Raise Taxes, Slap A Fee, Anything To Urge Housing

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There’s not much to see on the lot on 232-242 East 122nd Street, but that’s exactly what Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer wanted to show the press last Wednesday. Having released a borough-wide survey last spring that found thousands of vacant properties that could provide housing for the many New Yorkers pressed by the city’s affordable housing crunch, Stringer and a chorus of other elected officials used the quarter-block or so of fenced-in grass as a backdrop to push legislation that aims to nudge vacant property into the city’s development stream.

In a policy traced to the 1970s when the city wanted to reduce a surplus of residential space, vacant lots next to certain properties north of 110th Street and in the outer boroughs are taxed at a lower rate than in the rest of Manhattan. Stringer suspects the tax structure is why his survey found a glut of vacant property north of 110th Street. In Albany, State Sen. Jose Serrano and Assemblyman Herman D. “Denny” Farrell Jr., whose districts include Upper Manhattan, have introduced legislation to equalize the tax treatment of vacant land. “It will spur developers to do something with their land, to get off their butts,” Serrano said. And it could raise $100 million to subsidize affordable housing.

Meanwhile, City Councilman David Yassky is developing city legislation that would require an annual citywide survey of vacant properties, charge a fee of up to $5,000 to owners who keep their property vacant and mandate that such owners file notarized reports describing their development plans, so that neighbors can keep tabs on what’s coming to their block. “We need not just development but responsible development that works for the neighborhood,” Yassky said.

Indeed, while Stringer and company highlighted the affordable housing crisis, there’s no guarantee that vacant lots, once developed, will offer a place for people with low to moderate incomes. Stringer, who said his office will issue a study next month exploring what incentives the city can provide to encourage developers to build the right thing, acknowledged that, “Luxury housing doesn’t do it for our needs.”

But he and others at the microphone stressed that they weren’t on a crusade against landowners. “It’s certainly not punitive,” Stringer said of the state and city bills. “It’s about creating information, creating transparency.”

But some people want to give developers an even firmer push.

Picture the Homeless, a group that helped Stringer conduct the 2007 survey of vacant properties, is backing a separate proposal by Councilmember Tony Avella that, among other things, would treat vacant housing as a nuisance and expose owners to fines if they intentionally keep their land or buildings vacant. It was unclear how Avella’s fines would compare to the fee Yassky is proposing, but it’s clear that Avella’s proposal takes a harder line.

“We really want to make it illegal for landlords to keep buildings empty,” says Sam Miller, an organizer with Picture the Homeless. “We want to see a very substantial penalty that landlords would be hit with.” As for the belief that private property owners have power over their parcels, Miller says: “When there’s a health emergency [like homelessness], private property rights are not absolute. Landowners don’t have the power to act in a manner that’s detrimental to the public’s health.”

Miller says that the Avella bill can coexist with both Yassky and Serrano’s measures; Picture the Homeless supports the goals those bills encompass. For its part, the Real Estate Board of New York declined to comment on the proposals Stringer is backing because they’ve yet to see formal legislative language. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development declined to comment, but the Bloomberg administration is normally cool to mandates on private landowners.

Meanwhile, the owner of the vacant lot that served as a backdrop tells City Limits, “We’ve had these lots for years and we do plan on building a building there. We’re not a big corporation. It takes time.” As just one of hundreds of owners of similarly dormant properties, the owner didn’t want to be named. A general contractor, he says that the city erects barriers to small businesses that want to develop—obstacles that don’t confront the likes of Donald Trump, such as parking fines. “We do plan on putting up a building. There’s no doubt about it. A residence with community center. We’d like to do something ‘green.'” He’s been on the block for 25 years, and the neighborhood has come up a lot. But change continues. What it is now, the owner says, “It’s not what it’s gonna be.”

– Jarrett Murphy

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