Opinion

Vacant lots and properties could house New York City’s homeless

By Letitia James, Ydanis Rodriguez and Jumaane Williams |  

August 28, 2017 |  

(Shutterstock)

Not since the Great Depression has New York City faced such a critical shortage in affordable housing. The city’s population of unsheltered homeless people has risen a staggering 40 percent since last year, according to the most recent annual count. New York is now home to one out of every seven homeless people in the country.

Of course, harrowing statistics alone don’t tell the story of the real New Yorkers suffering from the lack of an adequate solution to homelessness. People like Cecelia Grant, who spent her career as a school safety agent for New York City public schools, and is now living in a shelter. People like Jermain Abdullah, who lives in a shelter, and is an active member of his community board.

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Thankfully, we have the means to a solution right in front of us. Despite New York’s density, thousands of vacant lots and unused or underused buildings exist all across this city – transformative resources hiding in plain site. These lots and buildings can be converted into affordable housing units to provide permanent homes for the city’s homeless. That’s why we are co-sponsoring the Housing Not Warehousing Act – commonsense legislation that will uncover which lots and buildings are vacant so that we can best understand what resources we have at our disposal and how to use them to benefit our most needy and marginalized residents.

By utilizing already existing land and buildings to create long-term, affordable housing solutions, we can do away with all but emergency homeless shelters. This is more cost-effective than sheltering tens of thousands of New Yorkers in a haphazard, dangerous shelter system that was always meant to be temporary. Instead of continually paying $60,000 a year to house Cecelia in a shelter, we can invest that money into building an affordable apartment building on a vacant lot – giving her the opportunity to have a successful future and contribute to our economy.

A survey conducted by Hunter College and Picture the Homeless found that vacant lots and buildings in just one-third of the city could house nearly 200,000 people. These landlords too often warehouse vacant properties, siting on a property until they can find the most lucrative way to use it.

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Worse yet, some of these vacant properties are owned by the city. We could create approximately 57,000 low-income, permanent housing units out of city-owned vacant properties, according to a 2016 audit by Comptroller Scott Stringer. These city-owned properties, like 1390 Stebbins Avenue in the Bronx, have been vacant for more than 30 years.

The Housing Not Warehousing Act is comprised of three bills. One bill mandates a count of all vacant property in the city; a second compiles a list of all city-, state-, federal- and authority-owned vacant property that can be used for affordable housing; and a third would create a mandatory registry for all landlords holding vacant property, and subject them to fines if they fail to register. This package of bills will limit warehousing, create more affordable housing for low-income New Yorkers and provide more housing for the growing homeless population. We have been working closely with the administration to push these bills forward, and are hopeful that they will soon be signed into law.

As the homeless population continues to grow in New York City, it is more important than ever that we pass the Housing Not Warehousing Act. By tallying and repurposing just a portion of the vacant property in the city, we can house every New Yorker. Housing is a basic human right. No one should be left living on the street when we have the resources necessary to house them.

Letitia James is the public advocate for the New York City. Ydanis Rodriguez is the New York City Councilman for the 10th District. Jumaane Williams is the New York City Councilman for the 45th District.

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