New York City’s interconnected affordable-housing and homelessness crises demand creative solutions – ideas that the City seems too timid to pursue.
The DeBlasio Administration refuses to create affordable public housing and to act as landlord beyond its already massive commitment to more than 600,000 tenants inside 176,066 New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) apartments. The last NYCHA development was built in 1997, but that was more of an aberration. Except for a handful of buildings, NYCHA development - like most progressive, big government programs in the United States - ceased in the 1970s.
The city also avoids eminent domain – a tactic abused by Robert Moses in his ruthless mid-Century highway schemes.
Instead, the city banks on private developers - incentivized by giveaways like the 421-a tax property abatement - creating somewhat-affordable housing (I say 'somewhat-affordable' because the affordability criteria relates to a percentage of Area Median Income and therefore generally applies to households earning more than $40,000 a year, which prices out hundreds of thousand - perhaps millions - of New Yorkers).
The city doesn't want to add to its own tenant rolls by creating new affordable housing on its own? It doesn't want to straight-up socialize problematic properties to end homelessness? Unfortunate, yet understandable.
But relying on private developers to house a meaningful number of homeless or cost-burdened New Yorkers (over half the City's population pays more than 30 percent of their income toward rent)?
That status quo is broken.
The number of homeless families has spiked over the past decade and the 60,000-person shelter population has plateaued despite some innovations – efforts to support homeowners facing foreclosure and tenants facing eviction as well as a new law mandating attorneys represent defendant-renters in housing court.
Start with the premise that, in the world's wealthiest city, the money exists to create housing.
Consider that the City pays more than a billion dollars to temporarily house the homeless in (often) dilapidated shelters and fleabag hotels.
The city could use a chunk of that billion dollars to purchase property, build affordable housing and contract with social service agencies to operate the building as supportive housing, ensuring individuals who experienced homelessness don't backslide.
The city could also better use its power and resources to facilitate the purchase and operation of affordable housing by nonprofit developers and social service organizations. Put rent-paying low-income tenants into homes.
New York City has clout, yet the city forfeits its power to the real estate industry. Time to flex some muscle by acquiring more property or compelling property owners who violate laws or stuff their pockets with city contracts to create truly affordable housing.
But where to find the property? Here are three examples of properties the city could acquire or on which it could compel the development of affordable housing.
The Vacant Lot
The Stadium Women’s Shelter, a faded blue 1960s Howard Johnson, sits at the base of a steep Highbridge hill across from the Harlem River on Sedgewick Ave., familiar to most Major Deegan motorists. Acacia Network – a major shelter provider in New York City – operates Stadium where about a hundred homeless women with mental illness reside. During the day, many hang out on the sidewalk outside a vacant lot strewn with St. Ides cans next door.
The lot at 237 West 167th Street in the Bronx is owned by Long Island-based developer Global Management NY, which plans to build a 35-unit residential building. The city approved their application in April 2017.
In 2009, the lot sold for $200,000. In 2016, the property was assessed for $554,000. It has been listed for sale six times since 2015, most recently at $1,295,000, but is no longer on the market — though it remains dormant.
Hindsight is 20/20 so maybe it's not fair to say the city should have purchased the lot or facilitated the purchase by a nonprofit or affordable housing development for $200,000. Fine.
A recent report in City Limits explored how the city catalogs vacant land and fails to compel development. In the report, the Furman Center's Vicki Been – former HPD Commissioner – discusses the problem of dormant land during an affordable housing crisis:
She argues that the real problem is not finding those properties; it’s that there’s no consequences for landlords who don’t return their properties to productive use.
“To really tackle the problem, we need to examine ways to make it more costly for people to underuse land – taxing land at the value it would have if put to its ‘highest and best use’ for example, or charging owners for costs that the vacancy imposes on neighborhoods,” Been wrote, adding that such a policy would be controversial, would need to be worked out carefully, and that sometimes it doesn’t make sense to compel a private landlord to immediately develop or fill up their property.
The Shelter Hotel
The Concourse Residential Hotel, a Single Room Occupancy hotel used as a shelter for the past several years, is located at 2327 Grand Concourse near a large vacant lot at 183rd Street. In October 2016, the owner and management company applied for a permit to convert the property to transient occupancy dwelling - specifically a hotel or dormitory. At the time, New York YIMBY speculated that the owners aimed to redevelop it as a Fordham dorm:
Typically we would assume this was a hotel conversion, but the filing only shows residential space, not commercial. The landlords might be planning to rent the building out to nearby Fordham University as a dormitory or they might want to dramatically chop up the existing units.
After coming across that NY YIMBY piece, I visited the building, where security guards man a small office and talk to visitors through plexiglass. I later called and spoke with a staff member who told me the building had been a shelter for ten years, which means the owner was reaping money from the city to house homeless New Yorkers in crappy conditions for a decade.
When I emailed the man identified as the applicant on the Department of Buildings website to inquire about the proposed conversion, he responded, "We are not involved." Whatever that means.
The city pumps tons of money into these crappy hotels to temporarily house the homeless – a policy many consider unlikely to change despite the city's stated intention. Why not instead incentivize the creation of affordable housing in these locations. The homeless-profiteers can't have it both ways. Either the owners enter into contracts with the City that provide for buy-outs, which would enable the creation of supportive or affordable housing units, or they don't get the city's business.
The Problematic Property
The Prince Hotel is a notorious SRO in Bay Ridge frequently portrayed as a throwback to grimy 1970s New York - what people used to call 'blight.'
As a slice of sleaze in a relatively quiet neighborhood, the hotel gets its fair share of attention, especially when that attention reenforces the narrative of the place as a scary den of urban filth – like when a man died from a heroin overdose in one of the rooms or when a drunk driver mowed down four guests standing outside a few years ago.
Let's change the narrative a bit and consider the people who stay at the hotel: Individuals with substance use disorders, sex workers, poor immigrants – the kind of people who need housing and support services, not nasty tabloid treatment.
The building would likely maintain a lower profile were it not for the $400,000 its owner Moses Fried owes the city after wracking up dozens of violations. In 2016, the city decided to seize and auction off the building, but a court halted the sale in July 2017.
Meanwhile, the city also contracts with Fried to operate a shelter at 155 Woodruff Avenue. Thus, on the one hand, the guy owes the city hundreds of thousands of dollars for violations at his tenement hotel. On the other, the city pays him to run a shelter.
That makes his two properties pretty problematic. Forget an auction — buy the slumlord out. Contract with a developer and a social service organization to convert the buildings into supportive housing sites.