Builders, affordable housing groups demand repeal of N.Y. Scaffold Law this session

Builders, contractors and New York affordable housing experts Wednesday could not name a housing proposal in Gov. Kathy Hochul’s State of the State they disliked, but said they will push for additional policy changes to improve supply across the state, including repealing the state’s nearly 170-year-old scaffolding law.

Hochul’s plans to improve affordable housing in Tuesday’s State of the State address were on the smaller side as the state Legislature anticipates steep debates to reach an agreement — and with a $4.3 billion deficit.

But multiple stakeholders involved in creating and maintaining housing in the state argue a significant housing proposal was missing from the governor’s plan: repealing the state’s Scaffold Law.

“Whether it’s a large scale, affordable housing project, a bridge, commercial building, it is astronomically more expensive to build anything in New York because of that law that, by the way, produces no benefit in terms of safety,” said Mike Elmendorf, president and CEO of the Associated General Contractors of New York State.

The law, which dates back to 1885, holds contractors and property owners liable for damages when an elevation-related accident happens on a job site.

It accounts for about 10% of construction costs in the state — creating a significant obstacle to build new units. The statute has come under fire in recent years for leading to an uptick in fraudulent claims.

Escalating costs of building supplies, labor and to maintain housing have significantly hurt New York’s housing supply.

Jolie Milstein, president and CEO of the state Association for Affordable Housing strongly backs Hochul’s proposal to make it illegal for insurance providers to refuse to cover affordable housing or charge higher premiums.

“That’s a real problem and driving up costs, and we believe should be addressed immediately — this loophole in the insurance law,” Milstein said Wednesday.

She and other housing advocates plan to push for a $250 million fund to help property owners maintain rental units, and to help make landlords whole who are owed back rent as low- and middle-income New Yorkers struggle to make payments amid rising costs.

“In New York state, a large number of families that rent affordable and supportive housing are in arrears for at least two months, and the average is close to $7,000,” Milstein said. “While $7,000 may not seem like a lot of money, these families, many of them don’t have bank accounts or savings accounts that could begin to address that shortfall.”

The governor also proposed to mandate state agencies determine which state properties could be converted into new housing units, including former prisons. More than two dozen state correctional facilities have closed since 2010, with thousands of fewer New Yorkers behind bars and many of the aging facilities falling into severe disrepair.

Brian Sampson, president of the Empire State Chapter of Associated Builders & Contractors, the state should first clean up or remediate sites with a former prison to encourage private developers to use the property for housing. Otherwise, it may not be of interest to private developers.

“That’s probably going to be a much more successful approach rather than trying to say, ‘Hey, see this ugly building, old building? Yep, we’ve taken the lead out, we’ve taken the asbestos out; how about you build here?’ ” Sampson said. “I’m not sure there’s going to be a great market and appetite for that.”

Progressive Democrats have different priorities to solve New York’s housing emergency than Hochul — especially on tenant protections. Lawmakers are working with ideas to meet in the middle.

Senate Housing Committee chair Brian Kavanagh wants to see a robust rental assistance program in the budget to pay the property owner when a tenant fails to pay their rent and evade eviction.

“I haven’t heard anybody tell me that they don’t think that evictions are an important thing we need to address,” Kavanagh said in the Capitol on Tuesday.

But lawmakers say they’re committed to working together. The Legislature does not plan to pose its own housing plan, as it did to Hochul at the end of last year’s session before failing. And lawmakers don’t want to go home to campaign for re-election empty-handed.

“I am willing, as is the Legislature, to be real partners in this work,” said Sen. Zellnor Myrie, a Brooklyn Democrat. “So I am coming in with a spirit of partnership and, hopefully, we will be able to achieve the best thing for New Yorkers.”

In her State of the State, Hochul proposed strengthening the Pro-Housing Communities Program she created via executive order last summer and requiring localities to become a state-certified “Pro-housing community” in order to apply for $650 million in grants for housing projects.

State Homes & Community Renewal officials will review applications, which are open to local governments, on a rolling basis. To date, 57 localities have submitted letters of intent expressing interest, and approximately 15 localities have submitted applications, according to the department.

“We are in the process of reviewing certification applications, and when that process is complete, we will publicly announce which communities have been certified,” Homes & Community Renewal said in a statement Wednesday. “As the certification process is ongoing, no grant funding has been awarded yet.”

 

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