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California Needs More Housing. Unions Might Stand in the Way.

One cause of California’s severe shortage of housing is well known: The state is plagued by byzantine zoning rules and other local restrictions on development that make it extraordinarily difficult to build new places to live. In other words, NIMBYism.

But there is another under-the-radar reason for my home state’s slow pace of new home building: We don’t have nearly enough construction workers. Experts estimate that developers in California need to recruit between 100,000 and 200,000 new workers in order to meet the state’s housing goals. Construction work of all kinds is physically demanding and economically volatile. But building houses in California is low-paying, dangerous and often exploitative — payroll fraud, wage theft and the abuse of undocumented workers have been found in the residential construction industry there.

All of which is why I’m so excited about A.B. 2011, a bill moving through the California Legislature that aims to create millions of new homes — including hundreds of thousands of homes set aside for low-income Californians — by addressing both zoning restrictions and poor working conditions in residential construction.

It’s a very clever idea. Across the state, there are nearly 108,000 acres of livable space in areas now zoned for commercial and office construction. A.B. 2011 would allow new housing to be created in those areas — places now occupied by underutilized office parks, strip malls, big box stores and parking lots — in a streamlined process that bypasses the usual local approvals thicket. In return for an easier process and all the new space on which to build, developers would need to adhere to stringent working standards. Among other things, they’d be required to pay construction workers the “prevailing wage” as determined by the state’s director of industrial relations and, on larger developments, require contractors to participate in apprenticeship programs that can lead to union membership and provide health care coverage.

A.B. 2011, which was written by Buffy Wicks, an Assembly member from Oakland, passed the State Assembly in May and now needs approval in the State Senate. But its passage there faces a tough challenge. The bill has split one of California’s most powerful political forces: organized labor. While A.B. 2011 is backed by the California Conference of Carpenters and some of California’s large service-sector unions — including those representing health care workers, teachers and public employees — many unions in the construction industry are opposed to the bill. The State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, an organization composed of unions for a range of construction jobs — boilermakers, bricklayers, painters, plasterers, roofers and others — says the standards don’t go far enough. The trades council wants to require that a certain number of jobs created by the bill be set aside for graduates of apprenticeship programs, most of whom are union members. Because it doesn’t, the council has called A.B. 2011 an effort to “exploit a very real crisis on the backs of California’s blue collar work force.” Erin Lehane, the legislative director of the trades council, told me the bill is a threat to workers’ safety and a giveaway to developers.

To which I say: This is why we can’t have nice things. The politics around housing in California are shifting rapidly. Not long ago, NIMBYs were indomitable. But as the housing crisis worsened and voters began demanding action, YIMBYs — activists who’ve pushed for more building under the banner of “yes, in my backyard!” — began to rack up many big wins. Yet when one myopic interest group falls in California, there is always another ready to step in and halt progress.

Now the construction unions are playing spoiler, and, like the NIMBYs before them, their opposition is both self-serving and shortsighted. It is true that A.B. 2011 would not require developers to hire workers who’ve finished apprenticeship programs — but as several experts told me, there are not enough such workers in California to address such a need anyway. Worse, as CalMatters recently found, the shortage of union workers is most acute in rural and low-income areas of the state, where lots of new housing is needed.

“It’s so pure that it’s no longer a standard — it’s a barrier,” said Danny Curtin, the director of the California Conference of Carpenters.

Lehane, of the trades council, disputed the idea that developers would be hampered by a requirement to hire workers from apprenticeship programs. She said that apprenticeship programs would expand to meet a need — if the bill required developers to hire apprentice workers, more workers would join training programs.

She could be right, but that would be a slow process, and given the dire shortage of housing, can we afford to take the gamble? By allowing what seems like reasonable flexibility for developers, A.B. 2011 avoids ideological rigidity in favor of urgent practicality. It aims to create new housing and new jobs now while growing a work force that, in the long run, could be ripe for recruitment by construction unions.

“I don’t love being in the middle of a labor-on-labor fight,” Wicks, who chairs the Assembly’s Committee on Housing and Community Development, told me. But she argued that A.B. 2011 would improve conditions for construction workers in California precisely because it is not limited just to unionized workers. “This is a stronger bill for labor and for workers than any other option,” she said, because “we’re creating a floor that everyone has to adhere to, union and non-.”

That becomes an especially compelling argument when you look at the peculiarities of the construction industry. There are essentially two types of construction workers in America: people who build houses, and people who build everything else. Most unionized construction workers in California work on nonresidential buildings or public works projects, which tend to offer much higher pay and better benefits than home building work, according to Scott Littlehale, an analyst for the Northern California Carpenters Regional Council.

Jay Bradshaw, the executive secretary-treasurer of the Northern California Carpenters Union, estimates that there are about 330,000 residential construction workers in California, and only about 5 percent to 10 percent of them are unionized. The industry is “a crime scene,” said Bradshaw, full of “labor law violations, human trafficking, cash pay, labor brokers, tax fraud.” Almost half of the families of California’s construction workers receive some form of public assistance.

Bradshaw sees these workers as a potentially huge pool of new union members. By setting minimum wage and benefit standards for projects allowed by the bill, he argues that A.B. 2011 would “help raise up these workers out of that crime scene” — and then his union can go out and help them organize.

California’s Legislature is run by Democrats who are generally strongly in favor of organized labor. The split among unions on A.B. 2011 thus creates a quandary for many lawmakers. Should they side with NIMBYs and construction unions who argue that any bill that doesn’t require unionized workers will imperil workers, or with YIMBYs, carpenters and public employees who favor more building with strong employment standards?

I’m with the carpenters and the YIMBYs. A.B. 2011 is an elegant effort to address a complex crisis. California needs a lot more housing. Strip malls and office parks are ideal places to build it. And guaranteeing livable wages is a way to make construction a much more attractive job that could ultimately be a boon for the labor movement.

The bill is likely to come up for a floor vote in the California Senate sometime in the next week or two. I hope legislators can find the courage to buck the opposition. “When you go to my district in Oakland, we have growing encampments at every freeway exit — that is absolutely unacceptable,” Wicks told me. “What we are doing is not working. And so while the politics may be tough for some, it is our job to make tough decisions.”

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