Streams

City Takes Another Pass at a Living Wage Bill

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

More than 20 City Council members are signing on to a bill that would require workers at any new city-subsidized real estate project to receive a "living wage," $10 an hour plus benefits or $11.50 an hour without benefits.

The bill was introduced Tuesday by Bronx council members Oliver Koppell and Annabel Palma. It faces stiff opposition from Mayor Michael Bloomberg. But supporters say they plan to get a veto-proof majority of council members to back the plan by the time it comes to a vote.

The bill represents a wider approach than last year's push for living wages at the Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx. This time, the wage requirement would apply to almost all projects, including shopping malls, office buildings, and condominium complexes that receive city tax breaks or other aid.

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. was one of the City Council members who signed the living wage bill and spoke to a rally of more than 100 union members and community activists on the steps of City Hall on Tuesday.

"Today is the day when we demand that developers who take so heavily from taxpayer wallets to stop giving workers the short end of the deal," Diaz said.

Diaz was a major force behind the movement to require living wages when a developer, the Related Companies, wanted to turn the city-owned Kingsbridge Armory into a shopping mall.

In that case, Bloomberg refused to consider any sort of compromise, including a city fund that would have supplemented the wages of workers who did not receive living wages from their employers. Without any living wage provision, the council voted down the shopping mall, 45-1, last December.

Over the past 15 years, numerous cities, prodded by unions and advocates for the poor, have enacted some sort of living wage. New York, for example, already requires city contractors and home health aides to receive more than minimum wage. Los Angeles has a living wage that's similar to the new one proposed for New York, applicable to stores and other companies that rent space in subsidized real estate developments, even if those companies don't directly contract with the city.

Bloomberg spoke out against the living wage bill Monday, saying that the reason these projects need city subsidies is that they wouldn't stand on their own otherwise.

"We’re trying to build more affordable housing. We're trying to provide more services for the elderly," he says. "The economics don't work if you have to pay more."

But according to a copy of the bill introduced Tuesday, affordable housing projects and buildings that house social services organizations would be exempt from the living wage requirements.

There’s another wrinkle: The city's Economic Development Corporation (EDC) is commissioning a study of how living wages would work. EDC spokesman David Lombino told WNYC in an e-mail that the consultant is expected to be hired in the next couple of weeks.

Asked why the EDC is studying the issue, despite the mayor's opposition, Lombino wrote: "Concerned about many assumptions. Too important to guess."

Countless projects in New York receive subsidies, including most office buildings built in the outer boroughs and Upper Manhattan and most new housing projects that are not in wealthy areas.

The bill would only apply to projects where the city would award subsidies 90 days after the bill's passage.

The future of the bill is unclear. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, normally a Bloomberg ally, has remained neutral on the subject, but has promised it would get a hearing.

For more on the living wage issue and the Kingsbridge Armory debate, click here.

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