For most New Yorkers, the thought of abandoned property conjures images of the South Bronx in the 1970s, when owners deserted or even burned their buildings rather than pay taxes on them. Yet local anti-homelessness activists say that despite the current housing crunch, empty buildings still abound—and they’ve convinced Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer to take action.
This Saturday, Stringer’s office will sponsor the first large-scale count of abandoned properties in Manhattan. Volunteers will scour assigned sections of the borough, including Harlem, Washington Heights, Greenwich Village and Chinatown, looking for what the office defined as “any residential, commercial, or mixed-use building that is not occupied and has visible signs of distress.” They will also be asked to identify vacant lots and empty buildings in seemingly good condition.
The count comes at a time when the city has sold off all but 2,000 of the 100,000 units of derelict property it once controlled. Stringer hopes his count will help locate new sites for affordable housing. “It’s about being able to go to the owner and say, ‘Hey, this is your situation and these are the programs and incentives that are available to you,’” he said. If the land is publicly owned, his office will contact the appropriate government agency. Stringer expressed hope that similar tallies may be undertaken in other neighborhoods and boroughs.
The count was spearheaded by Picture the Homeless, a Harlem-based activist group. Its members say that dozens of properties in their neighborhood, including nearly an entire block at 125th Street and Lenox Avenue, have been empty for years. A source familiar with the Lenox Avenue site said the buildings were only recently fully vacated and will soon be demolished and redeveloped.
Activists aren’t swayed by such assurances. “We’re in a housing crisis and you have landlords warehousing … buildings,” said Roosevelt Orphee, 46, a member of Picture the Homeless. He’s a former Verizon switchboard operator who now lives at a homeless shelter for single men. “People are [sleeping] outside while buildings are being kept offline.”
Other cities, including Boston and St. Louis, have undertaken similar counts with a goal of reducing blight and encouraging the development of affordable housing. Boston does an annual street-by-street count of abandoned properties that covers most of the city. When housing agency staffers find buildings that qualify, they post the addresses online to urge neglectful owners to either use the buildings or sell them. Since 2000, the number of abandoned buildings in the city has dropped by 43 percent.
Tim Davis, senior research analyst for Boston’s Department of Neighborhood Development, attributes that decrease partly to the count, partly to his agency’s housing programs and partly to market forces, which made have made the buildings more desirable over time. Still, he said, his work is far from done. “The market is hesitating,” he said. “We’re careful to see what happens to make sure that it doesn’t deteriorate.”
St. Louis, home to 5,699 vacant buildings at last count, plans to clear the path to smarter land use by demolishing any abandoned structures considered a threat to the safety of nearby residents or an obstacle to redevelopment. More than 2,700 such buildings have been demolished over the last five years.
Here in New York, Stringer said each property would be examined on a case-by-case basis to determine if its owner had defaulted on taxes, for instance, or failed to correct building code violations. If not, there isn’t much the city can do. But even in buildings with problems, Stringer seems reluctant to call for heavy-handed tactics like the use of eminent domain. “The real goal here is education,” he said. “We want to reach out in a positive way.”