Are There Enough Warehoused Apartments to House City’s Homeless?

Data from CHIP shows enough empty apartments to house all homeless New Yorkers

When it comes to New York City’s homelessness crisis, the numbers don’t quite add up.

For more than seven years, city homeless shelters have averaged over 50,000 residents a day, peaking at 61,000 in January 2019. Yet according to the Community Housing Improve-ment Program, a trade group for the landlords of rent-stabilized buildings, there were 70,000 vacant rent-regulat-ed apartments in November, or about 7.6 percent of the city’s rent-regulated housing stock.

With COVID and the homelessness crisis, it makes no sense to sit on vacant housing when there are people who desperately need it.

Rolando Guzman, deputy director of community preservation at the St. Nicks Alliance, Brooklyn.

And yet sit on it they do. This tactic, of allowing affordable apartments to remain unrented long-term, is called warehousing. If CHIP’s numbers are to be believed, there are enough ware-housed apartments to house every homeless New Yorker.

Warehousing is not a new phenomenon. But it is notoriously difficult to tackle: The city does not collect data on vacant rent-stabilized apartments, and it is unconstitutional to compel landlords to rent the properties they own.

Affordable housing advocates such as Guzman, however, believed the practice would decline, or even stop, following the passage of last year’s Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act, which prohibited the deregulation of rent-stabilized apartments. Prior to those changes, landlords used warehousing to evade regulations, increasing rents following long vacancies or major renovations. Once prices got high enough, the units were no longer stabilized, removing any controls on rent increases. Those options are now off the table.

Still, tens of thousands of units remain vacant. Some owners simply don’t want to rent apartments if they can’t continuously increase their profits: In a September article from the The Real Deal, several landlords described leaving units empty after losing the ability to attract higher-paying ten-ants by using renovations to remove apartments from rent stabilization. One landlord said she hopes to see the 2019 laws overturned — and is leaving several units vacant in the meantime.

Other landlords have found new ways to get around the Tenant Protection Act. If an owner brings their building to full vacancy, they can demolish it and build a new one that is entirely market-rate. Or, by waiting for multiple adjacent units to become vacant, landlords can “Frankenstein” multiple apartments into a single larger unit that is not subject to regulation.

Guzman says that due to the slow-down of construction under pandemic safety regulations, these tactics do not appear to be widespread. “But we predict that, once COVID has passed, there will be a massive boom of permits to combine apartments,” he added.

In response to the persistence of warehousing, St. Nicks has joined a handful of other tenant advocacy groups to form the Coalition to End Warehousing.

The group is working closely with Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal (D-Manhattan) on legislation that would fine landlords for leaving apartments vacant for more than three months. “That’s more than enough time for a landlord to turn over a unit and prepare it for the market,” Guzman says. Revenue from the program would fund housing vouchers for home-less New Yorkers and the construction of affordable housing, some of which would be reserved for shelter residents.

The Coalition to End Warehousing is also soliciting reports from New Yorkers about warehoused apartments in their neighborhoods. If you have information to share, email with details, such as the address and the number and duration of vacancies.