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Something for Nothing Must Stop at Subsidized Queens Mall
NY Daily News
Andrew Friedman

January 5, 2010
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The Queens Center Mall has received more than $48 million in tax breaks since 2004. “The mall stands to receive an additional $70 million to $80 million in tax breaks during the next 10 years.

What are the thousands of hardworking men and women who drive the success of the mall getting in return for this generous public Subsidy? Low-wage, no-benefit, dead-end jobs. Sounds like bad public policy, doesn't it?

Proponents of free-ride, no strings-attached, public support for private profit will tell you that times are tough and business is fragile. Don't believe the hype.

The mall reports sales of $876 per square foot, and there are 961,559 gross leasable square feet in the mall. The Queens Center Mall has 175 stores paying rent and is owned by the Macerich Corp., which owns 95 malls in the United States.

Notwithstanding great success with massive public subsidy, stores at the Queens Center Mall pay their workers a pittance. As exposed in our coalition's recent report – titled Queens Center Mall: A Poverty Wage Center in Queens – in exchange for long hours on their feet and frequent evening and weekend shifts, retail workers in the mall earn little more than the minimum wage. Some don't even earn that. Most workers report that they receive no paid sick days, no health care and no vacation time. After eight years of work at the mall, one worker, Saa'datu Sani, was still earning less than $8.50 per hour.

It is simply not possible to pay rent, buy health insurance and support children on the salaries being paid most at the Queens Center Mall. So, retail workers are forced to apply for government benefits, such as food stamps and Medicaid.

According to a recent report by the Fiscal Policy lnstitute, retail, workers are forced to rely on some $851 million each year in public support for their own survival. The report also reveals that four out of five retail workers work full time and 78% are over 25 years old. Fifty-six percent of retail workers with children are the primary wage earners in their families.

So the taxpayers pay twice. First, we subsidize the expansion of the Queens Center Mall with more than $100 million in tax abatements. Then, we foot the bill for health care and subsistence benefits for retail workers because the very people who benefited from massive public subsidies refuse to pay living wages or provide benefits to their workforce.

On Dec. 20, a broad coalition of more than 20 churches, community and labor organizations came together with a wide array of Queens elected officials to say, "Enough is enough!" More than 50 retail workers and community members from Make the Road New York; the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, and South Asian Youth Action braved the snow to decry government-subsidized poverty wages in Queens. They were joined by City Council members Daniel Dromm and Julissa Ferreras and state Assemblyman Jose Peralta.

The coalition is seeking three things from the Macerich Corp.: living wage jobs, respect for the workers' right to organize into a union and support for vital community services for the mall's customer base.

It can make good sense for tax dollars to support development. But public subsidies make sense only when the projects they support provide a real public benefit, such as living wage jobs and space for vital community programs. The recently launched Queens Center Mall Campaign is part of a citywide movement, started at the Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx, to make development work for all New Yorkers, not just developers.

Andrew Friedman is co-executive director of Make the Road New York, an advocacy group for low-wage workers.