For nearly a week after NY Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered all “nonessential” workers to stay home, as New York City shut down and the death toll from COVID-19 mounted, construction was still ongoing on luxury housing throughout the city, not to mention on the fiercely opposed National Grid pipeline being forced through North Brooklyn. Built on land stolen from Indigenous people through colonization and then working class people of color through gentrification, these projects are deadly for workers and devastating for communities at all times.It is unconscionable for them to continue at a time when one person going to work can bring disease to an entire community.
Workplace conditions at construction sites are congested and unsanitary, with workers crowded together in freight elevators, working in close contact, using limited portable toilet facilities, and lacking access to soap and hand sanitizer. In a pandemic, this is a recipe for infection to spread, and many workers fear that they or their coworkers will become or have already become infected. Construction workers do not want to go to work, but fear the loss of income and, for subcontractors, the legal ramifications that come with deciding to stay home. The choice between death and loss of income is no choice at all. This is an especially stark problem for the many undocumented workers on construction sites who do not have access to unemployment benefits, whether or not their work site is shut down due to coronavirus.
Thanks to massive worker pressure in the city, echoed by workers elsewhere, Gov. Cuomo finally agreed to stop all “nonessential” construction work, only allowing for the construction and maintenance of sites such as hospitals, roads, trains, bridges, and affordable housing. This would appear to be a loss for lobbyists and a win for workers and communities, but there is a very big loophole in this order. In order to be considered “affordable” housing, and thus exempt from the work stoppage, a building may contain as little as 20% income-restricted housing (which is often entirely unaffordable for the average New Yorker anyway). This means that most housing developments in New York City, which deliberately set aside up to 30% of their apartments as income-restricted for a limited time in order to be exempt from property taxes, could continue. In essence, luxury construction work throughout the city can continue unabated, without regard for the safety of workers, their families, or their communities.
It should not be surprising that even in the epicenter of a pandemic, real estate developers are set to make a profit at the expense of workers and with the enthusiastic abetment of the government. This is how capitalism and settler colonialism operate. Building wildly expensive buildings that no one will ever live in on stolen land makes too much money for too many powerful people to allow it to stop. The dynamic of rich politicians and developers destroying working-class communities, largely those of people of color, in order to line their pockets did not start with COVID-19, and it will not end when the last bed at the Javits Center is empty. Luxury construction is inessential for anyone’s wellbeing at any time, but it is absolutely essential to the capitalist state.
A lack of surprise does not mean a lack of anger or action, however. We should continue to fight to shut down luxury construction now and in the future. Just as vitally, we should continue to imagine and organize for a world in which no worker has to choose between risking death and risking starvation, in which there are no borders that allow documented and undocumented workers to be treated differently, in which luxury condos are turned into hospitals instead of vice versa, and in which we all get to determine what is essential for our health, wellbeing, and joy.