Vacant Land in NYC

photo by Eric Fischer

NYC Comptroller Stringer has released an Audit Report on the Development of City-Owned Vacant Lots by the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development. Stringer has  taken some cheap shots on Mayor DeBlasio’s housing plans before (here for instance). This report amounts to another one. The Audit Findings and Conclusion read,

Our audit found that the City owns over a thousand vacant lots that could be developed under existing urban renewal programs, but many of these lots have been allowed to languish and remain undeveloped for up to 50 years or longer.  While HPD contends that over the years it has disposed of most of the lots it has been responsible for, we found that as of September 18, 2015, HPD listed 1,131 vacant lots under its jurisdiction.  Further, we found that although HPD solicits developers to build on these properties, it has not established plans with realistic time schedules to actually transfer City-owned vacant properties to developers.

Pursuant to General Municipal Law § 502, HPD has devised urban renewal plans for areas that include its vacant properties.  However, we found that the projected schedules are often pushed to a later date and sometimes no date is specified at all, notwithstanding the fact that the law requires “a proposed time schedule for the effectuation of such plan.”  Accordingly, it appears that schedules with adequate procedures to enable the transfer of City-owned properties to developers in accordance with those schedules have not been consistently formulated.  Finally, we identified an additional 340 City-owned vacant lots under the jurisdiction of other City agencies that could be considered to be used for residential construction. (2)

Even the language of this summary reveals the Comptroller’s spin. It is laughable to say that the City has allowed vacant land “to languish and remain undeveloped  for up to 50 years or longer.” The fact is that the City took ownership of much of this land during the ’60s and ’70s because it was abandoned by the owners who did not pay their property taxes. Much of the land had absolutely no value for decades.

This has certainly changed in the last 20 years or so, so it is worth evaluating whether the City should be taking more aggressive steps to get this land developed. Certainly one would think that this Mayor would want to do just that. And indeed, the Comptroller’s report shows that the Mayor has slated over half of those parcels for development over the next few years. The City’s response to the Audit indicates that many of the remaining parcels pose development challenges for residential development.

My take (having written extensively about abandoned land in NYC, here for instance) is that Stringer is making a mountain out a molehill. Every mayor from Koch through De Blasio has attempted to develop or sell much of the vacant land owned by the City. This audit fails to demonstrate that the City has a serious problem on this count.

Reducing The Cost of Affordable Housing Development: Lessons for NYC?

Enterprise and the Urban Land Institute have issued a report, Bending the Cost Curve on Affordable Rental Development: Understanding the Drivers of Cost, that identifies affordable housing development’s “most commonly cited cost drivers, provides a brief overview of their impact and applicability, and includes high-level recommendations to promote a more efficient delivery system.” (4). As the report notes,

Affordable housing delivery is shaped by a number of procedures, regulations, and policies instituted at all levels of the system—each with associated costs. Development costs may be dictated by site constraints, design elements, local land use and zoning restrictions, building codes, delays in the development process, efforts to reduce long-term operating costs, and the affordable housing finance system. Most affordable developments rely on multiple funding streams, both equity and debt, each of which carries its own set of requirements and compliance costs. While there may be some alignment of affordable housing land use regulations, financing tools, or programs, far too often developers must seek a complex series of approvals or obtain waivers to bring a project to fruition. This process alone can introduce costs through delays to the development timeline as well as introduce additional uncertainty and risk, which, in addition to regulatory barriers, can also increase costs. (3)

While the report offers no shocking insights into affordable housing’s cost drivers, it does provide a good overview. It also brings to mind research that NYU’s Furman Center did some years ago about the drivers of the high cost of housing construction in New York City.

Given that Mayor-Elect de Blasio has put affordable housing at the center of his campaign, his team should focus on reducing these costs as part of his overall affordable housing strategy. Mayors Bloomberg and Giuliani were not able to make any significant progress on this issue, even though doing so would be quite consistent with their approach to governance. Perhaps that makes it even more of a compelling goal for the de Blasio Administration.