Housing Plan Targets Vacant Lots; Some Neighbors Leery

Print More
The lot at 22 Suydam Place in Brooklyn was planned as a park/playground in a 1968 master plan. Nothing ever happened.

Photo by: Adi Talwar

The lot at 22 Suydam Place in Brooklyn was planned as a park/playground in a 1968 master plan. Nothing ever happened.

Michael Bloomberg built big, building or preserving 165,000 units of affordable housing over 11 years. His successor, Mayor Bill de Blasio, wants to go even bigger: He has an ambitious plan to add or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing over the next decade.

But de Blasio also wants to go smaller: His plan calls for placing new housing on tiny, city-owned lots that the last administration ignored.

Though little is known about the program and details are only starting to come out, some New Yorkers want to make sure they have a say in what happens to that ugly vacant lot on their block.

In the last few decades, many city residents — seeing inaction from the city on the vacant lots on their blocks — took it upon themselves to use the parcels. They created open spaces and gardens. Many are still seeking access to what Councilman Mark Levine called the city’s “most precious resource.” But de Blasio’s new plan has some concerned over what will become of this public land. They’re eager to hear details of the plan and what it means for the future of their block.

Even though building on these small lots is a small part of de Blasio’s massive affordable housing plan, building small will have a considerable impact on communities that have waited years, even decades, for something to be done to their neighborhood eyesore.

Two new programs

Last November, Mayor Bill de Blasio said he wanted to jack up tax rates on vacant properties in order to incentivize the private sector to build housing—specifically, affordable housing. His idea got considerable play in the press and was later included in his lengthy “Housing New York: A Five-Borough, Ten-Year Plan.”

To change tax policy, the mayor has to get approval from Albany. But he has broader power over deciding what to do with land the city already owns.

That is probably why six months after announcing the tax proposal (also after battling in Albany over a tax hike to pay for universal pre-K), his 116-page housing report spends much more time on the potential for affordable housing on city-owned vacant land than on what to about empty private holdings. To build on city-owned vacant land, he created two new programs, the Neighborhood Construction Program (NCP) and the New Infill Homeownership Opportunities Program (NIHOP).

NIHOP and NCP are slated to launch late this year or early next year, according to an HPD spokesman. But some work has already begun.

Currently, HPD, DCP and EDC are conducting a survey of all city properties that “may be appropriate for development as affordable housing,” according to an HPD spokesman.

HPD Commissioner Vicki Been says there are approximately 1,100 lots of vacant land owned by the city that are on HPD’s list for exploration. At a City Council hearing in February, she said most of those lots are in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Manhattan.

“These programs will aggregate sites to develop affordable housing, including one- to four-family homeownership opportunities and up to 20-unit rental buildings,” reads de Blasio’s housing report.

Obstacles to development

Though some on the left have criticized de Blasio for showing little change in development policy from his predecessor, this is a distinct shift. The last administration ignored these lots.

Many experts, developers and journalists have said that’s because building on these tiny lots is not financially feasible.

“With an average vacant lot size of less than 1,500 square feet, perhaps one of the single most significant reasons that hinder the development of vacant lots is that their size is very often too small for financially feasible development,” reads Center for Urban Real Estate’s “NYC 2040: Housing the Next One Million New Yorkers” from last year.

Though details are sparse and HPD was hesitant to answer any questions about the new programs, it is clear the initiatives will focus on not-for-profits and community development corporations. Been said at a May Council hearing that the programs are designed to get fresh blood into the city’s developer pool. The programs could also help boost participation of minority and women-owned businesses — while running for mayor, de Blasio gave the Bloomberg administration an “F” for its MWBE program.

“The point of these programs is really … to make lemonade out of lemons, to take those properties, to cluster them together in ways to achieve economies of scale,” she said. “And to use those properties, because they are smaller, as a way to expand our pipeline of developers [and give]smaller developers who are just getting started in New York City a chance to cut their teeth and develop better skills so they can become competitive for larger development.”

Logic dictates that larger, more established firms would be more successful at developing these small lots because of their experience and ability to take on risk, especially if the site has environmental problems. But there’s not a lot of money in the sites, so they’ve stayed away.

Andrew Reicher, executive director of the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, says de Blasio might be onto something by targeting small developers.

“The Bloomberg administration looked to do large development with large developers, but there may be a whole level of smaller contractors and smaller non profits … who are willing and able to build smaller homes on smaller sites, and do that economically,” Reicher says. “If you make it easy enough for small developers to do it, they will show up.”

What price, land?

The big question is what the city can offer these small developers to make it financially feasible. In exchange for building affordable housing, the city may give the lots away for almost nothing.

When de Blasio announced his housing plan in May, he said he was going to “drive a hard bargain” with developers. That “hard bargain” seems to be for promises of affordable housing units, not price of land.

Since de Blasio became mayor, HPD has issued two RFPs: one to develop a group of vacant lots on Livonia Avenue in Brownsville and East New York in Brooklyn and the other for a municipal parking lot in Flushing, Queens.

In both locations, the city is offering developers land for $1 per lot in exchange for developing a mixed-use site that “must include affordable housing,” according to the RFPs.

“I’m sure he’d be happy to give these lots away for free if that means more affordable housing units,” says Adam Forman, a research associate at the Center for an Urban Future.

Some disagree with this approach and hope the new administration will develop public land using not-for-profits and community organizations rather than developers trying to make the most money they can.

“That’s not an appropriate way of selling off land assets,” says Moses Gates, director of Planning & Community Development for the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, which represents non-profit developers of subsidized housing. “Maybe that was appropriate in the 1970s and developing was hard and land was a lot less valuable.”

For now, everyone’s waiting to see details on NIHOP and NCP because not everything written in the plan seems to make sense. “Under the program, sponsors will purchase City-owned land and construct one- to four-family homes, cooperatives or condominiums,” reads the plan. “Generally, one third of the units in each project will be required to be affordable to LMI households.”

It’s unclear how to split a one- or two-family home in thirds; perhaps the RFPs will be issued for clusters of lots and then divided into thirds then.

Whatever the details, the programs are expected to be small. Gates estimates that NIHOP and NCP would only create a few thousand units of affordable housing, but that it will be a difference-maker in diversifying where affordable housing is built.

“NCP and NIHOP allows people to walk by their block in gentrifying Bed-Stuy or Harlem or the Lower East Side or other places throughout the city and see an ‘affordable housing coming to your neighborhood’ sign. And it kind of diversifies the affordable housing stock geographically.”

Why are they vacant?

A single vacant lot can be a pockmark on a neighborhood. The sites can become dumping ground for garbage, rodents and drugs.

“I got tired of seeing raccoons and drug dealers hanging out there,” says Dierell Wilson on why he’s trying to revive a community garden on Blake Avenue in East New York.

As suggested by de Blasio’s proposal to raise taxes on vacant lots, it’s believed developers sit on them in the belief that prices will continue climbing.

The reason city-owned property is vacant is often more complicated.

While most (about 78 percent) of New York City’s vacant properties are privately owned, the city owns more than 5,000 lots, according the Department of City Planning’s Primary Land Use Tax Lot Output (PLUTO) data. Many of those lots are tiny slivers of land unsuitable for any development, but at least 1,100 are being looked at by HPD for affordable housing.

Some of the city’s land was acquired through foreclosure (at least until the mid-90s) and some through urban renewal plans. In those cases, areas deemed “blighted” were targeted by bulldozers rolling through to make way for redevelopment. The only problem is that in some neighborhoods, the redevelopment never came and decades later, the lots are still vacant.

The fact that some of those lots are still vacant is proof of the shortsightedness and failure of urban renewal planning.

To shed light on that, Brooklyn non-profit 596 Acres, in collaboration with Smart Sign and Partner and Partners, launched Urban Reviewer in June.

Urban Reviewer “details over 150 plans for top-down neighborhood redevelopment, which have affected more than 15,000 lots throughout the five boroughs since 1949,” according to a press release.

596 Acres has used this information to get residents involved in organizing around vacant lots on their blocks. In August, a team from 596 Acres went “lot labeling” in Weeksville in Brooklyn, hanging signs that read “This Land Is Your Land” on city-owned vacant lots.

On a sign hung on a vacant lot filled with empty trees and bushes on Suydam Place, 596 Acres wrote “This lot was planned as open space. Let’s make it happen!” That refers to a 1968 master plan for Central Brooklyn that listed “park and playground” as the lot’s planned use. That plan expired, but a new plan, Fulton Park, adopted in 1988 and updated in 2003 is active and has the planed use listed as residential.

After Paula Segal, Executive Director of 596 Acres, told nearby residents about the lot’s history, a small crowd gathered around her asking questions.

A man who asked to be referred to as Terry B. said he didn’t think it would take much to make it a nice sitting area for his block.

“You know this was supposed to be a park?” Terry B said to a friend driving by.

“Get outta here!” she said. “They need to put something there, besides a house.”

Since the land is under HPD’s jurisdiction, gaining access to the lot would require HPD to either allow residents to start an interim garden or transfer the land to the Parks Department for a more permanent open space.

Either option might be a little more complicated than it was in year’s past because of de Blasio’s new programs.

“Agencies might hesitate to approve temporary gardening because they don’t know what the Mayor’s Office is planning to do,” says Segal. “And they don’t want to be on the wrong side.”

Gardens vs. Housing?

“Bloomberg’s idea of development was large rich developers that build big. Because of that, you get left with the small lots and now you have to deal with them,” says Reicher.

Some New Yorkers have been dealing with them on their own by working with agencies to create community gardens. The majority of the gardens on public land are under Parks jurisdiction (552 of 636 community gardens in the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan, according to 596 Acres).

But HPD also allows residents to create interim gardens on its properties. According to an HPD spokesman, there are 49 interim gardens on HPD property (though 596 Acres has that number at 66). The spokesman wrote that all of those lots are planned for development, but refused to clarify what that meant for the future of the gardens. Gardeners who are using these lots for interim gardens know that HPD has the authority to kick them off and start building.

“They know they have interim use … people know what they are getting into,” says Segal.

But the state offers protections for gardens established on Parks property, which was the basis of a fight in 1999 when Mayor Rudy Giuliani attempted to sell land being used by more than 100 community gardens. He argued the city needed housing, but then Attorney General Eliot Spitzer sued the city to stop the sale.

A deal was worked out later with Spitzer and Mayor Michael Bloomberg and most gardens were saved, but some were sold and privately developed into low-income housing. Based on the city Department of Parks and Recreation’s own rules, established in 2010, “Active gardens under the Parks Department’s jurisdiction are preserved as gardens as long as they are registered and licensed by the Department,” according to Parks.

For gardens in their infancy or lots just beginning to be organized, de Blasio’s two new programs have raised concerns over the need for open space versus the need for housing.

But green activists are hoping a compromise can be worked out.

“If they are going to look at smaller spaces for building affordable housing, hopefully they will work with community gardens, so that communities have access to housing and open space,” says Steve Frillman, executive director of Green Guerillas.

“At some point, some of the lots that are gardens might make better housing and some of the lots that are empty might make better gardens,” says Reicher.