Building trades push for union workforce in affordable housing bills

By Manuela Tobias, East Bay Times, July 27, 2021

Several bills to add or finance affordable housing missed a key July 14 deadline.

“[S]everal observers of the housing debate noted a significant similarity among the bills: They all require that a portion of the workforce that builds the housing be graduates of mostly union-run apprenticeship programs.

“That union labor requirement has proven to be a deal-breaker or deal-maker for several housing bills already: The provision made it into bills and allowed them to survive so far. Or it was excluded and resulted in strong opposition and a bill’s demise, including one last year to build affordable housing in church parking lots, and another retail-to-housing conversion effort similar to the bill now in limbo [SB 6].

“The requirement is a source of tension between the powerful State Building and Construction Trades Council — which represents more than 450,000 California construction workers and wants more jobs for its members — and affordable housing developers, who are hoping to build many of the proposed projects.

“Two of the bills in limbo are in the housing package proposed by Senate leader Toni Atkins, a San Diego Democrat: Senate Bill 6 to allow housing in commercial zones and SB 330 to create workforce and student housing in community college districts. Several other bills in the Senate package also include the union language, including SB 7, which Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law to expedite environmental review on larger projects, including affordable housing.

“The council is pushing the requirement because they say non-union construction workers barely float above the poverty line while graduates of apprenticeship programs earn higher wages over the course of their careers.

“It’s a chicken-and-egg scenario: Unions say they can’t recruit more members through apprenticeships if they can’t guarantee jobs, but developers say they can’t build housing if there aren’t enough workers.”

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