Opinion

Tenants and housing advocates support construction safety across New York City

By Katie Goldstein and Jonathan Westin |  

September 22, 2017 |  

(Shutterstock)

New York City’s building boom shows few signs of slowing down.

Cranes can be seen looming over many new construction projects, including in outer-borough neighborhoods undergoing rapid gentrification.

Much of this new housing is unaffordable to the vast majority of New York City residents – not only for low-wage workers in the service sector, but also for many laborers who are risking their lives building these new apartments.

Indeed, for the past several years, we have watched in horror as a growing number of construction workers have died on the job. By the latest count, 39 construction workers have been killed – an obscene and entirely preventable loss of life, given that a common sense policy solution exists.

Just yesterday, a nonunion construction worker was killed at an active construction site, according to news reports

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Legislation currently before the New York City Council – Intro 1447C – would establish better safety and training protocols for large building and construction projects, dramatically reducing the risk of death for workers. The bill recently passed the Council’s Housing Committee and should now become law. 

Worker safety and protection are essential, nonnegotiable components of housing policy. When workers are injured or killed while constructing new apartment buildings, everyone should be alarmed. It means those projects do not meet strong safety standards and put tenants and local residents at risk.

Despite the rising death toll for construction workers, pro-gentrification developers and real estate industry forces have joined together to oppose greater construction safety as too costly – a threat to their profits and bottom line.

Their opposition is both morally offensive and deeply misguided. They would rather endanger workers, tenants and neighborhoods than invest in crucial construction safety standards that will save lives and benefit everyone in the city.

Let’s be very clear about the source of the harm to workers, tenants, and neighborhoods: reckless nonunion construction practices that cut corners as a way to yield maximum profits for developers and cheapen the value of life.

Of course, it is more profitable to employ non-union, low-wage workers without the proper training than it is to hire a well-trained union crew. This race-to-the-bottom business model hurts not only workers but also tenants, who often live in unsafe conditions because many landlords won’t properly invest in the upkeep of their buildings. 

What’s more, local residents who happen to walk by poorly constructed and badly maintained buildings at the wrong time can get hit by falling debris – or worse.  

Construction safety and housing affordability go together for a healthy and vibrant New York City where workers, tenants, and neighborhoods can thrive.

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Housing built with the highest safety standards is better housing, period. It will last longer and protect New Yorkers instead of endangering them. 

By the same token, housing built with the lowest safety standards is weaker and increases the likelihood that apartment buildings will harm New Yorkers, whether they are workers, tenants or people just passing through neighborhoods. 

As poet and activist Audre Lorde once famously said, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” 

How many more must die? That question has become a potent rallying cry from building construction unions and a diverse cross-section of concerned New Yorkers in response to the recent deaths of construction workers. 

Intro 1447C offers a clear answer: No one else will die if the city prioritizes the safety of all New Yorkers in housing construction over the greed of developers. 

Katie Goldstein is executive director of Tenants & Neighbors, where she coordinates the citywide Real Affordability for All coalition. Jonathan Westin is executive director of New York Communities for Change.

Correction: An earlier version of this op-ed incorrectly stated the number of nonunion construction workers that died at active construction sites yesterday. It was one nonunion construction worker, not two. 

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