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Sam J Miller

Boston Beats NYC in Baseball, Vacant Property Policy

As if it wasn’t bad enough that Boston’s kicking our ass in baseball, they’re tackling the problem of vacant property with an energy and urgency that should make the Bloomberg Administration ashamed.

On November 19th, the Drum Major Institute’s “Marketplace of Ideas” series held a forum entitled Housing Alchemy: Turning Abandoned Properties into Affordable Housing. “As a leader, who wouldn’t be able to figure out that vacant buildings are a good fit for developing affordable housing?” asked DMI Chairman Bill Wachtel in his introduction. “Well, few leaders have been willing to go there.”

The event’s featured speaker was the Mayor of Boston, Thomas Menino, who has been willing to “go there.” Boston’s Department of Neighborhood Development developed a robust set of strategies to proactively tackle vacant properties—starting with an annual citywide count of every empty building and lot.

“Did anyone notice that in the last presidential election, housing was mentioned three times?” he asked, after the obligatory baseball jokes, and before delving into an explanation of the incredible progress Boston has made in developing housing out of vacant properties. “An abandoned building survey isn’t the most eye-catching headline-grabbing idea, but if we don’t have strong neighborhoods our cities will not succeed,” he said.

The city didn’t stop at simply cataloging vacant properties. New subsidies and penalties were instituted. Problem properties were labeled “Houses of Shame,” and the city took out ad space with pictures of the buildings—alongside pictures of where the landlord actually lived. “We had a lot of fun with that,” he said. “The media really likes it. I’m not in the embarrassment business, but it’s unacceptable for landlords to let buildings stand empty and suck the life out of our neighborhoods.”

Since starting an annual count, Boston has seen a 77% decline in vacant properties. And while much of that can be attributed to an overall upswing in the real estate market, Boston’s courage and creativity have led to the creation of a wide range of new programs using incentives and penalties to turn vacant property into housing.

An annual census of vacant property may seem like a simple enough proposition, but Mayor Bloomberg seems to be in denial about the existence of empty buildings within the five boroughs. DMI Executive Director Andrea Batista Schlesinger quoted him as saying “we have reached the end of the crisis of abandonment.”

“Unlike Boston, we’re afraid to talk about vacant property,” said panelist Manhattan Borough President Stringer. “We tend to want to talk about the hot market and the rising rents. We do a count of homeless people every year, but what’s the point of doing that and then not counting vacant properties so we have some way to elevate people out of homelessness?”

In 2006, Stringer’s office collaborated with Picture the Homeless to develop and execute a historic count of vacant buildings and lots in Manhattan. This count found a staggering 24,000 potential apartments—enough to house every homeless person in the city. Which is why New York City’s department of Housing Preservation and Development needs to conduct an annual count of vacant buildings and lots in all five boroughs. “Boston accomplishes their citywide count with one and a half people,” Stringer pointed out.

While it’s easy enough to say “vacant buildings need to be turned into affordable housing,” panelist Carlton Collier of the Parodneck Foundation challenged that beloved cliché. “I’m still wondering what we mean up here when we talk about affordable housing. We always need to ask “affordable for who?” We need to make it for low-income people, but instead we make it for people who are at Area Median Income.” In Harlem, where the AMI is in the mid-20’s, the Mayor’s plan to build “affordable housing” for households making $57,000 accelerates gentrification.

“Another big factor when we talk about vacant property is jobs,” Collier continued. “I was just in Cleveland, which used to depend on US Steel, and now it’s full of vacant properties. We can build all the homes we want, but without an employment program—without an economic base—the dynamics and the complexion of these neighborhoods will continue to change.”

“It’s not enough just to count vacant properties,” Stringer added. “We need to build a movement to change the policies that undergird abandonment.”

“The Manhattan vacant property count was great,” added panelist Brad Lander, of the Pratt Center for Community Development. “And we can’t lose track of the connection between these two moral emergencies: vacant property and homelessness.”

Three years ago, when homeless people first started organizing to see a change in city policy concerning vacant property, Picture the Homeless had a hard time convincing folks that it was still a problem—or that anything could be done about it. It’s exciting to see the extent to which so many folks have taken up this issue, and we’re optimistic that in 2008 the city will take real steps to stop landlords from keeping buildings empty.

On November 26th, at Columbia University, the Charles Revson Fellowship and Picture the Homeless will be hosting a panel entitled “Empty Buildings, Crowded Shelters,” exploring the juncture between housing policy, homelessness, and vacant property. With panelists including Professor Peter Marcuse and Rabbi Michael Feinberg of the Greater New York Labor Religion Coalition, as well as leaders of the Housing Campaign at Picture the Homeless, it will be a dynamic continuation of the dialogue around housing and vacant buildings.

Time: 12 - 3pm (includes lunch reception)
Organized by Picture the Homeless and the Charles H. Revson Fellowship
Location: Columbia University, Faculty House (Enter through the gate on 116th Street between Amsterdam Avenue and Morningside Drive)
Price: Free

(*The zinger first sentence of this blog entry is thanks to Lynn Lewis, of Picture the Homeless*)

Sam J Miller: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 12:24 PM, Nov 21, 2007 in Housing
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