City housing officials firmly objected at a hearing Tuesday to a package of proposed bills that City Council members say will deter landlords from leaving apartments vacant — but that the officials say will merely squander scarce government resources.
One bill introduced by Councilmember Carlina Rivera (D-Manhattan) would task the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) with inspecting vacant apartments that generate complaints of potential hazards to neighbors, on top of its existing responsibilities for occupied apartments and building common areas.
A second measure, from Councilmember Lincoln Restler (D-Brooklyn), would require landlords to register properties with the city Department of Finance and detail the reasons for each vacancy within the building.
“What’s significant about this bill is that we’re employing members of the public to report these issues themselves,” Rivera told THE CITY. “Gathering this data could allow us to start pinpointing who the bad actors are.”
At a rally in Foley Square ahead of the hearing, the Council sponsors joined tenants and advocates to urge action on vacant apartments left in states of decay indefinitely.
“When tenants opened their windows, the smell of rotting food permeated the air” from nearby vacant apartments, said Elizabeth Haak, a tenant at 325 E. 12th St. in Manhattan for almost 50 years. Haak recalled “black dust” filling the hallways when workers stripped seven vacant apartments of fire insulation and left them in disrepair.
“Landlords can’t gut these apartments and get away with harming other tenants who still live there,” said Sue Susman, a tenant leader for the Coalition to End Apartment Warehousing.
But inside the Council chambers at City Hall, members of the body’s Committee on Housing and Buildings sparred with representatives from HPD about just how serious an issue apartment “warehousing” really is — with city officials contending the bills could do more harm than good.
The bills “would divert critical resources from HPD’s enforcement,” testified Assistant Commissioner for Housing Policy Lucy Joffe.
At the same time, Joffe — nodding to THE CITY’s reporting, which relied on the department’s own statistics — urged the Council to ignore the five-digit vacancy figures.
“This has become a bit of a distraction in the press in the past few months,” Joffe told the committee. She testified that the more relevant figures from the HPD-commissioned Census Housing and Vacancy Survey concern the relative handful of vacant affordable units.
Joffe estimated that only 2,500 empty rent-stabilized apartments fit all of the criteria of a deeply affordable unit held off the market — one that is deemed unavailable for rent, has a legal rent below $1,000, is in need of repairs, and has been vacant for over one year.
“The concept of warehousing reflects an owner’s intention to keep an apartment off the market — intention is not something that can be measured by the housing and vacancy survey,” said Ilana Maier, a spokesperson for HPD. “What can be measured — and what we know — is that there are very few units available for rent and sitting empty.”
Joffe’s estimate excludes all other vacant rent-stabilized apartments that don’t fit all of those criteria, leaving the total estimate of vacant rent-stabilized units still in the tens of thousands.
Using data obtained from New York state, THE CITY reported that vacant rent-stabilized units in 2021 tended to have higher legal rents than typical stabilized units across the city.
Councilmembers at the hearing expressed outrage at what they contended was HPD downplaying warehousing as an issue affecting tenants. “We on the Council are in the community. We hear these stories every single day,” said Councilmember Alexa Avilés (D-Brooklyn). ”I would advise never to use that terminology of ‘distraction’ when talking about housing in New York City.”
Susman, who lives in a building owned by Stellar Management, testified that her building operators “refused to let the census workers into my building” to conduct their count. “If any of the Stellar buildings were included in the Housing and Vacancy Survey, they would get zero information,” she said. Stellar was not immediately available for comment.
Responded Restler: “This is what so clearly underscores the need for our legislation.”