Just last year, two laws went into effect that require the city to gather data on both public and privately-owned vacant lots. One requires the city to collect information on vacant public and private lots and buildings in areas zoned for residential use. The first report is due in 2020. After that, the city must publish a report every five years.
Another law mandates the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) to issue an annual report to the mayor and City Council on city-owned lots and to provide details on how many have been used to build affordable housing.
There are currently four City Council bills pending on the issue. The latest one, introduced this week by Council member Deborah Rose, would ask owners of empty lots that have been vacant for more than a year to register with the city. Those who don’t comply could face fines of up to $500 a week.
The other bills related to vacant lots would require the city to report twice a year on all the locations of vacant properties to the City Council, ask the Department of Buildings to seal properties which have generated $25,000 or more in unpaid fines, and require landowners to install chain link fencing around construction projects that have stalled for more than two years.
City housing officials are pushing back against Rose's bill, saying that self-reporting is unreliable and pointing to two tracking efforts that are already underway.
“While we support any policy that will help us turn underutilized or vacant land into affordable housing New Yorkers, relying on self-reporting by owners who might have already abandoned their property not only poses data quality concerns, but it’s also incredibly difficult to enforce," a New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development spokesperson wrote in a statement to Gothamist. "The city-wide census of vacant land, which is already underway thanks to a Council bill that was signed into law last year, better utilizes City resources and will result in unprecedented data on vacant lots throughout New York."
In light of this, the mayor’s office has asked the City Council to reconsider its latest bill, saying that the bill would implement two reporting cycles and hamper its efforts to comply with last year's reporting law.
Back in 2016, Comptroller Scott Stringer released a report that said the city had allowed more than 1,100 empty lots to go unused for years, hence squandering opportunities to create more affordable housing.
Housing officials pushed back against those numbers, saying that 310 of those named in the report were in flood zones or were challenging to develop and many others were better suited for other purposes.
Stringer recently raised the issue again on Twitter:
Take a look. These are some of the City’s 600 vacant lots. They might look like a sign of hopelessness, but really they’re a sign of promise.
We can build truly affordable housing with them. All we need is the will to get it done. #HousingWeNeed pic.twitter.com/yXh3mwIA7H
— Scott M. Stringer (@NYCComptroller) January 24, 2019
We agree that vacant lots should be developed for affordable housing - that’s why half of these sites are already in the works! https://t.co/hcr5xsBi54
— NYC HPD (@NYCHousing) January 25, 2019
HPD released a report on city-owned lots under its jurisdiction. Among its findings is a 12 percent decrease in the number of HPD-controlled vacant lots, to 886 lots from 1,009 lots. The agency attributed the drop to conveyances to affordable housing developers and mergers and transfers to other city agencies for non-residential uses.
In addition to being a cause of blight, abandoned lots have also been blamed for posing public health risks, including contributing to feelings of depression and anxiety.
While much of the attention is focused on identifying usable vacant lots, there's also the work of coming up with ideas of how best to fill them. Come February, HPD and the American Institute of Architects New York will launch a design contest for designing affordable housing on small lots.
New York, like other cities, also has a history of people converting vacant city-owned sites into green space or community gardens. In 2011, 596 Acres started a pilot program to help residents identify unused public spaces in neighborhoods and reach out to city agencies to program them for potential uses like gardens. Although the organization is now defunct, their website LivinglotsNYC is still active (albeit outdated).
New Yorkers who spot a dirty, vacant lot can report it online.