Stringer Says City Could Use Hundreds of Vacant Lots for Housing

The city of New York owns more than 1,100 vacant lots that could be used to build “thousands of units” of affordable housing, City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer said in a report released Feb. 18.

The report, Building an Affordable Future: The Promise of a New York City Land Bank, estimates that the city could develop as many as 57,000 units “of permanently affordable housing” on these vacant lots, others it also owns, and privately owned, tax-delinquent land. Based on an audit of properties managed by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development and other city agencies as of September, it identified 1,131 HPD-owned lots that could be used for housing.

About half of them are in Brooklyn, and 363 in Queens. Among the densest concentrations are in the eastern Rockaways; Harlem and East Harlem; and Bushwick, Brownsville, and East New York in Brooklyn, according to the report. Most date from the abandonment epidemic of the 1970s; more than 65 percent have been “owned and left vacant by the City” since before 1985.

“When the City owns property, we get to call the shots about how land is developed and for whom, which is why these properties are so valuable,” Stringer said in a statement. “If we learned anything from the 1970s in New York City, it’s that if you want to reclaim your community, you have to take control of vacant land and build affordable housing.”

HPD disagrees vehemently. “Your assertion that HPD allows vacant City-owned properties to languish in the face of the affordable housing crisis is simply wrong,” Commissioner Vicki Been told the comptroller’s office. She said the department has already designated or “earmarked for developer designation within the next two years” about 400 of the 670 properties “suitable and feasible for residential development.” The others were either “better suited for non-residential uses,” lacked the infrastructure needed for people to live there, or were in zones endangered by floods or hurricanes. More than 200 are in the Rockaways and Coney Island.

Stringer responded that the city’s flawed planning process had allowed these lots to languish and remain undeveloped for decades, even though HPD had earmarked most for development.

He is proposing a “land bank” as a alternative model for developing permanent affordable housing. Land costs, the report says, are rising so fast—prices in Brooklyn and Queens doubled between 2009 and 2014—that it is jeopardizing private developers’ ability to fund affordable housing. 

Land banks are government-created nonprofit corporations designed to convert vacant and tax-delinquent properties to housing or other productive uses, the report explains. Ten have been approved to operate in New York State since 2012, including banks in Buffalo, Rochester, the Albany area, and Suffolk County.

If the city had a land bank, it would transfer vacant land it owns to the bank, which would then put together a package of subsidies and identify a developer. It would prefer nonprofit developers, as they would build more housing for lower-income people. It would lease the land long-term rather than selling it outright, which the report says would enable the city “to enforce affordability and ensure that the affordability is permanent.”

“New York City’s primary strategy for developing affordable housing on city-owned lots has been to sell the property to a developer in exchange for a percentage of affordable units for a limited duration,” the comptroller explained in a statement. “While this model has facilitated the creation of thousands of affordable units, the City loses leverage by transferring title, which weakens its ability to hold developers accountable and negotiate for deeper and permanent affordability.”

The New York City Land Bank would also be able to target tax-delinquent vacant properties and seek to foreclose upon them “more quickly than the current system,” the report says. By the comptroller’s analysis, it could create more than 53,000 units of permanently affordable housing on the HPD-owned vacant lots and another 340 owned by the Police Department, the Housing Authority, and other city agencies. If it seized the 247 “persistently delinquent, underutilized properties” whose tax liens were sold between 2013-2015, it could add another 4,000.

More than 47,000 of those apartments would be in Brooklyn and Queens, the report estimates.

City Councilmember Brad Lander (D-Brooklyn) filed legislation to create a land bank last year. The city would also need to begin working with the Empire State Development Corporation to prepare a land-bank application.

“While a land bank cannot transform every piece of vacant property,” the report said, “it can be one of the tools used to create permanent, affordable housing in New York City’s neighborhoods.”