East Harlem - > When the advocacy group Picture the Homeless set out to illustrate the untapped potential of vacant buildings to provide affordable housing, they chose a padlocked structure on the northwest corner of East 116th Street and Madison Avenue in East Harlem. Earlier this month, as 150 protesters marched in circles in front of the building's white, columned facade, activist Sam White made the case to reporters. "There is no reason why buildings that are still standing cannot be occupied," he said.

But the owner of the building says she has a very good reason for not using it: She is waiting for help from God.

1770 Madison Avenue is just one of some 2,200 unused lots and buildings in Manhattan detected in a 2006 survey of vacant property by Borough President Scott Stringer. Stringer concluded that the empty property could accommodate 24,000 housing units. Since then, the borough president, Picture the Homeless and lawmakers at the city and state level have pushed competing policy ideas to encourage new housing development in empty structures and lots.

But the building at 1770 Madison Avenue illustrates the limitations of these efforts to force private owners to put private property to public use.

A squat, or not

Organizers of the March 19 protest faced problems of their own—but not for lack of ambition or effort. Picture the Homeless, a group run by and for the homeless, wants the city to use the $575 million or more it spends annually to operate its shelter system to instead create permanent housing for the homeless using vacant property in the city's real estate portfolio.

After at least three years of advocacy, the group this winter decided to take a dramatic step: sending squatters in to occupy a vacant, city-owned building to attract attention from the major media and public officials and pitch their plan, which calls for diverting shelter money to a trust fund to support mutual housing associations that would transform city-owned vacant buildings and vacant lots into affordable housing.

At a packed March 12 strategy session attended by groups ranging from the Association for Inmates' Rights to Queers for Economic Justice, Picture the Homeless planners recruited volunteers to work security, provide legal assistance, initiate a guerrilla media campaign, organize streetside entertainment and supply food to the squatters. The location of the squat was kept secret.

A week later, at least 150 marchers gathered in a cold rain for the walk to the secret site, 1770 Madison Avenue. But when they arrived, there were no squatters to cheer. Picture the Homeless had tried to gather intelligence on the building before sending the squatters in, but the person deployed to do reconnaissance was detained by police officers. So when the day of the protest arrived, the squatters did not know what they would find when they entered. What they found was a roof caving in and a floor ready to collapse, so they evacuated, according to organizer Sam Miller. Picture the Homeless then adjusted its policy pitch to reflect what they had found inside: Rather than demanding that the city simply turn over its vacant properties for housing, the group now insisted that the city fix them up first.

The conditions inside were only the first surprise. It also turned out that the property was not city owned. With no address posted on the building, the confusion was understandable. Picture the Homeless activist Rob Robinson says even city officials on hand were confused about exactly what building everyone was standing in front of. The building next door is, in fact, owned by the New York City Housing Authority, but is occupied.

Waiting to serve

1770 Madison Avenue is not. The building used to be a bank: Bankers Trust bought it from the Issud Realty Company in 1923 and held it for 56 years. The lot was exempted from a local urban development plan in the early 1970s. In 1978, Bankers Trust sold it to the International Gospel Helpers Church for $35,000. The church is still the owner. And, the owner says, the building—no matter what it looks like—is still a church.

"It's not for sale. It's not for rent. It's not for anything," says Madeline Pugh, who goes by Mother Pugh and is the Pentecostal minister who has overseen the International Gospel Helpers Church since it purchased the building. "It's just waiting for God to help us open it up."
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Pugh says the church once attracted hundreds of congregants. She is not sure when the building stopped operating, but Department of Buildings records indicate that as early as 1993 an inspector found "severe erosion of roof area to include interior defects due to outsie eliments (sic) entering structure." Over 30 years of ownership, the church does not appear to have filed a single permit for plumbing, electrical or structural work on the building. A number of building code violations have been entered against the structure. In 2006, an unknown party paid $500 to settle some of the infractions. Since it is a church, the property does not pay any property taxes.

Pugh, who says she is well-known in the neighborhood, was alerted to the Picture the Homeless protest by a phone call and dispatched two representatives to talk to protesters and the police. She insisted that signs the demonstrators had attached to the building be taken down and says she threatened a lawsuit.

"People have been wanting to buy that building for the longest. We're not after that. We're after God's word. We have some fantastic plans that God has already instilled in us," she tells City Limits. "It's going to be an outreach mission reaching out to people for the salvation of souls" particularly "people who are in a disastrous condition."

"So many people want to be a part of it," she says. Pugh declined to estimate what it would cost to repair the building but says she'll begin work "as soon as the money starts flowing in," adding, "God can do anything but fail."

Prodding through policy

Despite the surprises lurking inside 1770 Madison Avenue and on its deed, Picture the Homeless's Robinson viewed the March 19 event as a success. "I think we were successful at putting a message out there that abandoned buildings in the city are a problem, and this one in particular is a problem. Obviously, they don't have the wherewithal to rehab that building and it's a nuisance to that neighborhood," he says. "We'll continue to hammer home the message. The city needs to help somebody like this lady or this church to at least keep the building in a safe condition. We think the city certainly has the money to do it."

Picture the Homeless' focus on publicly owned vacant property would sidestep private owners like Pugh and their unique reasons for not doing more with their assets. But it's unclear that the city's empty buildings alone could make a deep enough dent in unmet demand for affordable housing. According to the 2007 Mayor's Management Report (the last MMR to report the statistic) the city has 92 vacant buildings on its books, with 517 apartment units in them. There are currently 35,000 people in city shelters—down from a high in 2003 of (on average) 38,000 per day but still higher than the average daily shelter population in any year before 2002.

While Picture the Homeless has focused on city properties, other recent efforts have concentrated on providing new incentives to private owners of vacant property. Last summer, the state legislature passed and the governor signed a new law that changed the tax status of vacant lots to charge them at a higher rate. According to a spokesman for Sen. Jose Serrano, a sponsor of the tax measure, the effect is being phased in over five years, so only 20 percent of the increase is hitting this year. (See Raise Taxes, Slap A Fee, Anything To Urge Housing, City Limits Weekly #623, Jan. 21, 2008.)

An example of the effect is seen in the taxes due on one vacant lot on 122nd Street, which quintupled from $400 a year in 2008, before the change, to $2,700 this year. Once the five-year phase-in is done, the tax on the lot would be $12,440 at its current value.

As painful as a $12,000 leap in taxes over five years might be, it pales compared to the cost of developing a new building. While the tax change imposes a cost on owners for doing nothing, it's still probably cheaper than doing anything else. In other words, the incentive is limited. That's why some have called for further steps to get vacant properties developed.
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In Jan. 2008, three City Council bills were introduced calling for an annual report on vacant city property, a registration of all vacant property and an annual survey of such property. None of the measures has even had a committee hearing yet. A City Council spokesman says the bills are being reviewed by committee. Also in January of last year, Councilman Tony Avella of Queens proposed legislation that would treat vacant property as a public nuisance, but that bill has never been formally introduced because of concerns that its language might conflict with previous state court decisions.

All four proposals emerged while the city's housing market was still strong. That, of course, has changed—the number of building permits issued for new building and major renovations in the first four months of fiscal year 2009 was 35 percent lower than the same period a year earlier.

Mother Pugh understands this as well as anyone—getting money for her long-delayed repairs will be even harder now, with credit hard to come by and public coffers tapped. "This is just one of those things," she says. "You have to be patient and wait on God."

- Jarrett Murphy