US unions target the housing affordability crisis as their ‘biggest issue’

US unions target the housing affordability crisis as their ‘biggest issue’

Feb 17, 2024

As housing has become a top issue in strikes and protests in recent months, US unions are pushing for change and backing innovative solutions for the housing affordability crisis.‘It’s going to be historic’: US flight attendants picket at major airports

With US house prices and rents rising in recent years, and high interest rates and inflation taking their toll, housing affordability has become a major issue at the bargaining table for US labor unions. Many workers are facing 60-, 90-, even 120-minute commutes to work because they cannott afford to live near their jobs.

Housing has been a big issue in the recent rolling strikes by thousands of Los Angeles hotel workers. In Oregon, 400 Yamhill county government employees went on strike in November because, the union said, “many workers are not able to afford housing”. In the Twin Cities, worker dismay about large rent hikes is fueling plans for a multi-union strike by up to 30,000 workers in March. When San Francisco hotel workers hold contract talks later this year, housing affordability will be a top issue.

“Housing is a very important issue for our members,” said Anand Singh, president of the Unite Here hotel workers’ union in San Francisco. “Our members can’t absorb the sudden rent increases they’ve seen. They’re evicted from their homes. They’re pushed further and further down the housing ladder.”

AIHS 2024
AIHS 2024

Milagros Vela, a housekeeper at the Hilton San Francisco Union Square, said her monthly rent jumped from $1,800 to $2,800 during the pandemic, and as a result, she moved to a less expensive town, Antioch, 45 miles (72km) east of San Francisco. “Many days it’s a two-hour commute each way,” Vela said. “It’s very frustrating. It prevents me from spending time with my daughters and grandkids.

The affordability crisis has spurred many responses. Last November, the United Food and Commercial Workers and other unions helped win approval of a ballot initiative in Tacoma, Washington, that bans cold-weather evictions between 1 November and 1 April and bars evicting households with students or educators anytime during the school year. The measure also requires landlords that raise rents by 5% or more to offer two months’ relocation assistance to tenants – and for rent increases of 10% or more, three months’ assistance.

Other unions have taken the issue head on, for instance, by lobbying for the building of more affordable housing. With the teachers’ union complaining that educators can’t afford to live in the Miami area, the Miami-Dade county school district is planning to convert several schools into teacher housing. In Las Vegas, the Culinary Union, which represents 60,000 hotel and restaurant workers, has increased its down payment assistance to $25,000 for union members buying their first homes.

Elizabeth Bahn, a crisis counselor for the San Jose school district, wishes she could afford to live in San Jose, but many modest, 1,200-sq-ft homes there can often cost $1.2m. Bahn instead lives 90 minutes away in Monterey county. “I would love to live closer to where I work, but it’s almost impossible,” she said.

Workers picket in from of an inflatable rat outside a hotel under palm trees.
Writers Guild members support striking hotel workers outside the Fairmont Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica on 13 July 2023. Photograph: Ringo Chiu/SOPA Images/Shutterstock

The San José Teachers Association is urging the school district to build subsidized housing for teachers on unused or underused school property. “Housing is probably the biggest issue for us,” said Renata Sanchez, the union’s president. “It totally messes with people’s work-life balance. We are at our schools a minimum of seven hours a day, and when you add in up to four hours of commuting time each day, that’s already half of your day. Our members are having to make hard decisions: am I going to do what I want to do for my students or do I go home to be a partner or parent to my own family?

One possible model for San Jose is Casa del Maestro, a 70-apartment complex in nearby Santa Clara which that community’s school district built. It rents apartments to teachers at 80% below market rate for up to seven years, helping them save up for home ownership.

Margie Wysocki, president of United Teachers of Santa Clara, said market rents are so high that some educators have taken second jobs. “Some teachers have to take roommates. Some live with their parents,” she said. And the housing crunch is often worse for school janitors, teacher aides and cafeteria workers.

In the Twin Cities, labor leaders are threatening an innovative, multi-union strike next month with housing affordability a leading issue, along with higher pay and improving schools. Unions representing 1,000 airport workers, 2,500 security guards, 4,500 janitors, and thousands of teachers and support staff have coordinated their contract expiration dates so they can all go on strike in early March..

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The unions want Minneapolis to enact a law limiting rent increases and are asking for guarantees that if government money in the Twin Cities is used to convert office buildings to apartments, those projects will produce affordable housing.

Eva Lopez, a janitor at a major corporation’s offices in Minneapolis, complained that rent for her two-bedroom apartment recently jumped by $350 to $1,600, a 28% increase. “It’s very difficult to keep up with the rent increases with the wages we’re earning,” Lopez said.

Greg Nammacher, president of an SEIU local representing Twin Cities janitors and security guards, said: “Our survey of our members found that by a multiple of two housing was their biggest issue outside of wages and benefits.

Today’s labor activism about housing is in many ways a return to the past. “During the first three-quarters of the 20th century, unions were a strong voice and advocate for affordable housing for working families,” said Peter Dreier, an urban policy expert at Occidental College in Los Angeles. “They built their own union-sponsored housing. They fought for decent public housing. They fought for better code enforcement to rid cities of slums.” Their focus on housing faded in the 1980s as unions declined and laid off many staffers.

Los Angeles unions are leading the way in pushing innovative ideas to finance affordable housing. Working with many community groups, LA unions won passage of a “mansion tax” ballot measure with 58% of the vote. It creates a 4% real estate transfer tax on property sales exceeding $5m and 5.5% on sales above $10m. Supporters say the tax, which hits a tiny percentage of sales, will collect at least $600m a year to finance affordable housing and provide subsidies to prevent evictions.

Even as LA’s real estate industry has challenged the tax in court – it lost the first round – officials in several other cities have expressed interest in adopting a similar scheme to finance housing.

“In LA there is an extreme need for housing. Thousands upon thousands of Angelenos are sleeping on the streets every night,” said Chris Hannan, president of the California State Building and Construction Trades Council, a union group. “We need a well-rounded approach to get people housing and make housing truly affordable. That’s absolutely something the labor movement should be involved in.” Hannan said LA’s mansion tax “should be a model across the country”.

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As part of its wave of strikes, the LA hotel workers’ union demanded that hotels create a 7% tax on guests, with the money helping finance affordable housing for hospitality workers.

“One hundred of our members said they lost their homes during the pandemic,” said Kurt Petersen, the union’s co-president. “Our fight is about who can live in LA, about who can afford to live in LA.”

His union failed to persuade hotels to agree to the 7% tax, but it won large raises to help union members afford rising rents. “There’s a long way to go in solving the housing crisis,” Petersen said. “We feel our union can play a part in solving it.”

Source: Theguardian

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