Many advocates say the Bay Area needs to build a lot more housing to solve its affordability crisis. Of course, that’s easier said than done, and the high cost of labor is often cited as one of the obstacles. But construction trades workers also need to live in this expensive area and they say wages, though higher than elsewhere, still barely cut it.
What’s the point of building middle class housing, some ask, if you’ve lost your middle class workforce?
This tension surfaced with the opening of Factory OS in Vallejo. It makes what’s often called modular housing. Factory-built housing is cheaper and faster to build and doesn’t require specialized, highly-trained workers. But that’s why some traditional construction trades workers perceive it as a threat to their livelihood — think of the dynamic between Uber and Lyft and the taxi cab industry. Does new housing technology have to come at the expense of decent jobs for San Franciscans?
Building housing in factories, like Factory OS, saves money a couple ways. The main one is by saving time; you can do all the foundation work on the lot while simultaneously starting the building in the factory. They’re also able to streamline everything a bit more, for maximum efficiency and minimal waste.
Each module is about the size of a shipping container, and they fit together like Legos to form bigger rooms and whole buildings. Each module is entirely finished when it’s trucked to location and stacked together.
Right now, Factory OS is building The Phoenix, a supportive housing project for formerly homeless people in Oakland. Factory-built housing has been used in the Bay Area mostly for low-income housing so far. That’s because other kinds of projects run into more resistance — factory-built housing is controversial. Subsidized housing is an inroad, but Factory OS plans to expand into all kinds of buildings.
When it first opened up, Factory OS contracted with the Carpenters Union of Northern California. The union recruited, trained and organized the workers. There are nearly 150 employed today.
“We're elevating folks that don't have opportunities and we're going to help solve the housing crisis in Northern California,” says Jay Bradshaw, Director of Organizing for the union.
Bradshaw sees this new technology as a way to address the housing shortage by making it less costly to build. He says that when developers are able to build more, that means more construction work.
Though the workers here don’t earn as much as traditional tradesmen, they also don’t have to go through five or more years of training. Because they’re from around the Vallejo area, the cost of living also isn’t the same as in San Francisco.
In other words, Bradshaw argues that instead of continuing to fight for higher wages for San Franciscan workers at the expense of making housing more expensive to build, the Carpenters hope to expand the pool of workers and curb the underlying cause of affordability by ramping up the rate of housing construction.
“Even with the great wages and conditions of your outside construction worker, the cost of [Bay Area] housing is beyond reach for most workers. It's insanity,” says Bradshaw. “And what's the problem? We've got a full circle. The problem is there's a lack of housing being built.”
The thing is, the Carpenters are alone in this. All the other local trade unions have been resisting housing factories, if not actively fighting them.
Bradshaw says the difference is in viewpoint. “We have a culture and a philosophy at the Carpenters of NorCal that when technology advances happen, we don't try to fight it,” he says. “We want to be part of it, embrace it, support it — to stay viable in the industry. Not every organization takes that tack.”
Here’s why this is all so controversial: The way the other unions see it, the Carpenters aren’t creating new jobs, they’re taking other people’s.
“The history of the building trades in this country has been one of occasional conflict ever since its beginnings, and those conflicts have generally been over control of one portion or another of the work,” says Mike Theriault, who recently retired from his seat as the Secretary Treasurer of the San Francisco Building and Construction Trades Council. “Eventually they get sorted out, and I assume that will be the case with the Carpenters as well.”
The Carpenters made what’s called a wall-to-wall contract with Factory OS. The workers will be trained to do all aspects of the work, not just carpentry: electrical, plumbing, and everything else. That means the owner doesn’t need to hire those workers from each local trade union.
“That is a substantial loss of hours for them,” says Theriault. “It's a substantial hit to their pension funds, it’s a substantial loss to the workers they represent.”
“It’s cutthroat,” says Cynthia Wheeler, a union plumber and San Francisco native. “The Carpenters are out of pocket for that.”
Wheeler has so much pride and passion for her trade that she inducted all four of her children into the same line of work. Her pride extends to other tradesmen.
“It’s a brotherhood ... carpenters do carpentry, plumbers do plumbing, electricians do electrical,” says Wheeler. “We are skilled labor, we go to school, we learned this trade. Then you’ve got somebody else doing it and it's taking away work from us, so it can be cheaper for y'all. That's crazy to me — because I'm union.”
But factories don’t need highly skilled tradesmen. And factory-built housing companies want to become the dominant mode of production.
“There goes our wage, our living wage,” says Wheeler. “It's just B.S. to me.”
To the workers at Factory OS, it’s a steady job. But, Theriault says their wages and benefits package is much weaker than for non-factory work.
“There are pluses and minuses for those workers,” says Theriault. “Their employment is potentially steadier than it is in the in-field construction where there are ups and downs If they live close to those factories, they are spared the sometimes brutal commutes that folks have to undertake,” he adds.
But Theriault has reservations about its quality.
“I am not entirely sold on the value of modular construction,” he says. “But, I think if it's going to be used, then we want it to be done in San Francisco with San Francisco workers, so that nobody is left out.”
As Theriault sees it, the mandate of the Trades Council is to build and preserve the middle class in San Francisco. Those are the stakes. That’s what he’s been doing since the early 80’s when he began organizing for living wage jobs with the Chinese community.
“I had the pleasure as an organizer of having individuals come up to me with their families at union picnics and say, ‘This is the man who changed our lives,’” he remembers. He doesn’t want factories to erode the labor standards he’s fought for.
So, the Trades Council is now pushing for what could be seen as a compromise: to build a housing factory in San Francisco, and employ workers from within the local unions. Theriault’s hope is to find a way to embrace factory-built, without making tradesmen obsolete.
Plumber Cynthia Wheeler’s son and daughters are a few years into their apprenticeships. Their whole careers are ahead of them. She hopes the jobs waiting for them will be as meaningful as hers was for her.