New York’s Undeveloped City-Owned Land

Vacant lots offer affordable housing opportunity in the five boroughs.

New York City’s shortage of affordable housing could be solved in a matter of months if the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) constructed buildings on the vacant lots in its portfolio. In a February 12, 2018 press release, NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer stated, “HPD is not building new affordable units, though 1,007 City-owned lots are vacant. The comptroller claims, “up to 900 of these empty lots have been owned by the City of New York for at least 20 years and up to 50 years.’” The obvious question is why is this the case?

Between September 2015 and September 2017, 90% of the lots in the portfolio were still undeveloped. In that time, 64 lots were transferred for development and 54 transferred to NYC agencies. In 2016, Stringer saw this land as an opportunity to lower the vacancy rate, provide new – and actually affordable – housing to low- and middle-income households. In the comptroller’s 2016 audit, Building an Affordable Future, The Promise of a New York City Land Bank, it weighed the pros and cons of establishing a land bank, which is a quasi-governmental entity that would be created by the City of New York to effectively manage an inventory of underused, abandoned or foreclosed property. During the 1970s and 80s, there was extensive arson and owner abandonment occurring throughout four of the five boroughs, especially in The Bronx. Land banks are often chartered to have powers that allow them to accomplish these goals in ways that existing government agencies are not able.

This reporter queried the Comptroller’s Office about how HPD was able to hold on to the parcels for so many decades without developing them? Was there a statute or term that required otherwise? Press contact Tyrone Stevens explained, “There’s no statute: they own these properties and have allowed them to sit vacant.” According to Stevens, “There are 473 vacant city-owned sites in Brooklyn alone. Again, these are sites HPD itself says are suitable for development, even though they have not formally transferred these sites, as they previously scheduled, to developers to build affordable housing.”

Focusing on Central Brooklyn community districts, it is found that: Community District No. 2 (Ft. Greene/Clinton Hill) has 16 city-owned vacant lots; Community District No. 3 (Bedford-Stuyvesant) has 48; Community District No. 4 (Bushwick) contains two; Community District No.8 (Northern Crown Heights) has 6 lots and Community District No. 9 (South Crown Heights/Prospect-Lefferts Gardens) does not have any city-owned vacant lots.

From HPD’s viewpoint, its mission is to “promote quality and affordability of the City’s housing and the strength and diversity of its many neighborhoods.” HPD states it strives to achieve this mission by developing new affordable housing and engaging neighborhoods in planning. Mayor de Blasio has given the agency the task of executing Housing New York 2.0, an effort to build or preserve 300,000 affordable homes by 2026. Some quarters may question the realization of this goal given what has been produced from the 1,007 city-owned lots.

As is the usual course of this writer’s news stories, the elected, nonprofit managers, private citizens and/or grass-roots community-led bodies are asked to weigh in on the issue under examination. The Association of Neighborhood Housing Developers, Coalition for the Homeless, Brooklyn Anti-Gentrification Network, Erasmus Neighborhood Federation and Brooklyn Neighborhood Housing Services were contacted. The four questions posed include:

Are you aware that this large portfolio of City-owned property exists? If yes, has your organization taken steps to get any lots released for your organization’s development?

Given HPD is mandated to develop housing units, how is it possible that HPD not do its job with immunity?

  • What do you believe is the purpose for holding on to these undeveloped lots for 20 – 50 years?
  • Share your understanding of land banks.

Uncharacteristically, the five organizations did not submit responses, though the four questions were sent out on the beginning of the business day. It is possible that these entities are considering their next steps given the drastic cuts in the US Housing and Urban Development agency’s budget.