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Seizing Empty Apartment Buildings: Righteous Robin Hood or State Tyranny?

By | May 31, 2010

Non-profit organizations in New York City are floating a proposal to convert vacant apartment units into homes for the homeless.

The organization Right to the City, which is spearheading the effort, wrote a report detailing the vacant housing stock in the city. The report authors “canvased 265 census tracts in 9 community disctrics to identify vacant condominiums that were completely constructed and completely vacant, completely constructed and partially vacant, or under construction and completely vacant.”

Certia Parker of Mothers on the Move, arguing in favor of Right to the City’s proposal, told City Limits

It just seems very logical that if these buildings are vacant and they are warehousing them, while we have families living in shelters, living in SROs, these apartments should be taken over by the city through tax foreclosure, like any other building. These are homes and we have homeless people.

However, the City Limits article goes on to explain that while there may be moral clarity on the proposal, the particulars are in part complicated by the fact that “the city sells its tax liens to private investors, who then control the debt.” By selling the leins to private investors, the city may very well be selling away its ability to carry out Right to the City’s vision.

Vacant apartment buildings in the face of rampant housing instablity and homelessness seems like a plain sight social inefficiency. However, is it not the right of land owners to hold units vacant, waiting for a buyer at a price they think is reasonable? And what about those investors who buy tax liens from the city, providing the city with needed cash flow?

Right to the City’s proposal, if not a wholly actionable one, is certainly thought provoking. They are correct to point out that an overstock of vacant housing makes little sense in the face of homelessness. However, seizing property simply because it is unoccupied is not a reasonable solution.

As I see it, Right to the City’s proposal is insadequate because it aims to fix a problem that should be avoided in the first place through better city planning. Seizing properties is wrong-headed and sets a dangerous precedent. Instead, the situation in New York should serve as a cautionary tale for smarter planning, such as mandating that affordable housing be integrated into new developments, including the luxury apartments targeted by Right to the City.

Photo credit: Dunechaser