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Empty condos anger housing advocates

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Protestors surrounded Jill Reeves with blown-up images of vacant condominiums at an affordable housing rally sponsored by Right to the City-NYC.

“I don’t know where I’m going to sleep tonight, but it may be inside one of those buildings,” said Reeves, who is homeless, pointing to the images as she addressed rally-goers from a roadside podium on the corner of Flatbush Avenue and Fleet Street in Downtown Brooklyn.

There are 601 such buildings, currently empty and unavailable to Reeves, across New York City, according to a recent report compiled by Right to the City-NYC, a coalition of community organizations that advocates for working-class issues.

The information was compiled by 150 canvassers, mostly from participating Right to the City organizations, from late July to mid-October. The research spans nine community districts, 298 census tracts in Downtown Brooklyn, Bushwick, Chelsea, the Lower East Side, Harlem, the South Bronx and the West Village. It contains not only information about each building’s occupancy, but also the average price of units and foreclosure status.

“Right now, the city is not sufficiently documenting the problem of empty condos and stalled construction in low-income communities,” said David Dodge, Right to the City coordinator. “We are hoping the city will take a close look at these numbers and work with the Right to the City to make these vacant condos available to low-income people.”

The protest marked the publication of the coalition’s findings and the beginning of a movement to urge the city to purchase vacant condominiums and turn them into affordable housing for low-income and homeless New Yorkers.

John Tyus, one of the canvassers involved in compiling the research, is a leader of the Brooklyn-based community organization Families United for Racial and Economic Equality, a member of the Right to the City coalition. His cell phone SIM card is full of small, pixilated pictures of men and women living on New York City streets.

“It makes me sick when I see people who are homeless in a city as wealthy as New York,” said Tyus, scanning the inequity that he has documented on his phone.

One picture shows a woman squatting outside a vacant condominium. Empty units and a New Yorker still struggling for shelter — the juxtaposition represents the Right to the City-NYC’s impetus for its take from the rich, give to the poor platform.

Tyus noted the contrast of excess housing and homelessness in his speech at the rally. “There are 39,000 people in shelters,” he said, “and this town has empty towers in our neighborhoods.”

Later, Tyus explained that although the data shows that recession-era shelters are swelling with newcomers, the city’s estimation of overall homelessness “doesn’t include people who don’t get into shelters. If you don’t get back at a certain time, the shelter gives your bed to someone else. That means that, if you don’t get back in time, you might not eat tonight.”

A spokesperson from the NYC Department of Homeless Services (DHS) says that the Bloomberg administration has cut the number of New York’s street-based homeless by about 47 percent since 2005. The department’s Hope 2009: The NYC Street Survey claims that the homeless population of Reeves’ borough, Brooklyn, decreased by 66 percent from 2005 to 2009, leaving 200 of an original estimation of about 600 on the streets.

Recently, the DHS outreach teams created 411 Safe Haven beds and 150 stabilization beds, housing 1,200 New Yorkers who would otherwise be on the streets. The DHS spokesperson reports that the city is prepared to shelter all the homeless in need of lodging in the coming winter months.

It took the HDS nearly five years to get half of NYC’s homeless population off the streets. Finding permanent dwellings is just as difficult for homeless New Yorkers. People who maintain their presence in the shelter system face long waits before finally obtaining permanent housing. “The process has now created a situation where it could be four or five years before you find an apartment following procedures,” Tyus said.

Right to the City members hope that their findings will result in more affordable housing, which will in turn expedite the sometimes grueling struggle for permanent lodging.

Jill Reeves has been waiting for one city-funded organization to process her request for permanent housing. She refused to disclose the name of the organization, fearing that it would jeopardize her application.

“I had to be outside for them to see me sleep outside,” she said. Reeves described how she went to the park, set herself up for the night and called the organization’s office.

“I was in the park, they drove up, turned the lights on and blew the horn. I asked them, ‘You’re not gonna take a picture of me or anything,’ and the lady replied, ‘No, I visibly saw you,’” Reeves said.

She put her head down on the desk in front of her and explained that is how she sleeps at homeless shelters. There is oftentimes not enough space for people to lie down.

“Hopefully they’ll do that paperwork rapidly instead of sending me to other agencies,” Reeves said. It has been three months since her escapade in the park.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) have already devoted $20 million to buying out condominiums and turning them into affordable housing through the Housing Asset Renewal Program (HARP).

DHP spokesperson Catie Marshall said that HARP “is designed to lower the cost of units in these buildings by providing a subsidy while requiring the developers and lenders to agree to substantial reductions in their expected profits.”

HARP was originally publicized as a program to provide “affordable housing opportunities for moderate and middle-income families.”

Tyus believes that housing programs targeted to middle-income, as opposed to low-income and homeless, New Yorkers neglects the real issue of getting people off the streets. “You need to first address the most needy,” he said, “You don’t stop to straighten out pictures in the living room when the kitchen’s on fire.”

The Bloomberg administration’s New Housing Market plan has already begun development on 95,000 affordable homes and plans to create or preserve 165,000 by 2014. Marshall says that the affordable housing units are being created “for homeless, special needs, low- , moderate- , and middle-income New Yorkers.”

Despite the city’s ongoing efforts to help New Yorkers of all income brackets, Reeves said she is still left without options catering to her needs.

“If you can stand up and say that you live in a free society and acknowledge that there are people who are denied liberties [to housing],” Reeves said, “then you are not human.” She said that as a homeless person in New York, “you get stigmatized, you get marginalized, then you get forgotten, but you’re still a part of the city.”

Tyus is optimistic that Right to the city’s demands on the HPD will be successful, despite the major costs associated with buying out empty condominiums across the city.

HPD is currently waiting on some background information that Right to the City has promised to provide. Marshall said, “We had a productive and interesting meeting with the group a few weeks ago, and following their presentation asked to see the data they are collecting when it is complete.”

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