A Year After Hearing, ‘Housing Not Warehousing’ Bill in Limbo

September 15th marked one year since the City Council held a hearing on the Housing Not Warehousing Act. Homeless activists and their allies continue to fight for the three-bill package to pass in the final months of the legislative session. But in spite of broad support in the Council and among housing-justice groups citywide, the anti-warehousing legislation remains in limbo, as the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development continues to dispute it.

The Housing Not Warehousing Act is made up of three bills (Intros 1034, 1036, and 1039), introduced in December 2015 by Public Advocate Letitia James, Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez (D-Manhattan), and Housing and Buildings Committee chair Jumaane Williams (D-Brooklyn). They would mandate the creation of an annual registry of all vacant property in the city, a regular census of vacant property, and the publication of an annual list of city, state and federally owned vacant property suitable for the development of affordable housing.

At the Housing and Buildings Committee’s hearing in September 2016, several tenants’ rights and legal advocacy groups testified in support of the bills, including Picture the Homeless, the New York Community Land Initiative, Banana Kelly CIA, Cooper Square Committee, Legal Services NYC, the Legal Aid Society, and the Safety Net Activists and Community Development Project of the Urban Justice Center. But HPD representatives opposed it. They worried that the penalties associated with a registry were too onerous, that an annual census of vacant property would be too costly, and that publishing an annual list of public land could trigger speculation or raise property values in properties adjacent to public sites.

Committee members repeatedly asked HPD and Department of Finance representatives to quantify the amount of vacant property under the city’s jurisdiction. The hearing grew heated when they were unable to explain clearly how they counted vacant properties and vacant development sites. “It’s okay to object,” Williams eventually told the HPD representatives. “If you object, though, you should come with some knowledge about why you’re objecting and the information that you have that says you’re doing a sufficient enough job for us not to interject…. But to come here and say that you don’t agree with any one of our bills and not have the knowledge that we’re asking for…. It just is unacceptable.”

With more than 30 of the Council’s 51 members signed on as cosponsors, Picture the Homeless members are hopeful that the three bills will become law this year. “It’s commonsense legislation that is going to give the Mayor and HPD more tools to be able to assist homeless people,” said Jose Rodriguez. “Due to the large number of homeless people, I think that more tools is a good thing. To not try to use everything available to help homeless people and families is really unkind.”

This is not the first time that legislation seeking to hold owners of vacant property accountable has struggled to advance in the Council. In the late 1980s, then-Councilmember Stanley Michels (D-Manhattan) introduced anti-warehousing legislation that would have required landlords to re-lease vacant units within 30 days or face fines of $500 per apartment plus $250 fine for failure to rent. Despite it also having a majority of the Council signed on as cosponsors, then-Speaker Peter Vallone kept it from coming to the floor, and in 1989, the state’s highest court struck down a similar anti-warehousing law that covered single-room-occupancy hotels. In 2010, Picture the Homeless helped push for a measure sponsored by current Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito (D-Manhattan) that would have established a mandatory annual census of vacant property. Opposed by the Council’s leadership, it never got a hearing.

Picture the Homeless members are confident that the Housing Not Warehousing Act would pass if it got a vote this year. “I have no understanding on why there is a hold up,” said Jose Rodriguez. “We have the support of the Council, and I’m just curious why HPD is stalling the process, stalling the bills from coming to the floor for a vote.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio has not directly endorsed or opposed the legislation. At a Harlem town-hall meeting in July, he told a Picture the Homeless member questioning him that he had not heard of the bills, but he supported their goals.

“I am very concerned about any situation where housing is held off the market,” he said. “I’ve been very concerned why some buildings just sit vacant for many years—that’s not good for anyone.” He added that if landlords are not going to use a building, “we’ll take it, we’ll find a way to take it and turn it into affordable housing. We share a common goal, we do not want to see buildings warehoused at all.”

“If he’s truly against warehousing, then why do we have all these empty buildings and lots throughout the city while people are forced into being warehoused?” Jose Rodriguez responds. “Is this the mayor’s plan on homelessness? To warehouse everyone?”

“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,” James, Williams, and Ydanis Rodriguez wrote an August op-ed in City and State. “By tallying and repurposing just a portion of the vacant property in the city, we can house every New Yorker.”

According to a 2016 audit by city Comptroller Scott Stringer they cited, city-owned vacant properties could be used to create about 57,000 low-income, permanent housing units.

To learn more about the Housing not Warehousing Act of 2017, contact Picture the Homeless’ housing campaign organizer Ryan Hickey at ryan@picturethehomeless.org. Picture the Homeless and the Laundromat Project with be cohosting a Housing Not Warehousing Walk on Sept. 30, at 3 p.m. in Marcus Garvey Park.