Abandoned Buildings Could House All the Homeless, Group Says

There are enough abandoned apartments and vacant lots in Manhattan alone to house all the homeless people in the city, says an organization of homeless and formerly homeless people.
“Homeless People Count: Vacant Properties in Manhattan,” a survey conducted by Picture the Homeless last year, found 1,723 abandoned buildings—containing 11,170 apartments—and 505 vacant lots in Manhattan. If those apartments were renovated and housing were built on the vacant lots, the group says, it would provide 24,000 units—which could become homes for the more than 9,000 families and 7,000 single adults living in city shelters last April, the 4,000 people the city says are living on the street, and another 4,000 street homeless who were likely missed in the city’s count.
“It’s really a phenomenal thing,” says Robert Robinson of Picture the Homeless.
Supported by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, the group did the survey on two weekends last summer and fall. More than 150 volunteers walked and bicycled around Manhattan looking for obviously abandoned property—buildings with cinderblocked windows, no electricity, or ancient newspapers lying on the floor, and vacant lots strewn with garbage. “We couldn’t get any help from the city,” says Robinson. “We walked around and counted property from end to end.” They then cross-checked their results against various city property records.
The survey found the most abandoned buildings in central Harlem and East Harlem—Manhattan’s two poorest community districts— with 552 in District 10 and 387 in District 11. The Lower East Side and Chinatown were third, with 238. Of the buildings found, 53 percent had a private owner listed, and 40 percent had occupied storefronts on the first floor.
Though many people believe that the era of abandonment in the city is over—in the 1970s and 1980s, whole blocks were burned out in some areas—Robinson says the group wasn’t surprised to find abandoned buildings in the city’s poorer neighborhoods. What was shocking, he explains, was finding them in Midtown, such as several buildings on Third Avenue near Grand Central Station where only the storefronts were occupied.
The group’s report recommends seven policies: initiating a city-wide count of vacant buildings and lots; enacting anti-warehousing legislation; redefining the federal guidelines for housing affordability; keeping vacant apartments under rent stabilization; developing low-income housing through mutual housing associations; creating a trust fund to renovate buildings to house the homeless; and hiring and training homeless people and neighborhood residents to do those renovations.
The report also harshly criticizes the Bloomberg administration’s attempts to skew the distribution of newly developed “affordable” housing to more affluent workers, in particular its basing “affordability” on the median income for the entire metropolitan area—$70,900 for a family of four. “When ‘affordable’ housing is created, it is priced based on the AMI, making it unaffordable for anyone with an income significantly lower than the median income,” the report states. “‘Affordable housing’ constructed in Harlem can be targeted at families making between $52,000 and $157,000 a year, although the median income for that neighborhood is only $26,000.”
“There are New Yorkers who are making minimum wage. That’s not even $20,000 a year,” says Robinson. “Something has to be done. You start by stopping the landlords from warehousing these buildings and putting up million-dollar condos.”