New York City’s scarcity of inexpensive land is often cited as an impediment to building more affordable housing, but the comptroller’s office has identified more than 1,000 city-owned vacant lots across the boroughs that have been sitting idle, most for more than 30 years.
An audit to be officially released on Thursday by Comptroller Scott M. Stringerfaults the city as being too slow through various mayoral administrations in transferring the land to developers to build housing. The audit said that the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development often delays or abandons development schedules for turning over the properties, and that even when H.P.D. moved forward with planned development, it did not meet its stated timelines for nearly half of its projects.
The city-owned properties, mostly clustered in Brooklyn and Queens, are remnants of the thousands of abandoned lots and buildings the city seized after the fiscal crisis of the 1970s. City officials say many of the leftover properties have been hard to develop because they need basic infrastructure such as road access and sewer lines, require too much subsidy or, afterÂ Hurricane Sandy, no longer meet resiliency concerns.
Calling the comptroller’s conclusions false and misleading, housing officials said that out of the 1,131 vacant properties identified in the audit, about 310 were in flood zones or had other issues that would make development challenging. They also said that an additional 150 properties were better suited for projects other than residential buildings, such as parks and police stations.
Of the remaining 670 lots, about 400 have already been assigned to developers or will be scheduled for development within the next two years, the officials said.
The assertion that H.P.D. allows vacant city-owned properties to languish in the face of the affordable housing crisis is simply wrong, Vicki Been, the housing commissioner, said in a statement.
The properties have brought blight to some neighborhoods. At a large vacant property in Brownsville, Brooklyn, a sign affixed to a chain-link fence by the housing department says No Dumping and threatens fines, but heaps of garbage including bags, empty alcohol bottles, cans and, oddly, a broken violin and violin case have rendered the warning useless.
Residents complain that the lot has been that way for decades. They say that the city cuts the grass and clears the debris occasionally, but that it all quickly accumulates anew.
They clearly don’t want any development or infrastructure around here, Christal Benjamin, 26, a medical-school student who has lived in the neighborhood for two years, said on Wednesday. She said she would like to see the land used for a park or a community center.
Another resident, Lorenzo McGriff, 46, who works in human services at a center for people with mental health and addiction issues, said he dreamed of turning the lot into a development with housing for the homeless, affordable apartments for those with low-income jobs, a community center, a pool and social service programs.
A vacant lot this huge in Brooklyn is a rarity, he said. â€œIt sends a signal that people don’t care about us.â€ (City officials said this was among the lots targeted for development within the next two years.)
City housing officials attributed the delays that had been pointed out in the audit mostly to changes in market conditions that stall financing for projects. The officials said the city also spent considerable time consulting with local residents and organizations that may have other preferences for the land, such as community gardens.
But Mr. Stringer, calling the properties â€œgolden assets at a time of great need for affordable housing, said that history did not inspire confidence.
You had 30 or 40 years to figure out how to build a road? the comptroller, a Democrat, said. This is generations of inaction.
He proposed creating a nonprofit as a land bank to acquire and manage the vacant lots as well as other land, like tax-delinquent private properties to speed things along. In a report to be released with the audit on Thursday, the comptroller’s office estimated that the city-owned properties could add more than 50,000 permanently affordable housing units. Housing officials put the figure at fewer than 20,000.
That’s got to be part of our housing agenda in the city, Mr. Stringer said.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, suggested creating a land bank in his housing plan, and the City Council already has pending legislation on it. But Councilman Brad Lander, who introduced the bill, said he was targeting privately owned lots like contaminated brownfields and former manufacturing sites, which he said were an even bigger source of land. Those could be acquired faster through the land bank than through foreclosure or other means, Mr. Lander, a Brooklyn Democrat, said.
The new model could bring the city new money for affordable housing by tapping into a multimillion-dollar fund in the state attorney general’s office that is dedicated to financing land-bank acquisitions of vacant, abandoned or foreclosed properties.
For city-owned properties, Mr. Stringer said the city could transfer ownership to the land bank, which in turn would lease the land rather than sell it to retain control and ensure that permanently affordable housing would be built in every case.
Still, Eric Enderlin, the housing department’s deputy commissioner for development, said that for some of the vacant parcels, a land bank would face the same challenges of location that the city faces now.
These challenges don’t respond to who owns them, he said. â€œThey have to be addressed on their own. We believe we’re doing everything that was requested in his report.
The audit recommends that the city develop realistic timetables for transferring properties and then track the transfers, documenting every change along the way. The audit also recommends reviewing an additional 340 vacant lots under the jurisdiction of other city agencies that could be used for residential construction.
For now, debris has accumulated in two vacant lots listed in the audit, sitting side by side on 123rd Street between Park and Lexington Avenues in East Harlem, between a floor supplies company and a recovery house. On one plot, on Wednesday, the wind had scattered cans, bottles and wrappers from a garbage can that had tipped over onto the gravel. In the next, broken bricks and other refuse littered the patchy grass. (City officials said this property was at the stage of consultation with the local community to create a plan for it.)
Marcus Johnson, 34, could not remember the land as anything but vacant, but hoped to see that change.
They could turn it into anything housing, gardens, a community center anything but an empty space, Mr. Johnson, a tax consultant who lives near the lots, said. Who exactly is this helping?
By MIREYA NAVARRO via nytimes.com