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Scaffold law reform should be priority for state legislators

As state lawmakers convene in Albany for the new legislative session, their discussions to address the statewide housing crisis should include a focus on reforming the obscure but deeply problematic Scaffold Law.

New York is the only state in the nation that still has this outdated law on its books – and it plays a significant role in slowing the production of much-needed affordable homes. It is time for that to change.

To those who closely follow such policy issues, it can feel like the conversation on Scaffold Law reform simply comes and goes with each passing legislative session. But with new faces in Albany, including many who have clearly articulated a commitment to generating more affordable housing for low-income families, this year presents an opportunity for productive action.

The Scaffold Law was drafted in 1885 at a time when our state lacked adequate measures to promote construction safety. It imposes a “strict liability” standard for elevation-related injuries on construction sites.

This means that the site’s owner and general contractor bear sole responsibility for any such injury — regardless of the circumstances — even, for example, if a worker was under the influence of alcohol.

It is vital to ensure the safety of construction workers and hold bad actors accountable. However, we must focus on achieving that goal while also continuing to take every sensible step to build and preserve more affordable homes for low-income families who are still struggling.

The problem here is that the Scaffold Law has single-handedly raised the cost of insurance on New York construction sites, even as more housing construction is desperately needed.

Only a handful of insurers are willing to cover projects in our state due to its strict liability provision — and that allows them to demand much higher prices.

The Scaffold Law is one of the reasons why New York City remains the most expensive place in the world for new construction, with an average cost of $362 per square foot, according to Turner & Townsend’s 2018 report on international construction. Those costs will only continue to rise are expected to jump by another 3.5 percent over the next year, as the report noted.

As construction costs increase, it becomes harder to build new homes for low-income families. The problem has been compounded in recent years by the more limited supply of federal funding for these developments. And in a state where roughly half of all renters – millions of families – are rent-burdened and struggling to afford their homes, change is long overdue.

Let’s be clear — reforming the Scaffold Law would not leave workers unprotected.

If the law’s strict liability provision were changed to help bring down insurance costs, and thereby reduce construction costs, negligent owners or contractors could and should still be held responsible for worksite injuries just as they are in other states that do not have a Scaffold Law.

The discussion around this issue has only become more frustrating for many housing advocates who have seen their push to reform the law fail time and again. But fighting for affordable housing is an ongoing effort, and we should not allow past disappointments to distract us from achieving crucial steps going forward.

NYSAFAH looks forward to discussing the issue of Scaffold Law reform with state lawmakers this year as part of our broader efforts to address the housing crisis – and we will keep advocating until this commonsense reform is passed.

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