Categorized | Housing, Money, Southern Bronx

Open Vacant Buildings to Low-Income Families, Housing Advocates Urge


Within a span of fewer than 10 blocks, three buildings on Courtlandt Avenue tell the South Bronx’s version of New York City’s housing crisis.

On the corner with 161st Street, construction workers complete the last floor of a new, nine-story building. Between 152nd and 153rd, a set of elegant, newly built condos lays vacant, but boarded up to avoid squatters. A block away, a crumbling building is covered in notices to vacate due to perilous conditions, but some windows are open and the premises seem occupied nonetheless.


Eviction notices posted on this vacant Courtlandt Avenue building say the place is perilous. Photo by Alice Speri

Much like other stretches of New York City, this section of Melrose has recently turned into a construction site. Within a few blocks, longtime residents can no longer afford to pay rent, high-rise buildings wait for the cash necessary to complete construction, and brand new condos remain unoccupied, waiting for tenants turned away by the economic downturn.

In the South Bronx alone, 93 buildings are empty, according to the group Right to the City, which is slated to release in the spring the full findings from a survey it did of unoccupied and incomplete developments throughout the city.

With the housing market nearly frozen by the recession and growing numbers of Bronx residents without a home, some city officials and community organizers are considering converting these empty constructions into affordable housing, that is, if they can agree on what affordable means.

The Housing Asset Renewal Program (HARP), a $20 million pilot initiative launched last August by the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development, offers financial support to developers to complete or convert their buildings on the condition that some of the units are put on the market at lower prices.

Experts, however, say the incentive to developers may not be enough to generate interest. Community activists, on the other hand, fear the program won’t benefit those most in need.

The program calls for rents that are affordable to households with incomes at or below $99,800 for a family of four, or $69,900 for an individual. The average household income in the Bronx is less than $34,000.

“HARP won’t benefit folks of low income,” said Nova Strachan, the housing justice director for the Hunts Point-based group Mothers on the Move. The group is one of 15 community organizations that joined Right to the City in conducting its survey of vacant properties. Strachan compared the initiative to the construction of the new Yankee Stadium. “They spent over $300 million to build this stadium, they put a Hard Rock Café right next to a McDonald’s, ” she said. “That’s beautiful, but for the folks that live here and struggle every day, how does that benefit us?”

In the six neighborhoods Right to the City surveyed, it found 601 vacant buildings, a stark difference from the approximately 400 the Department of Buildings estimates for the entire city.

Right to the City’s member organizations are calling for the conversion of the vacant buildings into housing for families with lower incomes than what the HARP guidelines call for.


On Courtlandt Avenue, between 152nd and 153rd Streets, new apartments lay vacant and boarded up to discourage squatters. Photo by Alice Speri

In short, the city’s definition of what is affordable needs to be rescaled.

“It’s outrageous, $20 million directed at the middle class and upper-middle class is not really an ideal use of funds,” said John Tyus, a Bronx native and spokesman for the group Families United for Racial and Economic Equality. Tyus added that the money appears to be a bailout of irresponsible developers.

To be eligible for financing through the Housing Asset Renewal Program, a project must be a completed or partly constructed, unoccupied, residential building where the owner is unable to either complete construction or sell or rent a sufficient number of units. The money available is intended to convert market-rate units to affordable units and enable the owner to complete construction. A minimum of 50 percent of the dwelling units must be put on the market at affordable rates for at least 30 years.

“This program holds out the promise of addressing the unintended blight caused by vacant sites, while transforming what would have been market-rate buildings into affordable housing for working class New Yorkers,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said when he launched the program.

As many as 400 units could be converted as part of the pilot program, Department of Housing representatives said. Preference will be given to projects in neighborhoods that have been hit particularly hard by the downturn in the housing market and projects that need less subsidy to be completed.

Though the initial deadline for applications was set for the end of December, no contracts have been announced yet, and the deadline was extended to April 1, leaving many in the community believing that the program was unsuccessful.

In Riverdale, a Bronx neighborhood where vacant luxury condos are a common sight, not one developer had signed up for the program, Bronx Borough Director Mike Lugo said at a Community Board 8 meeting last November. Several people at the meeting said they had never heard of the program.

Instead, faced with a stall in sales, the developers of the Solaria luxury high-rise in Riverdale opted to auction off the 54 condos in the complex, for prices as low as 56 percent of the original listings.

Many think the city’ s program does not offer enough of a financial draw for developers, who have made huge investments into these properties.

“Many of the bigger developers are financially stable and can warehouse their properties until things get better,” said Tyus, of Families United for Racial and Economic Equality.

But Tyus added this was an opportunity policy makers should take advantage of.

“The city is in an excellent position to negotiate with the developers and the banks,” said Tyus. “To have them all take a little bit less and provide a great deal more.”

3 Responses to “Open Vacant Buildings to Low-Income Families, Housing Advocates Urge”

  1. First, thank you on your insightful post. I love your website and find it fantastically instructive. I love your aptitude of pointing out (by blogging) little things that others do not take time to mention. I found it while doing a search on Yahoo and I surely will return here when I have more time.Thanks

  2. A little lost here on your post. The first image which is of the vacant building on Courtlandt Avenue between East 150th and East 151st Streets which you mentioned it to be, ” a crumbling building is covered in notices to vacate due to perilous conditions, but some windows are open and the premises seem occupied nonetheless.” The building is vacant and has been for a little over a year and was home to a Pentecostal church and is CLEARLY vacant. I live in the neighborhood and pass by that particular building every day. You also incorrectly mentioned the “elegant condos” on Courtlandt Avenue between East 152nd and East 153rd streets…do you mean 651 Courtlandt? That building was never built as condos and was always advertised as rentals. The building has been sitting there due to issues with the owner/builder. Just recently (actually today, 2/24/2010) a work order was submitted for 6 boilers/water heaters to be placed in the cellar level so it appears that work will proceed once again after a year long pause.

    Where are the condos that are laying vacant? All condos have been sold in the area so i’m really at a loss to your source for these statements which truly makes me question the validity of your story.

    Ed Garcia Conde
    The “Mayor” of Melrose

  3. avatar brenda cabrer says:

    l inteted in your app


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