Opinion

Turning vacant lots into affordable homes

By Rev. David K. Brawley and Father Francis Skelly |  

February 22, 2016 |  

The Spring Creek Nehemiah Homes in East New York were built on vacant lots owned by the city. (East Brooklyn Congregations)

New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer’s recent report that identified 1,130 vacant and city-owned lots is shocking, but all too familiar. Every empty lot represents a missed opportunity for the city to build more desperately needed affordable housing. What’s more, building on vacant sites means that no residents need to be displaced in the process, nor is there a need for the kind of complicated and controversial trade-offs that have mired Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposed housing plan in a heated debate with housing advocates and community boards.

The report is also shocking because New York City built a strong reputation as the national – in fact, international – leader in the field of affordable housing construction on vacant property. Unlike any other city, it developed the programs and the expertise to deliver new housing on empty sites over the past four decades. And it didn’t do it alone.

Starting in the late 1970s, the Community Preservation Corporation pioneered the renovation of both abandoned and occupied, but declining, apartment buildings in Washington Heights. Beginning in 1983, Metro Industrial Areas Foundation’s affiliate, East Brooklyn Congregations, broke ground of the first of thousands of affordable Nehemiah homes in Brooklyn and the South Bronx on lots just like the ones identified by Comptroller Stringer. In fact, the large lot featured in the photo the New York Times published along with the news story on Stringer’s report was an entire block surrounded by Nehemiah homes built by EBC leaders.

Today, four mayors later, EBC continues to build affordable homes and apartments in the Spring Creek section of East New York. All across Brownsville and East New York, more than 3,500 Nehemiah homes have provided decent and affordable housing to African-American and Hispanic buyers for decades. Another 1,000 similar homes were built in the South Bronx. More than 1,200 affordable apartments were also built or renovated.

Many other hard-working and able organizations – Common Ground (now Breaking Ground), the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, groups headed by Fr. Lou Gigante and the Rev. Calvin Butts, the New York City Partnership – added thousands of other new homes and apartment buildings to the tax rolls.

The amount of vacant city-owned land today is considerably smaller than it was 30 years ago. The mayor argued that the number of empty lots is much less than 1,130. Perhaps it is. But even if the number is 700 or 800, those 700 or 800 sites could support many thousands of new homes or apartments. Two years ago, Mayor de Blasio should have continued to do what other administrations have done so well – expedite construction on these sites. Happy owners and renters could be in new homes today.

The vacant sites listed in Stringer’s report are not the only remaining vacant parcels. There are literally hundreds of underutilized spaces throughout New York City Housing Authority developments.

In October, we opened Redwood Senior Living, which was built on a former housing authority parking lot. For every senior that moved out of a larger underused apartment from public housing, a family was able to move off the waitlist and out of a shelter into an apartment. NYCHA has moved at a snail’s pace to develop a few sites in the past two years. Two hundred such sites would generate nearly 15,000 new apartments for seniors – thus freeing up 15,000 NYCHA units and other apartments for those languishing in shelters and motels at an enormous cost to the city.

Mayor de Blasio was immediately dismissive of the comptroller’s recommendation, which is keeping in line with his habit of favoring “historic” proclamations about “transformational” and unprecedented programs. The effort to add approximately 300,000 homes and apartments to the city housing stock over the past 35 years was not a public relations campaign or a flight of rhetorical fancy. It was accomplished block by block, site by site, year after year, by a mix of nonprofit, public and private sector players. All of this dogged incremental work added up.

So let’s stop arguing over the number of lots to be built on. And let’s break through the slow and inept NYCHA bureaucracy. Tens of thousands of homes and apartments can be built – and built soon – to relieve the extraordinary pressure that all New Yorkers feel when they search for housing.

Brawley is the pastor of St. Paul Community Baptist Church and Skelly is the pastor of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church. Both are leaders of Metro Industrial Areas Foundation.

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