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December 29, 2010

No Vacancy: Why Empty Condos Aren't Becoming Affordable Housing

Boom-time overbuilding left thousands of units vacant. But a city program to convert them to affordable housing has found the market uncooperative.

City Limits
by Diana Scholl

We've all seen the half-built boom-era condos and thought: "Wouldn’t it be great if this could be low-income housing? Everybody wins!”

So why hasn’t that happened yet?

In May 2009 City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and New York City’s Department of Housing and Preservation and Development (HPD) unveiled the Housing Asset Renewal Plan (HARP). Politically, it sounded great. The idea was to kill two birds with one stone: Build much-needed affordable housing while at the same time heading off the potential blight represented by what Quinn described as “tarnished trophies of the building boom.” The $20 million initiative provides developers and banks incentives to turn unused condo units into middle-income housing.

In her State of the City address that February, Quinn said, “These vacant apartments now represent our best asset in the fight for affordable housing.” The original estimate was that up to 500 units could be made affordable.

Flash forward almost two years after Quinn’s prophecy, and not one HARP deal has been signed.

Avi Rosenthalis, coordinator of Right to the City-New York City (RTC-NYC) advocates more publicly and community-owned residential properties. “The city is working under the premise that affordable housing must be profitable,” Rosenthalis says. In Right to the City’s recent report on vacant condos, it argues for using eminent domain to seize vacant residential buildings and turn them into affordable housing, and for using tax foreclosures to facilitate the conversion of tax delinquent vacant residential buildings in low-income communities into quality affordable housing.

Right to the City is currently looking into vacant buildings that would qualify for city takeover. The group proposes that these buildings be turned into community land trusts—non-profit entities that buy and manage land for the purpose of providing low- to moderate-income housing. Homeowners within a community land trust are only permitted to sell their homes back to the land trust or to another low-income family, guaranteeing that the units of housing remain permanently affordable.

“We’re talking about Robin Hood-type options,” Rosenthalis says. “These are the most feasible options on the books. But it takes political will.”


NoLandGrab: Unfortunately, the only political will in New York City is for the reverse Robin Hood — taking from the needy to give to the likes of Bruce Ratner.

Posted by eric at December 29, 2010 10:34 AM