Homeless advocates are trying to get New York City to take over long-vacant luxury apartments to help house the homeless. Leaders in the real estate market are saying ‘no way’, but this is generating some movement forward.
A coalition of community organizations in NYC, Right to the City Coalition, has found that 264 luxury residential developments are sitting vacant around the city. Rather than wasting useful space, the coalition is advocating that these places be taken over by the city and used for housing the homeless.
“It just seems very logical that if these buildings are vacant and they are warehousing them, while we have families living in shelters, living in SROs, these apartments should be taken over by the city through tax foreclosure, like any other building,” said Cerita Parker, a leader with Mothers on The Move, an activist community organization in the South Bronx. “These are homes and we have homeless people.”
Scale of the Vacant Buildings Problem in NYC
“The tax foreclosure process would be a means to transfer them to a non-profit manager. There are 138 buildings that are over a year delinquent,” said David Dodge, coordinator for the Right to the City-NYC Alliance.
“Relying on member organizations such as Make the Road New York and Mothers on the Move, the group canvassed eight city neighborhoods with what members suspected were high concentrations of high end real estate sitting fallow,” Eileen Markey of City Limits Magazine reports.
They found 41 buildings in the South Bronx that are completely or mostly vacant; 50 in Bushwick; 23 in Greenwich Village and Chelsea. The supply doesn’t meet the demand of people in those neighborhoods, according to Right to the City’s calculations: In the South Bronx the average price per condo on the market is $943,514, but the average household income is $19,111. In Bushwick, the average condo is listed at $336,035, with a neighborhood household income of $35,000. Incomes are higher in the West Village and Chelsea, reaching $92,000, but not high enough to afford the area’s $4.7 million average condo price.
Could the City Really Take These Buildings?
The ‘simple’ proposal is that the city take over buildings that are behind on taxes or use eminent domain to take buildings.
Of course, land politics and economics is more complicated than that.
“The call for the confiscating of private property for ideological reasons is the most startling since the Russian Revolution,” senior vice president at The Real Estate Board of New York Michael Slattery says.
In reality, the power of the real estate industry combined with the complexity of the citywide real estate market and severe fiscal constraints facing city agencies and the housing authority make this a very unlikely task.
But that isn’t stopping this coalition of community advocates from pushing for it and hopefully making some good progress in the meantime.
Trying Less Invasive Means
Last year, in an effort to address these two issues — excess housing and the homeless — the city offered developers with empty buildings tax breaks in exchange for dropping rents to levels where moderate-income families could afford to live in the buildings. The developers decided to try to wait out the economic lull rather than drop rents and take the incentives.
Now, the city is looking to start a mandatory, annual, citywide census of vacant buildings. “We want to use this to force other public conversations,” Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito representing the East Harlem district says.
Her and other council members also support a proposed vacancy registration fee in which owners pay a per unit fee ($1,000 of $1,500 is what Right to the City is proposing) for properties held vacant for more than a year. Boston already has such a fee.
Neither of these ideas look like they push the envelope too far to me, but they would apparently be an important starting point according to those who are concerned about the homeless and are trying to negotiate with a very powerful real estate industry.
Image Credit: tanguero (BLOCK, rinse, repeat) via flickr/CC license