than a 10 hour OSHA class) and roughly 80% of them work off the books with no taxes withheld, no social security, no disability, no unemployment and no workers comp.

Lobbyists for the affordable housing industry – like the Association for Neighborhood Housing Development and the New York State Association for Affordable Housing – will justify these low wages with the claim that they “can’t afford to pay” decent wages.

These claims are often bracketed with truly bizarre accusations of “racism” against unions for calling for higher wages for non union workers (most of whom are Black, Latino or South Asian).

Workers are expected to subsidize these “affordable housing” developments…not the businesspeople who are using public funds to build them (their profits are sacred and cannot be challenged).

There are lots of rich people making a fortune off of “affordable housing” – the subcontractors, the general contractors, the builders, the developers, the banks, the materials suppliers, the owners of the land under the buildings  – but nobody questions how much money they are making.

The workers are the bad guys – “overpaid” at $10 an hour – and they have to be kept poor to build homes for the upper middle class.

Depending on who you ask it will cost between $2.3 billion and $4 billion to pay area standard wages and benefits to the workers on affordable housing developments in New York City.

How can the city, state and federal government afford to pay that – and actually build housing for the poor and working class – the people who really need REAL affordable housing?

I would propose that we remove the profit motive from affordable housing – deprivatize it, and return affordable housing construction back to the public sector.

In short – bring back public housing.

It can be done – during the Great Depression, the US Public Works Administration built public housing itself. They didn’t rely on developers or builders – the PWA directly hired the contractors, cutting out the middleman.

Alongside the schools, hospitals, roads, bridges, post offices, dams and other public buildings they built, the PWA was also responsible for urban slum clearance programs and the creation of local Housing Authorities – including the nation’s oldest and largest, the NYC Housing Authority (NYCHA).

NYCHA is still in business today, 82 years later – housing 400,000 tenants, 5% of New York City’s population.

Unlike “affordable housing” with fixed rents that are far too high for the average poor or working class person to afford, NYCHA rents are on a sliding scale, set at 1/3 a tenant’s gross income, no matter how low or high that income is (and NYCHA rents include electric and gas).

There is absolutely no reason for there to be private developers in any way involved with building public housing. It’s also very possible to structure the rents so that they are based on the tenant’s income, no matter how low that income is.

New York City and New York State, with their robust public sector, are uniquely suited to develop public housing with minimal to no private involvement at all other than in the direct construction of the units.

The NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development has a huge staff full of architects, engineers, real estate lawyers, urban planners – every professional needed to design and supervise the building of apartment buildings.

New York City also has its own in house construction management agency – the NYC Department of Design and Construction – that has a full staff of construction superintendents, architects, engineers and project managers and is fully capable of acting as a builder, general contractor or construction manager on these jobs.

The State of New York’s Division of Housing and Community Renewal and Housing Development Corporation could handle all of the tasks related to financing these projects, with no need for private developers at all.

The New York City Housing Authority has the capacity to operate these units once they are built and to distribute the apartments fairly through their already existing application process.

The already existing Project Labor Agreement currently in force between NYCHA and the New York City Building and Construction Trades Council could be extended to cover these jobs – mandating that they be built by workers getting paid the area standard wage and benefits for their trade and having the benefit of apprenticeship and training programs for their trade.

This is what this city needs – and it could be a model for REAL affordable housing for the entire country.

There will be opposition to this – from the real estate and financial interests who profit from funds intended to help house the poor, and from the politicians financed by their campaign contributions (like our current mayor).

There are some very real problems with public housing, of course – from crime to the large developments being out of scale to the surrounding low rise tenements.

All those issues are solvable – lower density public housing, with on site employment and youth services would deal with most of those problems.

The need for high quality low rent housing for the working class and the poor outweigh those issues

That said, just because this proposal is the right thing to do for the great majority of poor and working class tenants doesn’t mean that it will happen without tremendous resistance from the powers that be.

It will take a mass struggle by poor and working class tenants and by construction workers – union and non union – to make this happen. We might literally have to carry out a citywide all trades strike to carry out this agenda, and we’ll certainly have to enlist support from the public employee, service, transportation and industrial unions to achieve this.

However this needs to be done – we need REAL affordable housing, built by workers getting paid what they deserve, at rents the common people can pay.

Gregory A. Butler is also the author of Disunited Brotherhoods: Race, Racketeering and the Fall of the New York Construction Unions



               Originally published on Wednesday, May 11, 2016

               © 2016 Gregory A. Butler, all rights reserved.

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