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City Council Pushes Bills Targeting Vacant Units, Slammed By Adams Officials As 'Distraction'

New York City housing officials and council members sparred at a hearing Tuesday regarding new legislation that would regulate vacant units in the city, an increasingly divisive issue at the heart of the city’s housing crisis.

GFP's Tom Ortinau and HPD's Lucy Joffe speak at a Bisnow event in February.

Intro 195, a bill sponsored by council members Carlina Rivera and Gale Brewer, would require landlords to keep vacant units in “good repair,” allow tenants to call 311 to report issues in vacant apartments and enforce inspection plans on these apartments.

Politicians, advocates and some landlords say there are tens of thousands of New York City units being kept off the market that would otherwise provide affordable apartments in the midst of the rental crisis.

But the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development, which is charged with tracking vacant units in the city, disagrees. It estimates there are about 2,500 low-cost rent-stabilized units in need of repairs that have been vacant for a year or more and were unavailable at the time of the 2021 Housing Vacancy Survey — a far cry from the approximately 20,000 landlord groups have suggested are languishing.

“This debate is unfortunately not grounded in the data. We do not have a lot of vacant units,” Lucy Joffe, the assistant commissioner for housing policy at HPD, testified at the bill's hearing before the city council's Committee on Housing and Buildings Tuesday.

The department doesn't support legislation, saying a strategy focused on what Joffe said is one-tenth of 1% of the city’s housing market is not an effective strategy and “risks distracting” from work at hand — building new housing.

“The dearth of units available for rent on any given day in our city is one of the main problems in our housing market,” she said. “This is why it is incredibly difficult — especially for low- and moderate-income New Yorkers — to find a new home they can afford if they have to move. That shortage puts further upward pressure on the rents of available apartments.” 

Just how many units are off the market has become a subject of fierce debate in recent months, with tenant advocates, residents, small-property owners, powerful real estate lobbyists and city and state lawmakers weighing in.

The cause of vacant units and what should be done about them is a matter of debate, but so is the scale of the problem. For example, landlord group Community Housing Improvement Program estimates that since 2019, some 20,000 to 30,000 apartments have become available but are still vacant because their owners are limited by state law in how much they can spend to renovate units and pass on the costs. 

Tenant advocates, and politicians like Rivera and Brewer, have said there are thousands that are off the market because landlords are deliberately trying to influence the market and the political environment.

New York state officials and tenant advocates have told Bisnow the numbers are being inflated by certain groups to push their cause.

Based on the 2021 survey, the most recent available, there were nearly 43,000 units vacant and unavailable for rent. Joffe testified that 12% of those were actually rented and the tenant had not yet moved in, some 24% were actually being renovated at the time and only been vacant for around a month. Some 11% had been vacant for a year or longer with explanation, but their median legal rent was $3,233, Joffe said.

“These are not homes that would be affordable to low-income New Yorkers,” she said. “If these units were to come online, a New York City household would have to earn at least $130K to afford that home.”

Joffe emphasized that 2,477 units were low-cost, vacant and unavailable to rent, less than 0.25% of the rent-stabilized housing stock. Rivera, the bill’s sponsor, fired back — questioning HPD's decision to downplay the 2,500 vacant apartments as a distraction.

“Calling it a tiny slice, when many of the people here are fighting for crumbs, I just don't think that that was appropriate,” she told Joffe. “As maybe insignificant or as trivial as you think that this one-tenth of a 1% might be, I have a hard time understanding the administration's sort of broader focus on how to address the housing crisis.”

Certainly, that crisis only seems to be worsening. Manhattan average rent hit $4,241 per month in April, a new record. Generating more housing to bring rents down has been the focus for both state and city politicians, but the New York legislative session is drawing to a close this week without any agreement on any housing policies as of yet.