Empty Promises

Housing Activists Say the City Wastes Its Vacant Lots

For over six months, Marie Pierre has been braving the New York housing market. Her demands are specific, if unusual. Pierre does not simply want a home in New York, she wants one in East New York, the neighborhood where she currently rents. But even in stigmatized East New York, things are getting tight. "The interest rates may be down," says Pierre, "but as soon as things happen in the community, people think their house is worth two to three times more."

Pierre believes her job would be a lot easier if some of the vacant land dotting her neighborhood were filled with housing and not trash. In the mid 1990s, under Mayor Giuliani, the city decided to extricate itself from the landlord business posthaste. Consequently, much of the land the city owned was auctioned off. But in its zeal to produce quick revenue, and relieve itself of responsibility, the city placed no requirements for development. The buyers didn't have to build affordable housing. In fact, they didn't have to build anything.

Local activist group ACORN—for which Pierre chairs the East New York chapter—completed a report two weeks ago questioning the city's land disposition. The study asserts that the wanton manner in which land auctions were conducted over the past decade depleted the pool of property for affordable housing. The survey focuses on some of New York's poorest communities, where over 60 percent of all auctions since 1996 occurred. It concludes that 66 percent of all lots sold since then, in the neighborhoods studied, remain vacant. Seventy percent of the lots cataloged are in some state of blight—meaning they've become home to anything from Cheetos bags and fast-food wrappers to tarp-covered boats. The group plans a rally on March 12 to press their case even further.

ACORN argues that land speculators are holding out for the next big housing boom. "My estimation is that the buyers got the lots for nothing," says Pierre. "These guys are able to purchase the land and they hoard it until someone puts in some [commercial] development and then they make millions."

When ACORN's report was released two weeks ago, a coalition of councilmembers huddled in City Hall's Red Room, and, with much pomp and pageantry, promised swift and certain action. "Affordable housing is becoming an oxymoron," said Councilmember Charles Barron of Brooklyn. Then, turning to his home district, he declared that he was "sick and tired of developers looking into our neighborhoods and seeing dollar signs. East New York is not for sale."

Unlike in the Giuliani years, housing advocates now have a somewhat sympathetic ear in the mayor's office. Last year, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a $3 billion housing plan—the biggest since former mayor Ed Koch's initiative in the '80s. The program aims to create and preserve more than 65,000 homes and apartments in neighborhoods over the next five years, which will increase production of new units by 25 percent, and it includes initiatives aimed at facilitating private investment in housing. In terms of land auctions, Bloomberg has proposed streamlining matters to reduce infighting among city agencies seeking to put their stamp on the bidding process. Yet some housing advocates want a stronger focus on affordable housing, and a reconsideration of policies that caused the city to take a yard-sale approach to vacant lots.

While Giuliani accelerated the auctioning of city land, he didn't invent it. The city had been selling land for years, so his auctions attracted very few headlines—until he attempted to sell off the city's community gardens. The result was a protracted fight that did not end until Giuliani left Gracie Mansion. The inflamed passions never spilled over into the larger issue of buildable plots. "There is no constituency for advocating for a vacant lot," says Frank Braconi, executive director for the Citizens Housing and Planning Council. Braconi notes that while New Yorkers hold green space close to their hearts, no such affection exists for the scrubby, windswept parcels around the city.

Perhaps it should. The Citizens Housing and Planning Council published a report in 2001 which noted that while land auctions often were successful when "packaged as part of a Housing Preservation and Development" program, when there were no restrictions, the results were not so rosy. "Sizable clusters of vacant land lie dormant in the surrounding boroughs," notes the report. "In neighborhoods of Central Brooklyn, the South Bronx, and portions of Southeastern Queens, many of the unused parcels languish in the city's real estate portfolio."

But this wasn't exactly news—at least not in Brooklyn. Two years earlier, then borough president Howard Golden completed a study of the city's land sales in his domain. Golden's report concluded that of the 470 Brooklyn lots auctioned between 1990 and 1995, 423 were undeveloped, 148 were being used to store vehicles, and 240 were filled with litter. Among other reforms, the report recommended that the city "establish new policies for reviewing the best uses for city-owned property and new procedures for the disposition of city-owned properties."

Both reports were met with polite inaction.

The general land sale program hasn't been all bad, particularly when there are standing structures on the lot. Mark Alexander, executive director of Hope Community, Inc., credits the sale of city-owned buildings with assisting Harlem's rebirth. Like many community advocates, however, Alexander is less sanguine about the sales of vacant land. "One of the earlier strategies of the disposition plan that was probably less successful was to sell off vacant lots with the hope that the buyers would develop the lots," says Alexander. "The expectation that buyers would develop vacant land has not unfolded."

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