‘While New York City is experiencing a severe shortage of affordable housing and increase in homelessness both before and amidst the pandemic, landlords are holding thousands of affordable units off the market.’

rent strike sign

Sadef Ali Kully

A sign protesting rent collections in Brooklyn during the height of the Coronavirus epidemic.

In 2019, Ms. Rosa sat in her apartment where she’s lived for 40 years, worrying about the strange noises she was hearing at night and hoping no one was planning to break in. She had just commuted from the hotel where she was sleeping after illegal construction in her bathroom forced her out of her apartment temporarily. Over 80 years old, she just wanted to be home. Ms. Rosa lives at 149 Irving Ave., owned by Ink Property Group, in Bushwick. One half of the six-unit rent stabilized building has been vacant over two years (one family who had been evicted currently lives in a shelter while their apartment remains empty). The empty apartment next to Ms. Rosa looked almost post-apocalyptic after a leak ran for weeks. When city inspectors finally did gain access to the vacant unit, they wouldn’t enter for fear of their own safety: the black mold coated the walls like paint. Ms. Rosa worried about her health and the health of her neighbors.

While New York City is experiencing a severe shortage of affordable housing and increase in homelessness both before and amidst the pandemic, landlords are holding thousands of affordable units off the market. Many apartments have been warehoused for so long that they have deteriorated to the danger of adjacent neighbors. Tenants are surrounded by apartments left to rot, filled with debris, mold and pests. This is the paradox of warehoused apartments in a city of 92,000 homeless people. 

The consequences are dire. The pandemic has amplified the homelessness crisis already in progress. Some tenants are being driven out of their homes as overcrowded rooms and shelters lend themselves to spreading COVID-19. Those experiencing homelessness are dying at a 61 percent higher rate than the general population while the city is simultaneously experiencing one of the biggest vacancy rates in years. This is unconscionable. We can no longer afford to allow housing to sit unused while COVID-19 threatens our city and state.

Meanwhile, some landlords have intentionally created mostly-empty buildings, leaving remaining tenants surrounded by warehoused units. In one 15-building portfolio in the Lower East Side, over half of the 281 apartments have been sitting vacant for more than four years. Not coincidentally, many of those apartments are rent-regulated. Some were gutted as the new owner planned to convert them into market-rate, luxury, 5 and 6 floor walk-ups. Others remain habitable but empty. In north Brooklyn, a few rent-regulated tenants survive in their otherwise vacant rent-stabilized building.

But why are landlords choosing to leave so many apartments vacant? Doesn’t this go against all sense of good business? After NY State’s Housing and Tenant Protection Act of 2019, landlords found new ways to deregulate apartments and raise rents. If two vacant apartments are combined—commonly now called “Frankensteined”—landlords are able to raise the base rent to whatever they like, essentially deregulating the units. Some hope that remaining tenants in near-empty buildings would clear out, so multiple apartments could be combined or to fully demolish and renovate the building into new, unregulated units. Data pulled from the Department of Buildings shows that 341 applications to combine two apartments were approved since January 1, 2019, meaning that almost 700 rent stabilized units were permanently lost due to this practice. Other landlords are simply waiting for the tenant-friendly legislative body in Albany to shift. According to a Real Deal article published in September, many landlords “don’t blame Covid as much as they do the new law’s limits on how much landlords can be reimbursed for renovations. Some landlords also say they are reluctant to fill vacant apartments because they think state legislators might change the law in their favor.” 

As the COVID-19 crisis drags on with no end in sight, more and more units are being vacated. A Crain’s article this month reports that vacancies in Manhattan reached a record high, with close to 16,000 available to rent. 

There are tangible solutions. The End Warehousing Coalition, which came together to address this crisis, is inspired by cities around the world responding to the problem of warehoused units.  Barcelona is forcing landlords to rent out empty apartments within thirty days or face the possibility of having the dwellings seized by the city. Los Angeles is exploring a tax on vacant apartments, which would push landlords to rent rather than sit on their housing stock. More and more creative solutions are emerging worldwide to ensure housing for all during a pandemic. New York should be a leader in this movement. 

Our coalition is working with the New York City Council and the New York State government to advance legislation which would create a registry of vacant units, mandate inspections of those units, and fine landlords who are holding affordable apartments empty. Money generated from those fines could feed into a voucher program to fund housing for the homeless. Another proposed policy would automatically reduce residential rents to the federally-determined fair market rates and require landlords to accept housing vouchers from low-income and homeless applicants.

We need an affordable solution for New Yorkers. Our tax money should not support warehousing any affordable units, especially in private buildings that receive government subsidies. New York City and state can and must develop immediate policy solutions to this crisis.

The authors are members of the End Warehousing Coalition, which is made up of several organizations including St Nicks Alliance, Los Sures, the Cooper Square Committee, Tenants Taking Control, United Neighbors Organization, Los Sures LUCHA!, Communities Resist, Housing Conservation Coordinators, Stellar Tenants for Affordable Housing, and Citizen Action NY.