building immunity

Affordable Housing, Transit Projects Plow on in Coronavirus Pause

Construction was still going on inside Downtown Brooklyn’s Dime Savings Banks building on April 1, 2020.
Construction was still going on inside Downtown Brooklyn’s Dime Savings Banks building on April 1, 2020. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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Work can forge on at 327 construction projects deemed “affordable housing” in the city, along with hundreds more building and renovation jobs that meet other requirements, according to the Department of Buildings.

Those projects are in addition to state-led undertaking, such as new LaGuardia Airport terminals, that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has defended as essential infrastructure worth pursuing amid the pandemic, even as workers on some sites test positive for COVID-19.

There have been 22 positive cases among construction workers on the new Terminal B project at LaGuardia, a Port Authority spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, some private developers who could continue construction under essential exceptions are shutting down anyway. And employers are increasingly worried about the prospect of future lawsuits from workers who contract the virus.

“That’s going to be a nightmare,” said Louis Coletti of the Building Trades Employers Association, a contractor advocacy group.

When Cuomo declared an end to “non-essential” construction last week, he carved out major exceptions, including for transportation projects and the creation of “affordable housing” — a term the city and state have defined as any residential building that includes a certain percentage of income-restricted units.

Such projects will be needed as the coronavirus threat winds down and the economy reels, he said Thursday, noting that big jobs are “very, very difficult to freeze and then unfreeze.”

“You know, after this is over, we’re going to have to get back to work and we’re going to have to have an economy that functions and having infrastructure is an essential part of that,” Cuomo said. “And a lot of these projects, once you start, you can’t just stop, you know.”

Money or Your Life

Some workers on “essential” sites disagreed with Cuomo’s sense of what’s imperative right now, even as the prospect of a loss of income makes for a gut-wrenching decision.

“It’s either the paycheck or get sick, those are the choices,” one worker on a residential job told THE CITY.

He took vacation for a week to try and avoid infection, and is among those who would prefer a temporary stoppage in which people can stay home for a few weeks and get tested for COVID-19, if necessary.

Meanwhile, some affordable housing projects including all of L+M’s, Greenland Forest City Partners’ Pacific Park and TF Cornerstone’s Hunter’s Point South development are voluntarily shuttering now out of caution, spokespeople said.

And contractors and owners with workers still out on sites are beginning to grapple with the prospect of liability.

“This is going to turn out to be worse than those kind of claims that we had after 9/11,” Coletti said.

“The concern is that for any workers who are employed on sites through the rules — legitimate rules, either the waivers or the rules — if they later end up with the coronavirus, that they will file lawsuits that hold us accountable, both the owners and the contractors, accountable for the fact that they test positive and any health issues that they had,” he added.

An Urgent Need

In the city, the affordable housing exception exempts projects that fall under the de Blasio administration’s inclusionary housing program, which requires developers to designate 20% to 30% of a building at targeted rents in areas zoned for that purpose.

City Councilmember Brad Lander (D-Brooklyn) said affordable projects close to completion should be finished to house homeless people now at risk in shelters and on the street. But he wants exceptions narrowed so that projects with small percentages of affordable units shut down.

“In the coming months, as the economic crisis expands, the urgent need to prevent us from having Hoovervilles is going to be real,” Lander said, referring to the homeless encampments of the Great Depression. “So to me, anything that’s all supportive or all affordable, we’re going to need as soon as we can have it.”

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