“These same vacant lots have 314,048 square feet of residentially zoned land on which new affordable housing units may be built, as well as 114,2071 square feet with the potential for manufacturing space that could bring good jobs to the local community.”
Prosperity has come to New York since the old days of the fiscal crisis, when burning apartment buildings and urban renewal created thousands of vacant public lots across the city. But the private market driven solutions that our city has relied on for decades has brought uneven rewards—and the longtime residents and workers who have seen us through dark times have been excluded from a bounty.
At the heart of this inequity is power—economic power, political power, and power over the land. In a landscape that favors individual buying power over the needs and quality of life of working class people, our government has valued maximal private investment above all. This has meant real estate developers carving out our neighborhoods, as their profits determine what gets built, where and for whom.
These uneven and inadequate market solutions have a physical manifestation: the thousands of vacant city-owned lots that remain scattered throughout our five boroughs.
As the city withdraws public resources for health, education and housing from our Black and brown neighborhoods, we see increased police power. Time and again, the NYPD is used to sweep away the social ills bred by government neglect. Many of our city’s limited and precious resources, including vacant publicly owned lots, have been put in the hands of the police, where they languish under administrative bureaucracy and neglect.
In May 2022, the East New York Community Land Trust (CLT), an organization looking to take democratic control of land in East New York and Brownsville, Brooklyn, published Black Paper #1, which takes a critical look at police use of public land.
Through that research, we identified four neighborhoods, in Brooklyn and the Bronx, with the highest concentration of these NYPD controlled public lots: East New York, Ocean-Hill Brownsville, Bushwick and Hunts-Point/Mott Haven Port-Morris. We recently released the digital edition of our Black Paper #1, which includes an interactive map of all of the NYPD-used lots across the city.
It’s no coincidence that these four neighborhoods, excluding gentrifying Bushwick, are home to a large number, over 90 percent, of Black and brown people. They are more likely to be longtime residents of the city than the average for the respective borough. Additionally, residents in these areas that feature high numbers of NYPD-controlled lots are more likely to be rent burdened.
These same vacant lots have 314,048 square feet of residentially zoned land on which new affordable housing units may be built, as well as 114,2071 square feet with the potential for manufacturing space that could bring good jobs to the local community.
We deserve much more than policing to address the market abandonment that has led to a pressing affordability crisis. The city must invest public dollars in real solutions to overcome these issues instead of wasting it on the NYPD. The police as a whole overspent their budget by $100 million in the current fiscal year. East New York’s 75th Precinct spent about $7.8 million in overtime in fiscal 2020, accounting for the highest payout among all 77 police districts.
The city must do better for our families and spend our limited dollars on community-led solutions to address the pressing loss of Black families from the city who are trying to escape rising housing costs. Our communities need tools that can help us build safety, stability and long term power—this means gaining control over public land.
This has been done before. In 1982 East Brooklyn Congregation (EBC), an organized group of local churches, pushed the city to transfer hundreds of publicly owned vacant lots to create affordable home ownership opportunities and fight deterioration, blight and neglect from the city. This led to the creation of the first of many Nehemiah homes, which created lasting tenure and stability in the neighborhood.
However, because of an increase in market value, homes that were once $175,000 now sell for $740,000. We need social housing, such as affordable homeownership units on CLT land, that isn’t vulnerable to the speculative market. This means investing public land and dollars in the Community Land Trust (CLT) model—a democratically controlled entity that stewards the land and shares decision-making among residents and local community members alike. This model preserves both affordability and stability in Black and brown communities.
The East New York CLT has activated residents, pushing them to envision what can become of our local vacant lots if the city allowed them to serve our needs. Community members have mapped, planned and visioned for what these lots could look like. We have discussed a food hub, green manufacturing, maker spaces and indoor aquaponic farming in the East Brooklyn Industrial Business Zone.
The CLT has also identified a site owned by the city’s Department of Housing Preservation Development (HPD) that is currently used by the 75th Precinct to park their personal vehicles. Through extensive survey work and conversation with local community members, we’ve developed a plan to build a deeply affordable multifamily cooperative housing there, with commercial and community space on the ground floor.
By allowing these lots to sit vacant in the hands of the police, the city is neglecting a salient solution to address the pressing needs of East New Yorkers. Much of our city has been built by Black and brown working people. Our cultural history, our labor and our personal histories have indelibly shaped this city into a cultural asset with an outsized global footprint. The city cannot afford to neglect us.
Join us in demanding that the city transfer public land, especially NYPD lots, in East New York and Brownsville to the East New York CLT. Tell your local council member to co-sponsor and fight for the passage of the Community Land Act (use this tool) which includes the Public Land for Public Good bill (Intro 637) which prioritizes CLTs and non-profit developers when the city sells or transfers public land.
We must take back the power over our land if we are to thrive in this city.
Brianna Soleyn is a board member of the East New York Community Land Trust.