“A housing package that protects tenants, builds affordable housing, and creates good jobs is possible, but bad actors in the real estate industry would rather hold my members and all New Yorkers hostage on account of their greed.”

Adi Talwar

An affordable housing site in the Bronx in 2018.

New York is failing its residents. There is an egregious housing and affordability crisis that is leaving tens of thousands homeless and even more struggling to keep up with the cost of living. Despite best efforts from unions, politicians and housing advocates to save New Yorkers from this abysmal crisis, a comprehensive housing solution failed to pass last year. So, where do we go from here?

The answer is surprisingly straightforward. Speaking on the issue of housing, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said, “If everyone sits at the table with the understanding that you have to give a little to get this huge package passed, then I think we can come up with something that works.” We couldn’t have said it better.

The key to passing a housing plan that works for all New Yorkers is compromise. Unions have compromised. Elected officials have compromised. Tenant advocates have compromised. Landlords have even compromised. There is only one remaining obstacle on the path to resolution—the small minority of real estate developers who appear unwilling to part with even a fraction of their vast wealth, despite 34 percent of tenants being severely rent-burdened and over 100,000 New Yorkers experiencing homelessness.

In fact, the head of the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY), James Whelan, recently went out of his way to say to business leaders that it must, “get worse before it gets better” for developers. This statement sadly confirmed a widely held suspicion that some developers are holding New York City’s housing supply hostage for more generous tax breaks.

In the face of this rising demand, the development of affordable housing has slowed to a snail’s pace, with New York City’s housing stock only increasing 4 percent since 2010. This is not nearly enough to keep up with the subsequent job and population growth. It is time for REBNY to act like adults instead of children who never learned how to share.

In the interest of getting New York State closer to a deal, the carpenters union decided to lay it all on the table with our own comprehensive housing plan that will build affordable housing, create family-sustaining jobs, implement common-sense tenant protections that do not harm law-abiding small landlords, and provide stable housing solutions for homeless New Yorkers.

The first part of our comprehensive package addresses the replacement of the 421-a tax abatement program, a system that has squandered billions of dollars in tax incentives for developers who, in turn, constructed minimal amounts of affordable housing units and oversaw job sites that were breeding grounds for tax fraud and wage theft.

As steadfast advocates for all working people, we vehemently reject the use of any public funds that support worker exploitation. That’s why the Building and Construction Trades Council (BCTC) has proposed a common-sense replacement for 421-a. We know what’s at stake if affordability isn’t tackled head-on, so we’re willing to meet in the middle to get this done. Our proposal offered a significant compromise with a wage standard below any given trade’s prevailing wage rate on affordable housing.

These wage standards would go hand-in-hand with heightened requirements around affordability and certified payroll so we can build more affordable housing while upholding the rights of working people. This unprecedented offer—which was developed after serious conversations with developers about their costs—was rejected by REBNY. 

We also know that it’s essential to pair any 421-a replacement with solutions to the pervasive issues of eviction and homelessness. Legislation like the “Good Cause” eviction bill is critical in this effort. That said, we’re acutely aware of the fears that smaller landlords have expressed over the bill and are committed to working to ensure these concerns are addressed. After all, many of our members are first-time homeowners. I cannot and would not support any legislation that imposes unfair regulations on them.

The last item on our agenda is to enhance the Housing Access Voucher Program (HAVP), which would preemptively combat homelessness through a statewide subsidy program for low-income renters who are at risk of or currently experiencing homelessness or eviction.

With our package, particularly our significant compromise on wage standards, we’re not just “giving a little.” We’re giving a lot. A housing package that protects tenants, builds affordable housing, and creates good jobs is possible, but bad actors in the real estate industry would rather hold my members and all New Yorkers hostage on account of their greed.

What those bad actors have yet to grasp, however, is that they do not control our state government like they once did when Senate Republicans did their bidding. If their choice is to continue to close their eyes and make-believe the world hasn’t changed, then Godspeed. The adults in the room will solve the housing and affordability crisis without them.

Joseph Geiger is the executive secretary-treasurer for the New York City District Council of Carpenters.

Editor’s note: The Real Estate Board of NY responded to this oped with the following statement:

“REBNY is committed to working with a broad range of stakeholders, including public officials, labor unions and other advocates to address the city’s deepening housing supply crisis. That includes working with the Building and Construction Trades Council (BCTC) and its constituent unions to pay good construction wages and benefits as part of any new program that spurs the creation of multi-family, mixed income rental housing.  REBNY and the BCTC have a recent history of successfully reaching such agreements.

In 2017, REBNY reached a construction wage agreement with the BCTC that paid construction workers, on average, more than $109,000 per year on large rental development sites in Manhattan below 96th Street and nearly $82,000 per year in certain locations of Brooklyn and Queens. That agreement was renegotiated in 2022 as part of 485-w and would have paid construction workers on average, nearly $132,000 per year on sites in Manhattan below 96th Street and nearly $100,000 per year in certain locations of Brooklyn and Queens. One final note of context: according to federal data, the typical carpenter in the metropolitan New York area gets paid $100,000 annually. If the City’s construction prevailing wage is applied, that position costs more than $230,000 annually.”