A diagram from HPD literature about potential uses for a publicly owned site on 111th Street in East Harlem.


A diagram from HPD literature about potential uses for a publicly owned site on 111th Street in East Harlem.

Across the city, there is growing concern in rezoning neighborhoods about a lack of housing guaranteed for families making the lowest incomes. Many advocates are pushing the administration to meet the need for deeply affordable housing through better use of an essential tool: the way the city develops public land.

Public land belongs to the taxpayer. It can only be developed by entities willing to follow the requirements set forth by the government. It can also be given away for free to developers who agree to use those savings to create more deeply affordable housing. Having a land cost of zero or a nominal one dollar can really change the math for a developer seeking to make a return on rent-restricted units.

This important asset, however, is increasingly in limited supply. While the city took thousands of abandoned properties into its inventory during the 1960s and 1970s, it sold many of them away or granted them to housing developers with time-limited affordability agreements. In addition, former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani ended the city’s practice of taking ownership of tax-foreclosed properties, effectively shutting down a pipeline for the recovery of abandoned land.

Just how much vacant land is left and would be suitable for development is a subject of disagreement, but a consensus exists that whatever remains must be handled with care.

“In an environment where skyrocketing construction and land costs make affordable housing development all the more challenging, our public land is a precious resource,” said Elizabeth Rohlfing, a representative of the Department of Housing, Preservation and Development in an e-mail to City Limits. “HPD is committed to using it, and using it wisely, through processes that involve significant community engagement.”

Scenarios for using public land

Mayor de Blasio’s ten-year Housing New York plan also recognizes the importance of public land. “Our municipal tools and public assets should be deployed more effectively,” the report says, adding that the city should “seize opportunities to thoughtfully develop affordable housing at public sites.”

Yet in many of the neighborhoods the city is considering rezoning, discussions about public land have been contentious, with some residents feeling that the city is focusing too much on the development of private land and not enough on public land, and others protesting that the city has not sufficiently heeded the public’s demands in its development proposals for public parcels.

In East New York, HPD originally said it would develop one large public site and several smaller public sites in the area with a school and affordable housing. Only after pressure from stakeholders did HPD announce it would hasten the redevelopment of two other public parcels. While one visioning process held this summer was well attended by the community, some advocates are discouraged that HPD is only requiring developers to ensure that 15 percent of units—up from 10 percent on private sites—are affordable to families making less than $24,500. Several nonprofit housing experts believe it would be financially feasible to require more units for such families on public land.

In East Harlem, HPD held a public visioning workshop to determine what to include in a Request for Proposal (RFP) for the development of a public site on 111th street. Yet members of the group Community Voices Heard are concerned that the RFP that emerged from this process does not specify exact income levels for the potential new units, and they are demanding that 40 percent of the units developed on any parcel of public land in East Harlem be affordable to families making less than $24,500. For its part, HPD says it will judge developers’ applications based in part on the number of very low-income units the project would include.

In several rezoning neighborhoods, including East Harlem, Staten Island’s Bay Street, and Far Rockaway, the New York City Economic Development Corporation, a non-profit corporation with a board partly appointed by the mayor that seeks to encourage economic growth in the city, has been tasked with developing public parcels. EDC has not yet determined plans for these sites, but has outlined potential scenarios that are of grave concern to some residents.

In some cases, their worries concern the use of public land to build market-rate housing or office space. A scenario for an MTA bus depot on 126th street in East Harlem includes an African burial ground memorial and housing with 50 percent market-rate units. A scenario for three public lots near Bay Street includes office space, a technology hub, and a building with 70 percent market-rate units. For another massive public property, part of the Stapleton waterfront that is already under development, one scenario includes housing that is 50 percent market-rate. In Far Rockaway, EDC has outlined a scenario for a vacant sanitation lot that includes only rent-restricted housing, but many residents oppose any kind of housing on the lot and have been organizing to turn the space into a community garden.

EDC stresses that these outlines are not proposals, but even the notion that EDC would consider allowing a developer to develop a public lot with market-rate housing or office-space is alarming to some community advocates. Like their counterparts in East Harlem, members of the Staten Island Dignity Coalition want the city to promise to build 100 percent affordable housing on all local sites.

“When developing plans for publicly owned land, I believe it’s incumbent on, and the responsibility of the city to see that the needs of some of the neediest residents in those areas are met—and it’s not met with office buildings,” says Reverend Janet Jones, a member of the Staten Island Housing Dignity Coalition. Other community groups are fighting to ensure the remaining waterfront space is used for parkland.

Moreover, while it may be too soon to assess the de Blasio administration’s record of managing public land given the number of projects still under development, many community advocates are concerned that the administration will not live up to promises to pursue a more effective and inclusive strategy. Advocates are frustrated with the vagueness of current proposals, and already see a pattern that disturbs them: the administration’s willingness to allow private actors to gain from land disposal actions. They argue that public land should only be used for public benefit, and that the city should prioritize non-profit partners in the development process.

“Investors are getting not only the value of the labor of the architect and the developer…but they also get the value of the community work that has made the neighborhood great,” says Paula Segal, executive director of the public land access advocacy organization 596 acres.

EDC officials argue, however, that their corporation and city agencies always seek the greatest public benefit from every project on public land, whether by creating jobs, affordable housing or another community resource. Enabling private gain is not necessarily a bad thing, they argue; a public development project is more attractive if a developer knows they can profit, which creates a more competitive disposal process and allows the city to achieve a greater return, whether in the form of a higher cash payment for the land, or other benefits such as affordability.

The challenges of activating vacant land

Critics point to a variety of problems with the city’s methods of managing public land: First and foremost, there is a perceived excess of properties languishing unproductively in poor communities.

Just identifying what land is public, and whether it can be developed, is a significant challenge for neighborhood residents. Gardener Allison Jeffrey of Far Rockaway, for instance, knew for years that the underutilized lot near her house belonged to a public agency, the Department of Sanitation, but it took a great deal of research and interaction with 596 Acres before she determined that the lot’s public status meant that it could be used to meet the needs of the community—in particular, its need for healthy food and gardening space.

“Everybody should be thinking about public land as its own category with its own set of possibilities attached and I don’t think it’s largely acknowledged,” says Emily Goldstein of the Association for Neighborhood Housing and Development.

Goldstein and others say that during the planning process for a rezoning, the city should be more transparent with residents about what parcels in their neighborhood are public and what obstacles stand in the way of their use. Without this knowledge, advocates say, it can be difficult for residents to gauge for themselves whether there are alternative means, besides a wide-scale rezoning, to ensure the creation of affordable housing.

At a City Council hearing in September, HPD addressed how many vacant public lots remain, which agencies own them, and how the city already makes this information accessible to the public. According to the agency, there are 7,400 vacant city-owned lots, slightly less than one percent of all the city’s lots. About 1,100 are controlled by the Department of Housing, Preservation, and Development (HPD), of which the agency says that 400 are in the pipeline for development and 270 will likely be developed at a future date. The remaining properties are in flood-zones, lack proper infrastructure, or are otherwise not suitable for development, according to the agency.

HPD says that it is working diligently to develop properties in its inventory, including ones with odd shapes and other challenges. The agency has released 16 RFPs for the development of public parcels in the past two years, an increase over previous years.

In addition, the agency is searching for parcels held by other agencies that would be suitable for affordable housing, but notes that many are in the pipeline for redevelopment and are needed to serve other city functions. Residents can see who owns public parcels in their community using the city’s online mapping tool, NYCityMap.

It’s not that advocates want to use all the vacant public land for housing. Rather, advocates see the importance of using land for a variety of purposes, but mistrust that the city is doing all it can to meet each community’s needs. They point to a history of agencies holding properties without the funding to develop them, and argue that changing the way an agency uses a property requires significant time, energy, and power.

“The process for deciding which public lands can be used for what is highly political,” said Elena Conte of the Pratt Center for Community Development in an e-mail to City Limits. “Wealthier and whiter neighborhoods are notoriously known for getting their public land converted to uses that they desire (or are less objectionable than the original use) and to pushing those undesirable uses into neighborhoods that are already overburdened.”

To improve the public’s access to information about public vacant lots in their community, 27 tenant and community organizations are advocating for the Housing Not Warehousing Act, which includes a bill that would require the city to report on its development plans for each public lot.

Some advocates, including Comptroller Scott Stringer, have suggested that the city follow the lead of other municipalities and consolidate all vacant public parcels into a single non-profit “land bank” governed by an independent board and charged with the disposal of public properties—those already in the city’s inventory, as well as future lots taken through tax-foreclosure.

HPD has doubts about these proposed reforms. HPD Deputy Commissioner Daniel Hernandez said at the September hearing that the agency is concerned that announcing the city’s plans for public land would limit HPD’s deal-making leverage and its flexibility in adapting to changing needs over time.

“We believe this bill could have significant unintended consequences on the work we do,” Hernandez said. “For example, such a list might encourage developers to demand exorbitant prices for properties near our parcels, thereby inhibiting our ability to assemble land for a project.”

Responding to the idea of an independent land bank, HPD’s Rohlfing said that the city is best positioned to handle the future development of public parcels because many of the remaining lots will require serious investments in infrastructure before they are ready for use. The mayor has established a fund to ensure the construction of roads, water, and sewer infrastructure to prepare public parcels for development, she said.

Doubts about public review

Some critics say that when an agency undertakes the development of a site, the public still lacks sufficient power to impact the city’s plans.

In the case of many of EDC’s current projects, the city’s land-use review process, or ULURP, occurs before an RFP has been issued or a developer has been selected, so that City Council is simply voting on the action to dispose the property, not on the development partner.

Yet HPD and EDC say they also solicit public input while crafting the RFPs. HPD’s Rohlfing says that under de Blasio’s Housing New York plan they are making an unprecedented effort to facilitate real community engagement. She explains that when HPD crafts neighborhood plans or shapes RFPs for public sites, HPD and other agencies follow a “Neighborhood Planning Playbook,” created with guidance from human-centered design firms, that outlines a process for community engagement, including workshops to facilitate conversation with residents and tools for quantitative and qualitative analysis. Indeed, HPD’s community visioning approach for public parcels in East Harlem and East New York show its new approach.

EDC says it too seeks thorough engagement with communities, and that on a project by project basis, it must take additional steps of community review before transferring a property to a selected developer.

Yet Segal of 596 Aces take issue with a state law that exempts certain parcels from the ULURP process. If the project involves rehabilitating existing structures, building certain types of senior housing or constructing one-to-four unit housing—even if the zoning and size of the lot would allow for a different kind of project—public review is not required.

In addition, some think EDC doesn’t always end up using the community guidance it receives. One example is the waterfront property adjacent to Bay Street that EDC began developing during the Bloomberg administration. A task force of community residents developed a plan for that site, but EDC says the RFP issued in 2007 did not receive a satisfactory response, and that applicants later withdrew their proposals. EDC then selected Ironstate Development based on the company’s experience with waterfront development and the merits of its proposal for the site. The corporation still argues today that Ironstate honored the task force’s vision for an accessible, open waterfront. Yet not everyone agrees, with one former task-force member calling Ironstate’s development “a giant block that’s kind of turned its back on the community.”

Some advocates contend that rather than taking a piecemeal approach to the development of public land, the administration should engage the entire city in a planning process, giving residents a broader view of the city’s needs and limited resources. Such a process, advocates contend, would make residents less oppositional and suspicious of development in their neighborhoods.

“Every time the city does this project by project, community board by community board, and tries to get these various plans through, there’s opposition,” says Andrew Reicher, executive director of the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board. “I think there should be a discussion informed by the voices and desires in the city and in the community, and what city planners and demographers can bring to the discussion about who lives in the city, and what are their needs.”

Worries about the long term

Last but not least, critics say the city continues to give land away to affordable housing developers without creating provisions to ensure long-term affordability beyond the 30- to 65-year-terms typically required by the city’s housing programs.

“By permanently giving away a resource that is only temporarily going to have a public benefit, in some ways the city is kicking the can down the round to 30 or 65 years from now,” says Adrien Weibgen, an attorney at the Urban Justice Center’s Community Development Project. She adds that the city could ensure long-term affordability by adopting an official preference for nonprofit developers who make it their mission to provide permanent low-income housing.

Others suggest the city require that all public properties be placed on a community land trust, which would require a board including community residents to ensure future uses of the land complied with the trust’s mission.

Yet Mark Willis, senior policy fellow at the NYU Furman Center, says that there are risks to the city making an upfront commitment to permanent affordability beyond the usual time frames.

“It’s not guaranteed that the city is going to continue to be prosperous for the indefinite future, given the difficult times that we suffered in the 60s and 70s,” he says, explaining that guaranteeing permanent affordability could result in a financially risky “unfunded mandate.”

The New York City Housing Authority is already instituting one permanent affordability mechanism under its Next Generation NYCHA program (commonly known as infill development). Instead of selling underutilized NYCHA land to private developers, it is retaining ownership of the land, while providing developers with a 99-year ground lease that requires affordability over the lifetime of the lease.

In their RFP for the public parcel on 111th street in East Harlem, HPD says they will give preference to developers who can commit to a period of affordability beyond 30 years. In addition, Rohfling says the agency is currently examining a variety of tools to enhance permanent affordability, and have launched a working group to study the community land trust model.