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Thousands of Vacant City-Owned Lots Could Become Affordable Housing: Report

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A new audit conducted by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer's office has revealed that the city owns over 1,000 vacant properties across the five boroughs that it could potentially use to build affordable housing. The audit is accompanied by a report (warning: PDF) that calls for the creation of a Land Bank, a non-profit entity that would oversee the creation of affordable housing on at least some of the properties the report highlights. The New York Times was the first to report on this startling discovery, which comes in the midst of the administration trying to pass two controversial zoning proposals that are also targeting the creation of affordable units.

"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 press release. "The audit we conducted found that the City owns over one thousand vacant lots that could be used to build affordable housing. If we want to give every New Yorker a fair and fighting chance to make it in the City, we need to use every tool in our toolbox to create and preserve truly affordable housing."

Of the 1,131 vacant, city-owned properties identified by the audit as of September 2015, close to half - 556 are located in Brooklyn. Queens has 363 vacant properties, followed by the Bronx with 112, Manhattan has 98, and Staten Island has two.

About 23 percent of these properties have been owned and left vacant by the city for 40 to 50 years, according to the report.

Some of the vacant properties that the Times examined in its piece had accumulated garbage, despite the city being responsible for their upkeep.

The report says that the vast amount of land available to the city could create up 57,000 units of permanent affordable housing. With city-owned land, the administration can dictate terms and identify non-profit groups to develop housing that is more focused on creating low-income units than generating profit.

The city's department on Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) on it's part said the report did not represent the full truth of the matter.

"Your assertion that HPD allows vacant City-owned properties to languish in the face of the affordable housing crisis is simply wrong," Vicki Been, the commissioner of HPD said in response, which is included in the audit report.

Been furthermore states that of the identified vacant properties, 310 are in areas that have development challenges, such as being in flood zones or not having adequate access to public transportation. About 150 are suited for non-residential uses like community gardens. Development is feasible on about 670 properties, the HPD said in response to the report. And of these 400 have been earmarked for development over the next two years.

Stringer's audit also identified an additional 340 vacant properties that are owned by other city agencies such as the NYPD and NYCHA that could be used to create affordable housing.

Stringer is calling for the City Council to create a New York City Land Bank. Similar entities exist in other parts of the state of New York, according to the report, such as Buffalo, Syracuse, and Albany. The land bank would work to identify potential developers. Furthermore instead of selling the land to the developer, the land bank would enter into a long-term lease agreement thereby ensuring the affordability of the units.

"With thousands of vacant and tax-delinquent sites across the City, we need to find innovative ways to rid our communities of blighted properties and replace them with housing for all families, Stringer said in the press release. "A New York City Land Bank is one way that the City can use the resources it already has to create permanently affordable housing for people of all income levels."

· Audit Report [NYC Comptroller's Office]
· Building An Affordable Future: The Promise of a New York City Land Bank [NYC Comptroller's Office]
· Audit Faults New York City for Not Using Vacant Lots for Affordable Housing [NYTimes]
· City Council Questions Mayor's Rezoning Plans Ahead of Vote [Curbed]
· NYC's Controversial New Affordable Housing Proposals, Explained [Curbed]