For Central Brooklyn’s most vulnerable, an effort to reap the benefits of gentrification

July 5, 2019 Kelly Mena
Construction workers. Eagle file photo
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A Brooklyn nonprofit is steering the benefits of gentrification to those most often displaced, connecting black and Latinx residents with training and job opportunities on local construction sites.

Gibbs Seraphin, a longtime Flatbush resident and director of the Haitian American Caucus Workforce Development Program, teamed up with Lyft earlier this year to provide safety training certification to Flatbush and East Flatbush residents as construction sites continue to boom across Central Brooklyn.

“Two doors down from where you live there’s a job paying $70 an hour, and no one is offering you an opportunity to work. I came up with a program to empower people in my community to take advantage of the local economy,” Seraphin said. 

Occupational Safety and Health Administration is the mandatory safety training requirement for any construction worker in New York City. As of last year, workers were required to complete an OSHA 10- or 30-hour Outreach training program. 

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Seraphin’s program specifically targets black and Latinx individuals coming home from incarceration, exiting the shelter system, aging out of the foster care system, attempting to leave a gang and those with mental health struggles. 

Students during a HAC construction training session. Photo courtesy of The Haitian American Caucus
Students during a HAC construction training session. Photo courtesy of The Haitian American Caucus

“I find it disrespectful to have a dining room table filled with food in the middle of a room but not giving someone a chance to eat it. That’s how I feel about these jobs,” Seraphin said. 

Without initiatives like Seraphin’s, enrolling in an OSHA course can cost as much as $550 — a significant barrier for those already struggling with poverty and housing instability. 

Lyft fills in the financial gap for enrollees, picking up the bill as a form of public good and service for the community. 

“At Lyft, we’re dedicated to being a public company invested in the public good and are focused on bringing positive change to the cities we serve,” said Lyft spokesperson CJ Macklin. “And no other organization embodies the values of investing in our communities in order to bring about that social change like the Haitian American Caucus.” 

Booming construction industry in Brooklyn 

One program participant, Chris Mathieu, 30, a longtime resident of Flatbush, said that he’s noticed the onslaught of development in his neighborhood. 

“There’s a lot of gentrification going on every three blocks. Every 500 feet or so I would say you run into a construction site or renovation project going on. Everything now is about building higher and going up. There has been a shift from a very black populated area to everything getting very gentrified,” Mathieu said. 

Just last week, the Department of Buildings released an interactive map showing the location of 8,000 active construction sites across New York City where workers and supervisors must have site safety training. 

Active construction sites in Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn. Photo via DOB

Brooklyn has a large concentration of such sites along the waterfront, including around Downtown Brooklyn. A significant number is scattered in the Flatbush and Prospect-Lefferts Gardens neighborhoods. 

One particular snapshot shows a clustering of more than a dozen active sites around Flatbush, Rogers and Nostrand avenues, just south of Prospect Park. 

A vast majority of non-unionized workers in the city (also known as open shop workers) are New Yorkers of color, including immigrants and minorities. Gotham Gazette reported earlier this year that approximately 80 percent of private construction work citywide is now done by open shop workers. “That equates to more than $15 billion of work for the non-union workforce,” Gotham Gazette reported. 

Seraphin is hoping to put his own community members in a position to benefit.

“It hurts because Brooklyn isn’t the Brooklyn I knew. But I don’t want people to be phased out. If you’re not ready to change with what’s going on, you will be phased out,” he said. “I said, ‘You know what? Let’s put people to work.’ With all this construction going on, there’s a lot of money coming in, and why shouldn’t the Flatbush people get a piece of it?”

City Councilman Robert Cornegy Jr., chairperson of the Housing and Buildings Committee, said on Tuesday he hopes the new map will help stem construction tragedies

“This type of innovation strengthens training capacity and ensures mistakes happen less often, leaving construction workers and the public safer,” Cornegy said. 

Spike in construction worker deaths 

The launch of the program comes as the construction industry is seeing a spike in worker deaths. 

Just this past April two construction workers fell to their death in New York City — 51-year-old Nelson Salinas fell while replacing a façade in midtown, and a 23-year-old fell from a 13-story building in Brooklyn Heights. According to NBC 4 New York, the still-unidentified 23-year-old victim was just one week into the job when he died. The case is still being investigated. 

That same week, a third worker, Gregory Echevarria, 34, was killed after a crane counterweight fell on him at 570 Broome St. 

Construction has more work-related deaths than any other industry in New York City, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. City data shows that work site deaths are up 33 percent compared to 2015 and that work site injuries are up 221 percent across the same time span. 

Though Seraphin is proud of putting people from his own community to work, he says that safety is the only thing they ask of the individuals who enroll in the program. 

“We only ask that people pay attention — because the OSHA license is about safety. We don’t want any money, we want them to be safe,” Seraphin said. 

The program has already graduated 120 OSHA-certified individuals and is currently in its fourth session. There is now on a waiting list to enroll. 

Seraphin said the only problem now is placing graduates in successful contracts. As part of the program, graduates are placed at vetted construction sites. 

“We can’t find work fast enough for these people,” said Seraphin. “We don’t want to put them in a situation that isn’t going to help them. We don’t want temporary situations.” 

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