Philly Needs More Pro-Growth Land Use Advocacy, Less Arson From Building Trades Union

Philaphilia is one of my favorite blogs (maybe my most favorite blog!), and one of the things you notice as a Philaphilia reader is that NIMBY groups manage to get a whole lot of development projects shut down in Philly.

NIMBYs have managed to turn the process for obtaining a variance into a political ordeal, and under the old zoning code, they were able to force all kinds of projects to go through this process – effectively giving NIMBYs veto power over new buildings. The new code allows more projects to get built by-right, with no political interference, but recently members of City Council have been trying to roll back those changes. The effect would be more red tape and less new construction.

I think that’s the appropriate backdrop for this story about members of the Philly building trades union burning down a non-union construction project, and the past few months of stories about the Goldtex controversy.

Demand for multi-family housing in Philly appears to be pretty strong right now. That demand should translate into lots of new construction projects. And the resulting demand for construction workers should be a boon to members of the building trades union. But many of these construction projects face hyper-local opposition from neighbors, and right now its an open political question as to how much power City Council will give back to neighbors to veto development projects.

That is where the building trades unions should focus their political efforts.

Rather than fighting individual developers over whether individual projects will use union or non-union labor, the unions should be focusing on more total development – fast-tracking the approval process for construction, raising the cost of land speculation, eliminating regulatory curbs on the housing supply, and anything else you can think of that will boost the total amount of construction happening.

What’s so frustrating is that this is a live debate, happening right now, but the only pro-growth voices you see quoted in articles on these issues are planning nerd bloggers, developers and some academics. The interest group with the most to gain from more construction – the building trades – has been strangely quiet about this, at least in the press. Maybe they are lobbying behind the scenes or something?


  1. Um, do you have any reason to believe a east coast urban union will act in the manner you hope for? The entire point of such a union is to restrict the supply of labor, much in the way others restrict the amount of housing. Seems to me that within their own construct, they are acting quite rationally.

    • Jon Geeting says:

      Some NYC building trades unions have come around to this view and are now taking on the broken process that’s led to underbuilding instead of fighting for individual rezonings. Small bore stuff like expediting rezoning and RFP processes, but still a step in the direction of pushing more total building than fighting over individual projects.

  2. It’s another case of ignoring what happens in the real world, trying to substitute the utopian fantasy that is ‘policy class.’

    • Jon Geeting says:

      This is why you need different political parties in local government. A party coalition that included developers, building trades unions and affordable housing activists could work out a policy agenda for more total housing that would sublimate developers’ and unions’ worst tendencies to the common goal of more housing. For instance, GDub is right that labor supply restrictions drive up wages, so on one level there’s an interest in restricting the number of construction projects out there. But the more important goal is having a lot of work for union members, who can then pay their union dues. Being in the same political party coalition as developers and affordable housing activists would force everybody to put aside some of their incompatible preferences and focus on the goal they have in common – more total housing.

  3. You are right on the coalition–such groupings would be helpful to arbitrate differences.

    I’m not sure that unions (at least in piece-work fields like construction) are as concerned with larger membership as they are with percentage of the workforce unionized and the steady supply of projects to provide work. The administration ran into this with the stimulus–when there really was little the government could do to put unemployed folks on construction jobs. The unions didn’t want to take on additional members who might be unemployed in a few years and would rather work to ensure their current membership is fully employed at a high wage for several years.

    That’s the real threat of the non-union company–not just the price (which of course has an impact)–but the idea that a job can get done right now at the right standard instead of whenever a union firm can get around to it.

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