More than 2,000 properties in Manhattan are partially or completely vacant, according to a study released Saturday by Manhattan Borough President Scott M. Stringer.
The report is the product of an exhaustive count undertaken last summer at the prodding of Picture The Homeless, a grassroots homeless advocacy organization. The group’s members were among hundreds of volunteers who scoured city streets, looking for boarded-up buildings and forgotten lots, deciphering posted work permits and interviewing neighbors. (see Don’t Just Sit There: Shelter Somebody, City Limits Weekly #544, July 17, 2006.)
“There are 16,000 homeless households in the shelter system,” said Marco Brumfield, an organizer with Picture the Homeless who volunteered for the count. “The property we’ve identified can house those people.”
Of the properties identified in the report, 1,723 contain buildings, while 505 are empty lots. More than 70 percent are located above 96th Street, suggesting that Upper Manhattan is ripe for new development. Taken together, the report states, the borough’s vacant or underutilized land could accommodate roughly 24,000 units.
The count was the first of its kind in New York, reflecting a housing market in which every bit of space is valuable. It’s a far cry from the New York of the 1960s and ’70s, when the city was forced to take over hundreds of buildings abandoned by negligent owners.
“What surprised me was the lack of data that the city collects,” said Borough President Stringer. “Without this data, we really are at a disadvantage for figuring out a housing strategy.”
Leaving property vacant also costs the city tax revenue, according to the report. It estimates that New York is losing $104.8 million annually in property taxes due to a tax exemption on vacant lots above 110th Street. Among other suggestions, the report recommends changing the tax structure to make developing such property seem more profitable than holding onto it for speculative gain.
Stringer’s office has yet to reach out to owners, but one landlord group questioned the basis for the count. “People don’t normally let buildings sit vacant and pay taxes on them without getting some kind of return on the investment if they could,” said Frank Ricci, director of government affairs for the Rent Stabilization Association. A building that looks empty might be tied up in litigation, he explained, or its owner could be trying to arrange financing.
Stringer acknowledged those concerns. “We’re not trying to micromanage someone’s property,” he said. If anything, he suggested, the process could benefit owners by alerting them to government subsidies available for development. Stringer hopes New York will one day join Boston, St. Louis and Burlington, Vermont, all of which routinely track vacant property. “We’ve got to get with it,” he said.