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Counting The Empty Buildings
by Joe Lamport
Not long ago, 240 Manhattan Avenue, a six-story apartment building at 110th Street, would have fit right into its Harlem neighborhood. Nearby vacant lots served as dumping grounds for garbage and meeting places for rats. Morningside Park across the streets was a popular place to smoke crack.
But the vacant lots are gone, replaced by gleaming new residential buildings, the rats are gone, and in the park, people are lighting charcoal for family barbecues.
While many other buildings have been rehabilitated, somehow 240 Manhattan Avenue has been left out of the transformation. The building has been vacant since 1999, according to the city housing department's Web site. (Its owner, Baruch Singer, could not be reached for comment.)
Its boarded-up windows, peeling and fading paint and locked-up entryways seem to defy logic: How could anyone leave vacant such a building in such a "hot" area? How could anyone abandon it? More generally, with all the talk about a housing crisis in the city, why is any available space not being utilized?
Those are the kinds of questions that Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer's office is hoping to answer with a survey of abandoned buildings and vacant lots, the first survey of its type in decades. Stringer's office has organized over 100 volunteers to walk block-by-block through neighborhoods on the Lower East Side and Harlem, among other areas, where abandoned or vacant buildings are not uncommon.
"We want to do this count to see how far we've come in the last 35 years and better understand why the abandoned buildings still exist despite the hot real estate market," Stringer explained.
Abandoned, Or Just Vacant?
Certainly, the city has come a long way. In the 1980s, the city controlled over 100,000 apartments; today, it controls a little over 2,000. Little by little, the city has shed the buildings it seized from landlords who did not pay their real estate taxes. Some were turned over to the tenants themselves, others were turned over to non-profit organizations.
The distressed buildings remaining today such as 240 Manhattan Avenue -- abandoned or neglected by their owners -- are knottier problems. Few are probably abandoned, said Mark Alexander of Urban Builders Collaborative and a long-time developer.
"Often times, what looks like an abandoned building is not an abandoned building," Alexander said. "They are buildings with vacant apartments above occupied stores."
The buildings are vacant for two general reasons, Alexander said.
"In lower Manhattan and selected parts of northern Manhattan, these are potential development sites," he said. But conflicts between multiple owners or financial difficulties owners would face if they actually tried to rehabilitate a vacant building effectively prevent development of the vacant building, he said.
"In the northern part of Manhattan and outer boroughs, [vacant buildings are] largely a result of the neighborhood distress of the 1970s and 1980s," Alexander said. "Landlords could not afford to maintain the apartments above the storefronts. It was not economic to maintain the apartments. They vacated them because they couldn't make money off of them."
In other cases, however, the city owns buildings that landlords abandoned. Elaine Toribio of the Citizens Housing and Planning Council said those cases are perhaps easier to understand.
"The reasons those sites might not be developed is the city hasn't gotten its act together on which agency should develop the property," Toribio said. "And even once they have a plan, it could be an issue of money."
"It's easier to understand why they're vacant and boarded up when the city owns them," Toribio said. "But when it's a privately owned building, you can just kind of shrug and say, ‘Who knows what the person is thinking?'"
But some advocates said in some cases what the person is thinking is, ‘Let's keep this building vacant in order to make apartments scarce and consequently drive up rents.'
"I think that's part of the issue because of the fact you're dealing with supply and demand," said Roosevelt Orphee of Picture the Homeless, which has organized the survey with Stringer's office. "Leaving the supply down, you up the ante, so some people just can't get in the game and you change the dynamics of the market.
"The landlords are keeping them off line and losing money, so what's going on?" Orphee added. "They are not stupid. They're speculating."
In other cases, Orphee said landlords had admitted to him that they simply do not want the hassle of dealing with tenants.
"Landlords are finding ways to make money without dealing with tenants," he said.
It would not surprise some, too, if landlords were hoping to get a building deregulated by leaving it vacant for years.
Doing the survey will be easier than devising ways to address the problem of distressed buildings, Stringer admitted.
“We want to really put this information into a database and figure out what to do about it,” he said. “You can’t just go out and say let’s build affordable housing when there is no vacant land. When we do talk to developers and building owners we want to have an intelligent discussion.”Joe Lamport is the assistant director of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, a coalition of community housing organizations.
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