A year after losing a retail job, Jerome Mosley entered a job-training program for NYCHA residents. Now he's making good money on a roofing project.

Photo by: Marc Fader

A year after losing a retail job, Jerome Mosley entered a job-training program for NYCHA residents. Now he’s making good money on a roofing project.

Jerome Mosley, a resident of the Thomas Jefferson Houses in Harlem, was unemployed and wanted to get work in construction—which would offer much better pay than the retail management job he had lost a year earlier. Despite filling out dozens of employment applications, he was reaching dead ends. Then in May he enrolled in the Bloomberg administration’s Jobs Plus program, where he heard about a New York City Housing Authority training program open to public housing residents like him. After taking a test and an interview, Mosley was chosen for NYCHA’s selective job training program.

After 40 hours of hands-on experience in painting and 125 hours of training in carpentry and scaffolding, Mosley obtained his U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) certification and was recently hired for a roofing project for NYCHA through a private contractor, GTS Construction. He has another project lined up in asbestos abatement which he plans to start in February. Both projects pay $40.50 an hour for 38 to 40 hours a week.

“I’m ecstatic,” Mosley says. “Not only am I working, but I’m learning.”

Of the six people working on his current project, Mosley is the only NYCHA resident. Still, it is safe to say that Mosley’s story, though still rare among NYCHA residents, would probably not have happened a year ago. While NYCHA has for years offered apprenticeship programs, it was only in September that it offered the first of its Resident Training Academies. Mosley was one of 150 residents who benefited from that Robin Hood Foundation-sponsored program, which helped participants obtain the OSHA card that is required for most construction jobs.

NYCHA isn’t providing these opportunities to residents solely on its own volition. Technically, they’re required by federal law. Section 3 of the 1968 Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Act created the goal of employing public housing residents on public housing development projects. The policy was amended in 1997 to state that housing authorities should fill at least 30 percent of their full-time jobs with public housing residents—”to the greatest extent possible.” This language gives a lot of wiggle room and was rarely enforced by HUD, so public housing authorities, including NYCHA, rarely complied. And even when jobs were available, one of the largest complaints by NYCHA residents about Section 3 compliance has been that there isn’t enough training to make residents eligible for those jobs.

But in part because of pushback from advocates calling for residents to be employed on stimulus-related housing work and increased follow-up from HUD, even NYCHA critics agree the agency has made a real effort to step up job training and hiring of tenants. In 2009 tenant groups tried to fill the gap by offering the OSHA training, but couldn’t keep up with demand. Now, the trainings still fill up fast, but at least NYCHA is the one offering them.

“I think more people are starting to hear about Section 3,” says Roxanne Reid, the Castle Hill tenant association president and a member of the advocacy group Community Voices Heard, who worked for eight hours a week through a Section 3 contract from July through December, when the project expired. “They are getting people hired. Some of them are even getting into the union. I don’t like to see young kids on the street, wasting their time. I just wish [NYCHA] would get more [people] on board and hire more, so they have something to look forward to.”

By the end of 2010, NYCHA residents accounted for 852 NYCHA staff members—25 percent of its workforce—and 48 percent of newly hired NYCHA staffers. And residents’ share of the more coveted, well-paying jobs with outside contractors that can lead to union membership, such as Mosley’s construction assignment, have also improved. In 2009 there were only 265 placements with external contractors. In 2010, there were 613. Eighty-five of those residents became union members. According to NYCHA, the average job pays $33 an hour and lasts 11 months.

The authority’s 2011 annual plan says 25 percent of NYCHA’s workforce and 53 percent of its new hires in 2009 were residents.

“It’s a challenge, but I think it’s a significant success,” says NYCHA Senior Advisor Michelle Pinnock. Pinnock says that NYCHA’s Section 3 progress was the result of increased training programs, as well as working with contractors and unions to create opportunities for career advancement.

Only a start

These jobs, while an improvement, only make a dent in unemployment among NYCHA tenants. In 2005, before the national recession, 20,000 NYCHA residents were seeking jobs—the equivalent of a 17 percent unemployment rate, according to a May 2009 study by Community Service Society of New York (which owns City Limits). According to CSSNY, NYCHA residents’ pre-recession unemployment numbers were comparable to those for similar demographic groups throughout the city. However, as the report noted, “There is a cruel irony when residents from day to day watch large-scale capital improvements being carried out in their developments, while family members and neighbors cannot access the jobs being created.”

More recent evidence suggests that there’s still room for improvement in New York. In an unscientific survey by Community Voices Heard in October 2010 of NYCHA buildings getting stimulus dollars for public improvement projects, only one percent of the residents were working on a project.

Erik Crawford, the president of the resident association at Davidson Housing in the Bronx says he attempted to do Section 3 training. “I’ve never been called for contracting. My name got lost,” says Crawford, who currently works part-time elsewhere. “I would like to get a job through Section 3. A lot of these jobs have great opportunities and benefits.”

Although NYCHA says the average Section 3 job lasts 11 months, Crawford says among residents of his development, the project appear to be shorter-term. “The few people that receive these jobs complain that they’re not long-term,” he says.

According to National Low Income Housing Coalition Staff Attorney Catherine Bishop, who coordinates a Section 3 working group, tenants who qualify for Section 3 jobs across the country tend to be higher educated. “The ones they end up serving are the ones easier to train,” Bishop says. “I’m not saying it’s easy to make a carpenter into a computer programmer, but it is easier than working with someone who has no training. Most workforce investment programs don’t reach the lowest income families who haven’t been in a legitimate job in the job market.”

Pinnock says NYCHA’s ultimate goal is to place people in longer-term jobs.

“Many of the jobs have been temporary, but people are building a career and connecting to additional opportunities. What you’re seeing is the steps that are underway to increase the participation of residents that [as a result of Section 3] constantly have money come in and have a situation righted,” she says.

One uncomfortable aspect of Section 3 is that it is still primarily a boy’s club. According to CSSNY’s 2009 study, female NYCHA residents are more likely to be job-hunting. However, Section 3 jobs are largely going to men, as construction and janitorial jobs often do nationwide. Only 21 percent of the contractor jobs in 2010 went to female residents. To try to close the gender gap, NYCHA is now offering all-women classes in basic construction and janitorial services.

“NYCHA has been improving its track record on Section 3 within the last year or two,” says Victor Bach, CSSNY’s senior housing policy analyst. “But I still think it needs to face the challenge, full-scale, of tens of thousands of working-age residents who are seeking employment and who have not yet been absorbed into training and job opportunities. I think the challenge is even greater given the economic stimulus capital funding that NYCHA received—$423 million. I think many resident leaders would have expected more by way of outcomes.”

Getting contractors on board

The other chief complaint about NYCHA’s Section 3 program is that outside contractors are loathe to hire NYCHA residents. Although contractor hiring is improving, NYCHA doesn’t require contractors to hire residents. “We will work with contractors and look at what is feasible,” says Pinnock. “The expectation is they will hire residents when possible.”

Vincent Grays is one of those people. Already a trained electrician, he got his OSHA card renewed through the NYCHA training. He worked at Queensbridge House, as an electrician for sub-contractor Ohm’s Electric for 10 months. Ohm’s plans to hire him permanently.

“The whole experience has been wonderful for me,” Grays says. “They paid me the scale that was owed to me. I’d recommend the training for anyone who’s serious about getting to work.”

Another happy employee is Christopher Novarro, who received his OSHA card after completing a training set up by his resident association and is currently working eight hours a week doing scaffolding, making $33 an hour. He had previously worked as a steamfitter. He says he hopes to join the union, and get a job where he can work more hours.

“The paycheck is great,” says Novarro, a father of four. “The kids love it, too. They know when it’s payday.”

What’s happening nationally?

While NYCHA—the nation’s oldest and largest public housing authority—has certainly stepped up its Section 3 game, it’s unclear if other housing authorities are following suit. There is little Section 3 enforcement from HUD. The feds rarely impose sanctions, and because this is an unfunded mandate, it is easy for public housing authorities to simply not fund job training, and then claim there are no qualified residents for the work.

Bishop says that although she believes HUD is making some progress at enforcement, the Section 3 office is short-staffed. “Because their staff is so small, they have not had the capability of doing anything about Section 3 compliance,” she says. “They seem to wait for people to complain.”

Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity at HUD John Trasviña counters, “Obviously we can always use more resources, but there are things we’ve been able to accomplish with political will.” Trasviña says the next step is making sure each jurisdiction has a Section 3 coordinator to help with enforcement. Trasviña says a new effort toward that end will soon get underway, but wouldn’t divulge details.

A long-standing issue is Section 3’s language, especially the “to the greatest extent possible” caveat that has given jurisdictions an easy out. “In the last ten years, I’ve reviewed a couple of drafts to change the Section 3 regulation,” Bishop says. “But it is a bureaucracy. It’s very time-consuming and complex to change a regulation. You need someone who’s going make it happen.”

There have been some efforts to change the language, but they haven’t gone very far. Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-NY) has periodically introduced legislation to set much clearer benchmarks. However, it has not been re-introduced since 2007.

In the meantime, HUD says it plans to step up implementation. In 2009, only 20 percent of jurisdictions even reported to HUD. In 2010, Trasviña says, 76 percent of jurisdictions reported their progress. “[Section 3 compliance] is a priority of the entire administration. It speaks to the economic situation. It also speaks to good government.”