In the absence of specific data, the housing organization Open New York has launched a project asking everyday residents to crowdsource the locations of vacant apartments—rent-stabilized and unregulated units alike—to paint a more complete picture.

Adi Talwar

A room near the entrance to a vacant fifth-floor apartment in Harlem.

The notion that property owners are holding rent-stabilized apartments off the market amid New York City’s housing shortage has fueled outrage among tenant groups and elected officials in recent weeks.

Bulk vacancy data from the city and state’s housing agencies has also fed political arguments—from landlords using the numbers to assail landmark tenant protections, to tenant groups calling on lawmakers to penalize owners who deliberately withhold apartments, a practice known as “warehousing.”

The problem is, no one actually knows how many apartments are actually being deliberately “warehoused” or why landlords have opted not to rent them out. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of other units are used only temporarily or marketed as short-term vacation rentals, further straining the city’s housing stock.

READ MORE: Empty Rent-Stabilized Units in NYC Decreased This Year, as ‘Warehousing’ Debate Rages

In the absence of specific data, the housing organization Open New York has launched a project asking everyday residents to crowdsource the locations of vacant apartments—rent-stabilized and unregulated units alike—to paint a more complete picture. A similar initiative is underway from the Coalition to End Apartment Warehousing, which has honed in on regulated units.

“In order to deal with the housing crisis, we just need better data and we need to be fighting less about which numbers are vacant and which are occupied and more going forward on the policy proposals we need to do to address the crisis,” said Open New York Policy Director Andrew Fine during an interview on WBAI’s City Watch Sunday. “We keep on fighting about the numbers instead of [figuring out] the policies.”

Open New York launched its vacancy database project in conjunction with a five-point plan to address the city and state’s housing shortage. The group’s first proposal calls for “a comprehensive, statewide rental registry to better inform policymakers and the public about how our housing is occupied.”

Many of New York City’s long-term vacancies are actually owned by the city or nonprofit organizations, said Fine, who recently served as director of fair housing policy & investments and as a senior advisor at the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). A staffing shortage has complicated programs to renovate and rent out units in those buildings, he said.

“This is not going to fix the housing crisis, but it’s one of the things that is in our control if there is more attention to it and more resources put into it,” he said. “The city needs more staff in order to get capital dollars to these buildings and get them filled, because right now they’re sitting vacant because of bureaucratic problems.”

The vacancy database comes as tenants, landlords, local lawmakers and residents skeptical of new development wield conflicting datasets to further their visions. Last month, the news site The City reported on a memo from New York State Homes and Community Renewal (HCR) showing there were about 61,000 empty rent-stabilized units as of April 1, 2021. The city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) countered that the number may have been closer to 90,000 last year.

More current HCR data shared with City Limits showed that the number of vacant rent-stabilized apartments had decreased to around 38,600 as of April 1 of this year, roughly the same figure as the years prior to the pandemic. That number also mirrors the rent-stabilized vacancy count in the years before the 2019 tenant protection laws, which eliminated increases on empty units and which landlords blamed for the spike in vacancies last year. HCR said the increase in vacancies was the result of the COVID pandemic and related exodus among wealthier New Yorkers.

Still, even the latest data lacks nuance when it comes to geography and apartment pricing.

Of particular concern for Open New York—a group which was organized to advocate for new housing development—is the argument that the city does not need new housing, it just needs to fill the empty existing units.

“You can interpret the numbers through many different lenses,” Fine said. “Some people saw the 90,000 number and said ‘Well, there’s fewer than 90,000 households in shelter at any given time, why do we need new housing when we have all of these vacant apartments.’ Some people say we don’t have a housing crisis.”

But opening up vacant apartments is only a piece of the housing shortage puzzle, he said. And anyway, a vacancy rate of zero means people cannot move into new units at all.

The National Low-Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) estimates that New York needs 615,025 new rental homes that are affordable and available for extremely low-income renters—households earning 30 percent or less of the Area Median Income set by the federal government. That’s about $28,000 for an individual and $36,000 for a family of three in New York City.

The Open New York plan also calls for reforming the state’s property tax system to reduce the burden on multi-family rental properties, adding more units to the city’s Housing Connect portal, and streamlining lease-ups and hiring more staff at HPD to expedite affordable housing development and move people in.

During the interview, Fine also addressed a criticism that Open New York serves as a Trojan Horse for real estate developers who are pushing for luxury housing projects under the guise of affordability and equity. “We want rents to be lower and we want renter-power to be higher,” he said.

“We receive no money from anyone involved in the real estate industry but more importantly our goals are antithetical to someone who wanted to make a lot of money from the real estate industry,” he added. “Our whole purpose is to lower rents for people.”

Listen to the full interview here: