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Thread: Vacant property in Manhattan and beyond

  1. #1
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    Vacant property in Manhattan and beyond

    It sounds ridiculous, but a massive quantity of empty buildings and lots still languishes in the real estate utopia that is Manhattan.

    While the city keeps no statistics on vacant property, homeless people knew that this was still a major problem--and had been organizing to see something done about it. In 2006, the organization I work for, Picture the Homeless, collaborated with the office of Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer to do a block-by-block count of vacant property.

    Our findings show that there are enough potential apartments in vacant buildings and lots in Manhattan alone to house every single homeless person in the five boroughs of NYC. You can download a copy of our report, "Homeless People Count: Vacant Properties in Manhattan," here:
    http://www.picturethehomeless.org/fi...ople_Count.pdf

    And here's a map of our findings:
    http://www.onnyturf.com/lab/vacantproperty/
    (bear in mind that "Vacant Commercial Buildings" indicate commercial properties with vacant space, not necessarily buildings that are completely vacant)

    Empty buildings are a problem in every town and city where housing is considered a commodity, and not a right. Since releasing our report, we've heard from folks throughout and beyond the English-speaking world who are interested in doing (or are already doing!) similar work. We'd love to hear other perspectives on *your* local context, existing solutions, and work that's being done to ensure that housing policy and planning incorporates an anti-displacement agenda.

  2. #2
    Forgive me if this question is already answered in your report, which I have not read yet. I have often noticed far too many vacant or underutilized properties in Manhattan. But I can't think of a completely satisfactory solution. The root cause seems to be laws and regulations that make it unprofitable to be a landlord. Yet it wouldn't exactly help the homeless to repeal those laws. It doesn't seem fair to seize the properties either...

    So... finally getting to my question: what's your group's proposal for turning the abandoned buildings into real homes and businesses?

  3. #3
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    "So... finally getting to my question: what's your group's proposal for turning the abandoned buildings into real homes and businesses?"

    Hi Brandon! Thanks for your interest. In a nutshell, our proposal is that changing laws to stop landlords from keeping buildings empty needs to happen in tandem with laws that prioritize the homeless for a set quantity of those apartments, and create funding streams to pay for rehabilitation, and to that end we're working with members of the City Council to develop a multi-pronged piece of legislation that incorporates these different demands. We're not asking for eminent domain. Send me your email address [to sam (at) picturethehomeless.org] and I will keep you posted as that moves forward! It's very exciting.

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    Cyburbia Administrator Dan's avatar
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    First off, I promote any reasonable effort to get homeless people off the street, and into safe, clean, dignified housing. That being said:

    From the report: 11,170 empty units in vacant buildings

    From the US Census:

    2007 first quarter national rental vacancy rate is 10.1%; homeowner vacancy rate is 2.8%. (http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/housi.../q107tab2.html)

    2006 rental vacancy rate in the NYC region: 5.4%
    9http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/housing/hvs/annual06/ann06t5.html)

    2006 homeowner vacancy rate in the NYC region: 1.8%
    (http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/housi...6/ann06t6.html)

    Considering the extremely low vacancy rates in the NYC region -- and I'll assume it's even lower in Manhattan -- I would think that converting vacant units to vacant buildings into housing for the homeless would make problems with affordable housing in Manhattan even worse. With an even lower vacancy rate, and the same level of demand, rents would theoretically rise to even higher levels.

    A question: salaries for planners employed with the City of New York are at about the national average, despite the astronomical cost of housing in the region. Why should a planner making ... oh, $50,000 a year, be relegated to living in a small apartment on the fringes of the outer boroughs if they want affordable housing, while someone who is homeless can live in a formerly vacant, and I'll assume rehabbed unit in Manhattan? Can't (formerly) homeless people live in the outer boroughs, too?

  5. #5
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    Hey Dan, thanks for reading and for replying!

    Actually, the units we surveyed in vacant properties don't figure in the city's vacancy survey; we interviewed the folks at HPD who put that survey together and it turns out that their methodology reports vacant units in OCCUPIED buildings, whereas we're looking at entirely empty properties, many of which have been vacant for--literally--decades. These units are totally "off the chart" as far as the city is concerned. Our report breaks it down further.

    Housing in Manhattan is not necessarily what homeless people are demanding, and we know that there's lots of vacant property in the other boroughs that no one has counted. But it's a powerful point that in Manhattan, the so-called promised land of NYC real estate, there's such a staggering quantity of empty units... Just think of what we'd find if we could get the administration to do a citywide count!


    (I'm new at this forum, so I apologize if as a poster I shouldn't be responding so much to people's replies!)

  6. #6
    Quote Originally posted by Dan View post
    salaries for planners employed with the City of New York are at about the national average, despite the astronomical cost of housing in the region. Why should a planner making ... oh, $50,000 a year, be relegated to living in a small apartment on the fringes of the outer boroughs if they want affordable housing, while someone who is homeless can live in a formerly vacant, and I'll assume rehabbed unit in Manhattan?
    Median household income in Manhattan is $45,290, so if the planner chose to live there he or she would be living better than most of the neighbors. The planner might choose to live in the Outer Boroughs, however, because they may want a bigger apartment with more amenities. That's really what most middle class workers are talking about when they say that they "can't afford" to live in the City. Of course they could afford to get roommates and live in a small apartment like the rest of the huddled masses. They just choose not to.

  7. #7
    Cyburbian Luca's avatar
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    I'm not really sure how vacant buildings can help the homeless... Presumably people are homeless because they cannot afford a home, not because one is not available at any price. The reasons they cannot afford a home often go deeper than mere poverty and into mental illness, etc.

    Any large housing/office/commercial stock will have a certain percentage empty at any time, just as not every cookie in the country is in someone's home; some have to be on the supermarket shelf.

    Having said all that, I applaud the idea of surveying empty properties that, with the right sort of support and encouragement might come onto the market and lower the cost of housing (for lower-middle class people, I guess).
    Life and death of great pattern languages

  8. #8
    Cyburbian boilerplater's avatar
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    In my casual strolls around Manhattan, it became obvious to me that many buildings were underutilized, e.g. only used for retail on the first floor with upper floors long neglected. I support any efforts to get the homeless into housing with some form of dignity. One thing I am wondering about is if your study considered the possibility of such a scheme attracting more homeless to the city knowing that there is housing there available. Granted, some of those given a "hand up" will be able to improve their lives to such a point where they can move into market-rate housing, but just as with rent-controlled apartments, people are reluctant to ever give them up. How do you keep a steady supply available for something when the demand is practically unlimited? I think I might be inclined to become homeless if I knew I could live in Manhattan!
    Adrift in a sea of beige

  9. #9
    Cyburbian Luca's avatar
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    Housing on demand policy in NYC was a major disaster, right?

    My point is that there may be factors that hold back landlords from developing/utilizing above-shop flats (for instance). If we can remove some of those obstacles, that would create considerable supply which would make Manhattan and many downtown areas more price accessible for key workers, younger people, first-time buyers, etc. You'd also get more density with all the benefits that has.
    Life and death of great pattern languages

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