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New legislation seeks to hold landlords accountable for long-vacant lots

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A new package of bill aims to step up city oversight on the empty properties

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Landlords of lots that have sat vacant for more than a year would have to register their properties with the city and face fines up to $500 per week if they fail to do so, according to a bill introduced by the New York City Council this week.

The bill—Intro. 226—is one of six aimed at enhancing the city’s oversight on vacant properties, which often create health and safety hazards. The struggle to compel landlords to return their properties to productive use is by no means a new one, but the discussion has a renewed urgency with the severity of the city’s affordable housing and homelessness crises.

“Vacant properties are troublesome for our communities they bring down property values and they attract crime or create health hazards,” said Council member Robert Cornegy, Jr., chair of the council’s committee on housing and buildings, at the panel’s Tuesday hearing. “They’re properties that can be used for housing for low-income families, as community gardens, or as playgrounds.”

A pair of bills—Intro. 7 and Intro. 835—would require the city to biannually submit reports to the council on the number and location of certain unoccupied dwellings, and to catalogue vacant and abandoned properties in each council district to better inform how city officials can address the issue.

But while the Mayor’s office and the Department of Housing and Preservation (HPD) are receptive to the legislation, city officials fear some of the measures may step on the toes of a law already on the books to track the vacant parcels; local law 29, which requires the city conduct a census and analyze data to estimate all vacant land outside of flood zones. The bill was signed into law on January 8, 2018 and gives the city three years to conduct the initial census.

“Intro 835’s biannual reporting frequency would fall out of sync with the council’s existing implementation timeline [of local law 29,]” Joshua Sidis, senior advisor with the Mayor’s Office of Operations, told council members Tuesday. “We are concerned that these inconsistent reporting cycles would impede our ability to affectively fulfill our existing mandate under local law 29.”

In a similar vein, a representative with HPD expressed concerns with Intro. 226 over the reliability of landlords reporting their own vacant lots.

“Self-reporting by owners who might have already abandoned their property poses data quality concerns and is also incredibly difficult to enforce,” warned Sarah Mallory, the chief of staff for the government affairs division of HPD. “Instead, we believe local law 29 more appropriately utilizes our resources and will result in unprecedented data collected by the city on vacant lots.”

Council member Deborah Rose, who sponsored the bill, was not at Tuesday’s hearing and did not immediately return a request for comment on the city’s concerns. But council member Margaret Chin pushed back, calling it crucial that the city ensure that property owners are held accountable.

“Some sites could be used to develop affordable housing and private owners are holding on to them because they figure they can get a windfall, meanwhile they’re not taking care of it,” Chin said. “So I think that’s really the intention of the bill—to also make the owners accountable—and that’s why we want to make sure they’re involved in this process as well.”