In what was called a "value judgment" by city staff, the City Council decided Tuesday that it was worth using affordable housing funds to pay union wages to workers constructing affordable housing.
With Mayor John Inks opposed, council members voted 6-1 in favor of a "prevailing wage" requirement, which city staff said would add 10 percent to the cost of affordable housing projects, like the 50-unit apartment complex for low-income families recently finished at the corner of Franklin and Evelyn streets downtown.
At issue was whether the city's housing funds would be better spent on building more affordable housing, even though council members have complained about not being able to spend housing funds fast enough. If a prevailing wage requirement had been added to the Franklin Street project, it would have cost the equivalent of two units, noted member Mike Kasperzak.
A dozen members of various construction worker unions noted the often overlooked costs of using cheap labor, claiming that non-prevailing wage contractors bring most of their workers from the Central Valley, that those contractors often pay under the table without paying taxes. They also argued that union workers have higher productivity and do higher quality work, saving the city from facing the time and expense of having to redo shoddy work, as Palo Alto faces with its new Mitchell Park library project.
The city already requires prevailing wage for its capital projects, and council member Jac Siegel said the requirement would be a fair extension of that policy.
"Mountain View has often been quoted as the 'small city with big heart,' and we are," Siegel said.
Council member Chris Clark said he felt "reassured" by research done by city staff members, who said a number of studies gave wildly different conclusions about the costs of the prevailing wage, some saying it added as little as 3 percent to the cost of a project, while other studies said it added 21 percent. Conversation with trusted affordable housing contractors who have done both prevailing and non-prevailing wage projects led city staff members to the conclusion that the real cost is about 10 percent. Staff members recommended a state prevailing wage be required for all affordable housing project contracts in the city. "I don't think it's going to cost us a huge number of units at the end of the day," Clark said.
The construction worker unions took a few shots from residents, such as Don Bahl, who owns property and a real estate business in Mountain View and claimed that unions could be taking more than half of some union members' wages, which drew laughs from union members in the audience. Resident Stephanie Munoz said the construction worker unions weren't democratic because not anyone could join, only those lucky to have the right connections, she said. She added, however, that "it's because of unions that the country as a whole has standard of living that it has."
Mayor Inks explained his lone opposition by saying the requirement would be "politics intervening in the marketplace" on an issue "better decided by businesses."
"My dad was a gardener who made barely minimum wage," said council member Margaret Abe-Koga, who supported the requirement. "I saw the injustices people do to other people not paying, not paying on time. I grew up thinking maybe if he were part of a union he would have had more protections."
"We are not talking about guaranteeing people a space to live in Mountain View," said former Mountain View mayor and former state Assemblywoman Sally Lieber, about paying construction workers enough to live in Mountain View. "Frankly, (union construction workers) live in mobile home parks. It's just having that presence of people in our community and giving them a fighting chance. A dime on the dollar is a pretty modest thing to pay, but it will put us on the side of the right."