Workers rally for higher wages, benefits

Workers protest for higher pay at a Melrose development site. Photo: Joe Hirsch

Porters for a nonprofit developer push for raises and health care

A project to build affordable housing in Melrose is drawing fire from union workers and Councilman Rafael Salamanca Jr., who say the nonprofit developer behind the plan has a track record of underpaying workers and providing inadequate health benefits at other local sites.

The developer, Phipps Houses, the city’s oldest and largest builder of affordable housing, called the charges baseless.

Some 50 members of 32BJ, the union that represents the city’s doormen and porters, rallied in front of 600 East 156th Street at the corner of Eagle Avenue in early April, where Phipps Neighborhood Houses intends to knock down an abandoned industrial building and construct 175 affordably-priced apartments and a charter school. The protesters said that although in the past the developer has paid its workers well, more recently employees are earning as little as $11 per hour at some sites in the area.

Protesters holding signs chanted “$11 bucks really sucks,” and “If we can’t get it, shut it down.”

“For years Phipps created good jobs alongside affordable housing,” said 32BJ member Tony Ahmeti through a loudspeaker. “But lately they’ve been creating poverty jobs.”

Noel Brown, who has worked as a porter in a Phipps complex in Claremont Village for 14 years, said Phipps paid him a decent wage with health benefits, but said he had come to the rally “to stand with other workers who haven’t been as lucky as I have.”

Some workers say good wages and health care are becoming a thing of the past for the developer.

In a letter to the editor published in El Diario on April 5 the lead porter at Courtlandt Corners, a Phipps-run complex in Melrose, wrote he has not received “meaningful benefits” in the two years he has worked there, and that his $13 hourly salary isn’t enough to get his family of five out of the homeless shelter they have been living in for the last three years.

“My paycheck isn’t enough to cover food, diapers and rent on a decent apartment for five people,” wrote Carmelo DeJesus, who added that his family must rely on Medicaid. Phipps “says that it works toward a New York City in which no one is caught in a cycle of poverty,” DeJesus continued, but his own family is “trapped in a cycle of poverty and homelessness.”

Workers at Via Verde, another Melrose building run by Phipps, told Salamanca they were being paid less than $12 per hour, leaving them no choice but “to decide if they should pay the rent or put food on the table for their families,” he said. The councilman joined the workers at the protest, and promised to side with them in negotiations “until (Phipps) pay these workers a fair wage.”

Phipp’s president and CEO Adam Weinstein, denied that Phipps’ policies are becoming less worker-friendly. He said the criticism stems from isolated disputes involving a third party management company.

Also at issue in the proposed affordable housing development at 600 East 156th Street is the way developers use the city’s Our Space Initiative, a mayoral program to fund the construction of apartments for homeless families.

Through that initiative, the city pays developers up to $140,000 for each apartment set aside as permanent housing for homeless families, on top of other city subsidies.

Community boards have generally approved of a five percent set-aside for new apartments for homeless families. With an eye on the new subsidy Phipps Houses is asking for 10 percent of the apartments in the new complex to be set aside for homeless families.

Calling a 10 percent set-aside too high, Salamanca says he wants to ensure that implementing Our Space does not result in fewer affordable apartments for local residents.

In addition, he has met with Community Board 1 to hammer out a community benefits package that would require Phipps Houses to build a computer center with wifi access for the public in the new development.

Weinstein says he understands Salamanca’s resistance.

“His district became a little bit of an easy target to locate homeless shelters,” said Weinstein. He added, however, that integrating manageable numbers of homeless families with other tenants is necessary in order to confront the city’s growing homeless problem.

“To be fair, this is permanent housing,” he said. “This is how you get rid of shelters.”