For more than a decade now, led in part by the homeless and formerly homeless, housing advocates in New York City have asked for the city to establish a definitive, ongoing count of vacant lots and vacant housing units in the city. Their hope has been that counting up all that space would help create public and private pressure to use it to address the city’s growing homelessness crisis, with an estimated 62,351 people in the city’s shelter system each night, and another 3,900 or so sleeping on the streets.
Mayor Bill De Blasio promised to count vacant sites as a key component of his own housing plan. With his re-election now in the rearview mirror, and another NYC winter on the way, those advocates and their allies are still waiting, and have started ramping up their calls for that count.
Public Advocate Letitia James and council members Jumaane Williams and Ydanis Rodriguez recently joined those advocates for a walking tour of two vacant properties in downtown Manhattan, a stone’s throw from City Hall and Wall Street. On the tour, they called to pass a set of bills collectively known as the Housing Not Warehousing Act, by the end of this year. The bills would create mechanisms to track vacant housing units and lots across all public and privately owned property, and enforcement measures against private property owners for not properly reporting vacant units or lots to the city.
“As New York City experiences a crisis in affordable housing and homelessness, we must use every tool at our disposal to address this issue,” James, the first black woman elected to citywide office in NYC, said at one of the sites. “The city’s myriad vacant buildings and lots could provide the solution we desperately need, but we must first have a system for tracking these public and private properties.”
According to James’ office, vacant properties are very common in New York City, but there is no official tracking mechanism of these buildings and lots. A survey in 2012 found that vacant lots and buildings in just 20 of the city’s 59 community districts could house nearly 200,000 people. That survey was conducted by Hunter College and Picture the Homeless, an advocacy organization led by the homeless and formerly homeless.
Critics of the bills, including the real estate industry, note that it’s hard to pin down a good, single definition of “vacant.” The city, for example, partners with the Census Bureau to conduct a housing vacancy survey every three years, the last one being in 2014 (the 2017 survey is currently underway). For that survey, the Census Bureau randomly selects 19,000 addresses from a database including respondents from the last census and addresses for any new units constructed in the interim. While the vacancy rate determined by that survey is key to certain laws and policies including rent regulations, if an existing unit has been vacant since before the last census, it doesn’t get included in that count. Many of the vacant units Picture the Homeless and Hunter College counted in their 2012 study had been vacant since before 2010 — and yet, if all such units were counted as vacant in the city’s official housing vacancy survey, the city could lose all rent stabilization period. According to current rent stabilization laws, which are set at the state level, the city’s rent stabilization authority only applies if the city’s vacancy rate is below 5 percent.
Interestingly, the city is ramping up blight mitigation affecting single-family homes, some of which contain multiple rental units. The NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) recently launched a new “Zombie Homes Unit” to help the New York City Law Department hold non-compliant mortgage holders — generally banks, investors, or mortgage servicing companies — accountable for not maintaining vacant single-family home properties that are on the brink of foreclosure. As part of the Zombie Homes Unit’s work, the city invites anyone to report possible blighted or “zombie” homes by phone or via the unit’s webpage.
Many vacant or blighted single-family homes were purchased via sales of delinquent mortgages by HUD, Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. In the aftermath of the subprime mortgage crisis, when those agencies suddenly had a massive glut of potential foreclosures to process, they began auctioning them off to the highest bidder, 99 percent of the time it was a hedge fund backed investor firm. While about half of those potential foreclosures were prevented as a result of auctioning them off to investors, the other consequence has been a huge new landlord in the single-family housing market: hedge fund backed investor companies with erratic experience in property management (HUD could have chosen to sell more of those loans to nonprofit or mission-driven investors, but it chose not to do so).
With its new Zombie Homes Unit, the city promises to conduct 500 exterior surveys of potential and confirmed zombie homes in Central Brooklyn, Southeast Queens, Staten Island and the South Bronx; aggregate information about zombie homes through a new database; design new approaches to return zombie homes to productive use; and conduct outreach to homeowners at risk of foreclosure to inform them about foreclosure prevention resources. Some of that, thought not all of it, could be expanded to cover the multi-family market as well.
Oscar is Next City's senior economic justice correspondent. He previously served as Next City’s editor from 2018-2019, and was a Next City Equitable Cities Fellow from 2015-2016. Since 2011, Oscar has covered community development finance, community banking, impact investing, economic development, housing and more for media outlets such as Shelterforce, B Magazine, Impact Alpha and Fast Company.