06/07/2010 02:04 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

New York Sits on Empty Housing While the Poor Face Displacement

New York feels like a bustling, overcrowded city, but in many ways--physically, socially, and morally--the Big Apple looks pretty empty these days.

The recession has deepened the affordable housing crisis plaguing American cities, making it all but impossible for the working poor and unemployed to keep the rent up. Haunted by foreclosures and a homelessness epidemic, struggling New Yorkers face eviction, pile into relatives' homes, get shoved into shelters or even onto the streets.

A coalition of community-based organizations has located the social roots of the crisis not in a slumping real estate market, but in the business interests controlling the city's housing stock, which opts to let apartments sit empty rather than open them to people struggling to keep a roof over their heads.

The abysmal irony of New York's housing problem is explored in detail in a report by the Right to the City (RTTC). According to their investigation of vacant condominiums in several communities, property owners and developers have dotted the city with thousands of idle empty or partially constructed units, in hopes of capitalizing on a speculative market. Their real estate gamble intensifies the housing burden on working-class residents.

RTTC deployed participatory social research to challenge to common assumptions about the city's real estate landscape. Over a period of several months, the research team of RTTC scoured more than 250 census tracts for data on vacant or incomplete housing units, and then analyzed the prospects for converting them into viable low-priced homes. In low-income neighborhoods ranging from Harlem to Bed-Stuy, the group was "able to identify thousands of units of vacant housing that have not been accounted for by the city, the media, or any other means." It turns out that the city's concrete jungle is a gold mine of "warehoused" empty structures:

RTTC-NYC canvassers identified 264 residential buildings that are either completely or partially vacant. Canvassers identified these buildings as completed structures that are not currently undergoing construction. These buildings contain a total of 4,092 units of housing that would be ready to house low-income families immediately.

The vacancies tie into the warped logic of the real estate market:

Given the current economic climate, hundreds of luxury residential units remain unsold on the market for up to several years. 94 of the buildings identified by RTTC-NYC canvassers are currently maintaining listings on various online real estate websites. These condominiums have been on the market for an average of 418 days.

Despite Mayor Michael Bloomberg's reputation for running the city with dictatorial corporate efficiency, and despite a recent rise in homelessness, aggressive gentrification, and a weakening public housing system, the government seems reluctant to question why idle property can't be turned over to people on the verge of getting priced out of their own neighborhoods. Could it be that top-down redistribution of one of the city's most coveted resources just isn't in vogue?

From a business standpoint, it may be profitable to shelve empty units in anticipation of future price increases. But currently, these vacancies appear to be draining the city's coffers. RTTC uncovered "138 luxury residential buildings that are currently more than a year delinquent on paying their property, water, or sewer taxes. Consequently, New York City is losing a total of $3,797,690 in taxes from these developments." The loss of tax revenue is a double-blow to the poor, who suffer from both underfunded public services and exclusion from quality housing stock.

Still, converting a few thousand vacant condos into low-income units would not close the housing gap, and could hit political snags under a billionaire mayor and a privatization-friendly Department of Housing and Urban Development. So although some city programs have worked to convert distressed properties, RTTC calls for more systemic reforms to provide real housing security.

The city could start by conducting a comprehensive citywide census of vacant properties, and by charging owners a fee when they warehouse housing.

Long-term solutions involve major investments in community development and clamping down on gentrification and speculation.

More direct interventions could come at the state level: lawmakers could "Condemn and seize all completely vacant residential buildings that have been unable to sell any of their units for over 1 year through eminent domain, and then sell the land for $1 to a Community Land Trust," or to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Such changes may for now lie on the distant horizon, but the Right to the City's basic proposition for housing justice--part of a nationwide grassroots movement--underscores the foundations of the housing crisis, which lie not in random market fluctuations, but in a failure of public policy. By pushing whole neighborhoods toward displacement, the city of capitalist excess has decided that equity is a luxury it cannot afford.