In my nearly three decades as a labor leader, time and again I’ve seen firsthand the opportunity that development creates in New York City. Whether it’s public dollars or private investment leading to development, when done right, it can be the driver of economic activity across almost every sector and a boon to the culture and wellbeing of the city’s hundreds of neighborhoods and millions of residents.
Yet, it’s clear some unfortunate misunderstandings about development have muddied the waters and created distrust between developers and communities. At first, this anti-development sentiment seemed like it might have been the result of historic, citywide economic growth rippling through the five boroughs prior to COVID, but then when it lingered into the pandemic and stifled projects that would have resulted in thousands of construction jobs, millions of dollars in community benefits, and tens of thousands of long-term jobs at a moment New York needed them most, it became clear that the root causes of that distrust were deeper.
As we emerge from the pandemic and look toward keeping our city’s economy and future on track, it’s critical that those skeptical of development recognize the important role it can and will play in the days, months and years ahead.
Development is the leading generator of middle-class careers in the city’s unionized construction industry. By creating reliable and honest work for our members, development projects help ensure that the city isn’t just a playground for the rich, but a place where hardworking New Yorkers can pull themselves out of poverty, build a career for themselves and their family, and contribute to the betterment of the community around them.
This is a particularly important factor when looking at the workers who make up the city’s unionized construction workforce. According to a 2017 study by the Economic Policy Institute, the majority of the city’s unionized construction workers were Black and Hispanic individuals. The same study also found that 61% of union apprentices at the time were minority workers, meaning that since then, the number of workers of color in the construction industry’s unionized ranks has only grown. Without development, these workers don’t have jobs and don’t get paid. With development, these workers earn middle-class wages that are invested directly back into New York’s communities, supporting small businesses and retailers, and creating economic vitality across neighborhoods.
The Daily NewsFlash
Catch up on the day’s top five stories every weekday afternoon.
It’s not just members of the New York City Building Trades that benefit from development. Our union brothers and sisters of 32BJ stand to benefit from long-term building service jobs that development creates; revenues are generated for the city’s public school system, benefiting our students and the exceptional educators that our friends at the United Federation of Teachers represent; and more shoppers frequent the neighborhood small businesses and retailers where members of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union and United Food and Commercial Workers Union are employed. The list goes on.
Yet despite the benefits that development brings, there are still elected officials and decision-makers who resent it, suggesting that every step forward necessarily brings gentrification and pressures that make it harder for today’s New Yorkers to afford their city. There are lawmakers who consider themselves progressive but obstruct forward-looking development projects that would invest in New York’s working class.
I have no doubt that some of those who object to development do so in good faith. I’d look forward to sitting down with them to hear their concerns and find common ground. However, I worry many elected officials who oppose and suppress development know better. That instead of laboring to help craft community-driven development plans that meet the needs of their neighborhoods, they knowingly sow dissension to advance their own political prerogatives by appeasing a small yet vocal contingent of anti-development activists who object to any development no matter its merits.
As I see it, building is ingrained in this city’s DNA. Development and construction embody the history of New York City, as do the members of the Building and Construction Trades Council who I represent.
There are, of course, some developers who don’t reflect New York City at its best, who prioritize their bottom line at the expense of working people and the communities in which they’re working. I’ll be the first to object to their projects and corrupt ambitions. But the vast majority of those I’ve worked with in New York City’s real estate community care about the city’s future. They want the projects our members build to be the lifeblood of the community surrounding them.
When done right and when built union, development projects create outsize benefits for this city. As we look to turn the corner on the pandemic and the economic crisis its created, it is critical that our elected officials, leaders, and communities have honest conversations about the development plans that are being — and will soon be — advanced. It’s time we lead with facts, not fear.
LaBarbera is the president of the New York City and New York State Building and Construction Trades Council.