By Sabina Mollot
On Monday, City Comptroller Scott Stringer blasted the Department of Housing, Preservation and Development, saying that at the rate it’s been working to turn over 1,000 vacant city-owned lots into affordable housing, it’ll take 17 years to get them all breaking ground.
His announcement followed a report he issued in 2016 that showed the city was warehousing over 1,100 vacant lots.
Out of those properties, Stringer said nearly 90 percent (1,007) have remained undeveloped. HPD, he said, has transferred only 64 to developers and 54 others have been transferred to other city agencies for their use. Additionally, some properties have remained vacant for 50 years.
Stringer noted that while the city has intended to turn hundreds of these lots into affordable housing, it has failed to meet its own target dates for taking action on 80 percent of them. Stringer is calling for all of the city-owned lots to be used for over 50,000 units of permanent affordable housing and for HPD to create a “realistic” timetable to either make this happen or turn the properties over to other agencies or developers.
This, he said, should happen through the creation of a land bank/land trust, which could also create housing on privately-owned, tax-delinquent properties.
“We’re no longer just a tale of two cities – we’re becoming a tale of two blocks, with luxury towers on one corner and struggling families on another,” Stringer said in a written statement. “We have the tools, but we just need the will from our own government. The ticket to the middle class cannot be a million dollar condo.”
He also accused the HPD of ignoring its commitment to develop the properties and said the agency ought to be selecting developers for specific sites, obtaining architectural plans and meeting with community representatives.
“HPD promised the public that hundreds of those properties would be developed in two years,” said Stringer. “Now, we’ve come back two years later, and we’ve uncovered that the agency’s promises were as empty as these vacant lots.”
The HPD, meanwhile, is denying the comptroller’s claims, with Commissioner Maria Torres-Springer calling his figures inflated. According to the agency, about half of the properties mentioned in the report face challenges from being too small to develop on to ongoing litigation with owners of neighboring properties to contamination. Additionally, some are in flood plains, with 280 of the lots being located in an area of the Far Rockaways where, the HPD is arguing, they face serious flooding threats.
“HPD is aggressively developing its 1,000 remaining public sites for affordable housing, almost all of them small and hard to develop lots,” said Torres-Springer. “The comptroller’s report misrepresents the facts and denies the very real progress made by HPD over the last four years from Seward Park, which now has housing after decades of neglect, to the hundreds of small sites where affordable homes and apartments are in the works.”
The HPD also says it has developed tens of thousands of lots that had either been abandoned or foreclosed on during the Koch administration, but those that remain are vacant because they’re the hardest to develop or tied up in litigation. The agency said it’s transferred 190 properties since 2015, but more than 75 of those (transferred in 2015) weren’t mentioned in Stringer’s report. While not yet transferred an additional 450 lots have been designated to a developer or have an active request for proposal or request for quotation underway.
An HPD spokesperson, Juliet Pierre-Antoine, added that the figures don’t count development that’s already happened if the lot isn’t completely developed because it has gone from multiple tax lots to being considered a single tax lot. She also mentioned one extreme case of a city-owned vacant lot being two feet wide. However, she insisted the agency is doing everything possible to make progress where it’s held up.