In its Feb. 25 edition, the Mercury News reported that despite an increase in demand for housing in the Bay Area, there are too few construction workers to build new homes.
The paper cited a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development study that found that while the number of building permits in the Bay Area increased 351 percent from 2009 to 2016, the number of construction workers in the region increased just 29 percent. The article goes on to state that the high demand for construction workers, and the overuse of inexperienced workers to meet demand, is driving up costs and delaying the construction of new housing.
Everybody wants more housing and there’s a simple solution to get it. Cities in the Bay Area must encourage housing developers to sign project labor agreements (PLAs) with local construction trades unions.
PLAs ensure construction workers are paid family-sustaining wages. They make sure that highly experienced workers build projects. And PLAs make sure that young workers and people rebuilding their lives after being incarcerated can gain on-the-job training from highly qualified teachers.
It’s not easy being a construction worker in the Bay Area. Despite the residential construction boom, some large developers take the “low road,” profiting by paying their workers as little as possible. Construction workers tend to live on the outskirts of the region because they cannot afford to live in the homes they are building in Oakland, San Francisco and Silicon Valley. Their commutes are long.
This “low-road” approach not only shortchanges workers, but harms the health of the regional construction industry. The Bay Area has too few local, skilled construction workers, which reduces labor productivity. Low-road developers are not providing proper training to workers entering the trades, which drives up the number of on-the-job injuries and increases insurances costs. All these situations drive down the recruitment of new construction workers and delays housing projects from being built.
PLAs can help solve all these problems.
PLAs ensure union workers will build housing projects. Union workers are better paid and better trained than non-union workers. Experienced union workers can earn six figures easily, making it more likely that they’ll live in the Bay Area. Inexperienced union workers are not only given classroom training to better their understanding of industry techniques and safety procedures, but also on-the-job experience where they’re paid to learn. At the end of their three-to-five year training, these workers will have zero educational debt, something few college graduates can expect.
Because of the benefits, Bay Area construction trades unions aren’t struggling to recruit as much as they’re struggling to match workers with projects willing to pay for their talents. Though developers will argue more benefits and higher pay will lead to higher construction costs, more benefits and higher pay will actually lead to more experienced workers and more people willing to build housing projects, thus lowering accident rates, decreasing insurance costs and getting housing built faster. The savings will be worth the extra union benefit costs.
While cities can’t force private developers to enter into PLAs, they can incentivize developers to do so. Cities can relax height and parking limits, and expedite city approvals. They can waive certain fees. They can ensure public lands are built only with PLAs. If Bay Area cities want more housing within their borders, they’re going to have to do more to encourage developers to sign PLAs.