East Harlem
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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