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EDC extends hand to unlicensed Flushing contractors

Elected officials, including state Assemblywoman Grace Meng (second from l.) and Queens Economic Development Corp.'s Seth Bornstein (second from r.), announce plans for a course offered in Mandarin to help home contractors become licensed. Photo courtesy QEDC
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Unlicensed construction contractors can pose safety risks for consumers and workers alike, but the Queens Economic Development Corp. is hoping a new pilot program conducted in Mandarin Chinese will help legitimize immigrant companies in Flushing and eventually across the borough.

The program will prepare business owners for a test to get a license, which is required by the city Department of Consumer Affairs for any construction project worth more than $200.

Currently, many contractors in Flushing and other neighborhoods operate without one, according to state Assemblywoman Grace Meng (D-Flushing)

“I know that it is a concern in Flushing, and all throughout Queens, that people have expressed regarding unsafe overdevelopment,” she said. “But it has to be safe and legal.”

Some of the contractors in immigrant communities, while unlicensed, nevertheless get business with customers who share the same language and culture, according to Meng.

But they also operate outside the regulatory purview of the city, which has laws and building codes in place to protect home and property owners.

Many of the contractors may be perfectly skilled, but Meng pointed out they might not even be aware they need a license.

Others might have wanted to become licensed, but because of language and cultural barriers did not begin the process.

The program would give businesses in Queens an opportunity to offer legitimate services to the community.

The program will tap experts to speak about the laws and codes of the city and about insurance policies for their workers. It will also include some English language instruction, although it will predominately be taught in Mandarin.

The department said it received just 40 complaints from Queens residents last year about unlicensed contractors, but always encouraged borough residents to use licensed contractors.

But in addition to providing safety for consumers, the course will help businesses as well, according to Seth Bornstein, president of the corporation.

“For the businesses that work in the cash economy and really off the grid, it helps them to grow and apply for government contracts,” he said.

Government on the city, state and federal levels will only hire licensed contractors, and many homeowners feel the same way once bigger projects are on the table.

“You may hire somebody without a license to do carpentry work on the house, but you’ll think twice if you want to do an extension,” Bornstein said.

In addition, the businesses can attract skilled workers who normally only work for licensed companies that provide insurance.

And if businesses that previously operated under the radar come in from the cold and expand, it is better for the entire borough’s economy, he said.

The program, which was set to host its first information session this week, was the brainchild of the Queens EDC, which won a $25,000 grant from the city EDC.

If the program is successful and Bornstein gets a robust response, then he hopes to receive a further $100,000 and expand into several other languages.

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at januta@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

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