Council Passes Bills for Vacant-Property Census

On December 19, the City Council passed two bills that will create the city’s first official inventory of vacant property, including property under the jurisdiction of the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development. The two measures were part of a three-bill package called the Housing Not Warehousing Act of 2017.

The legislation, introduced in 2015, has been a top priority for the homeless and formerly homeless activists at Picture the Homeless, who see vacant property as a critical potential source of housing. “This day has been a long time coming,” said Jose Rodriguez, a member of Picture the Homeless. “Passing the Housing Not Warehousing Act is the first step in identifying potential extremely-low-income housing in every community in our city. For the first time, city residents will know what vacant properties are available to support community-based projects.”

The first bill, sponsored by Ydanis Rodriguez (D-Manhattan), will require the city to create a census of vacant and potentially vacant property, based on data from all city agencies likely to know where vacant buildings and lots are, including the Department of Buildings, HPD, the Fire Department, and the Department of Sanitation. The first census is expected to begin this year and be completed by 2021, with future counts conducted once every five years after that. 

The second bill, sponsored by Jumaane Williams (D-Brooklyn), requires the city to report annually on vacant property under HPD jurisdiction that could be suitable for development as affordable housing. While the bill’s scope was narrowed considerably—its original version would have covered all vacant property owned by the city, state, and federal governments—Williams sees it as a step in the right direction. “This legislation provides us with an essential tool,” he said in a statement. “Finally, we’ll be able to understand the extent of property warehousing throughout the five boroughs, and craft real policy solutions that create housing for all New Yorkers, especially those who are currently without homes.” 

The third bill in the package, Intro 1034, was introduced by Public Advocate Letitia James. It would create a mandatory registry for owners of vacant property, imposing fines for failure to register. Picture the Homeless leaders remain committed to getting it passed this year. 

Picture the Homeless has been organizing for a citywide vacant-property count for over a decade, and conducted two earlier counts itself, one in Manhattan and one citywide. Their findings were published in two reports, “Homeless People Count” (2006) and “Banking on Vacancy” (2011). The latter estimated that the vacant property in just one-third of the city’s 59 community districts could house almost 200,000 people. 

“It was a long road, it was a hard fight, but we got it,” said Darlene Bryant of Picture the Homeless. “Let’s find these vacant properties, renovate them, and get people off the street and into actual homes—because we have too many people without