Issue #151, Fall 2007
An organization of homeless New Yorkers rallied residents of Harlem and Manhattan to stand up and take notice of the city's long-standing practice of warehousing vacant properties.
By Sam J. Miller
How many people does it take to make a revolution?
Historians estimate that fewer than 500 Bolsheviks stormed the Winter
Palace in October 1917, effectively placing the Soviets in power.
Ninety years later in New York City, there are
38,000 homeless folks living in shelters, and untold thousands on the
street - more than enough to start a homeless revolution.
For two Saturdays, in July and October of 2006,
a group of senior citizens, veterans, mothers and children, and formerly
homeless people combed every inch of Manhattan to count abandoned buildings
and vacant lots. The goal was to expose the numerous buildings being
kept off the market while a very real housing crisis festers throughout
Since 2004, homeless members of Picture
the Homeless (PTH) have been challenging claims by city officials
that the number of vacant buildings has vastly diminished. As recently
as May 2007, Shaun Donovan, commissioner of the city's Department of
Housing Preservation and Development, testified before the House Committee
on Ways and Means that "The crisis of abandonment that plagued
many New York neighborhoods...[has been] solved." We needed to
prove that such claims were false and that there were vast quantities
of property left unused. While a count of vacant property might not
seem too earth-shattering, in cities such as St. Louis and Boston, the
technique was instrumental in moving elected officials to adopt new
policies on land disposition.
"We are convinced that the numbers of underutilized
spaces will surprise a lot of New Yorkers," PTH leader DeBoRah
Dickinson says. We needed something compelling and startling, since
so many people were unaware that tens of thousands of units were left
Picture the Homeless is an activist group that
was founded in 1999 by two homeless men in response to the Giuliani
administration's oppressive policies toward the homeless. In the late
1990s there were frequent arrests of folks living on the street and
predawn raids on shelters in search of people with outstanding warrants
- all of which were applauded by the mainstream media. PTH initially
focused on organizing homeless people to fight against media misrepresentations
of the homeless and the NYPD's violations of their civil rights, but
it became clear that homeless people also wanted to fight for changes
in city housing policy.
While developing the housing campaign, we realized
that nothing galvanized the homeless community more than landlords keeping
so many buildings empty. Within a month of launching the campaign, our
meetings attracted standing-room-only crowds, and we were aggressively
researching policies, legislative precedents, and earlier grass-roots
movements dedicated to reclaiming vacant space - ranging from New York's
Lower East Side squatters to the Brazilian Landless People's Movement.
We developed a comprehensive policy platform of
penalties and incentives designed to generate housing for the homeless
out of vacant property. We called for broadening the definition of "nuisance"
buildings to include empty properties, because they are detrimental
to the life and health of the community at large; imposing steep fines
for landlords who keep property empty; and creating new funding streams
and financing structures to ensure that any housing developed remains
affordable over time. We then spent the next two years marching, holding
press conferences and policy briefings, and working with other grass-roots
and faith-based groups to show how the volume of vacant properties directly
contributes to the city's housing shortage.
Our platform made good fiscal sense. We weren't
asking for handouts or new taxes; we were asking the city to redirect
the hundreds of millions of dollars it spends every year on shelter
toward housing. We were asking the city to ban landlords from engaging
in property speculation - keeping buildings empty while they wait for
neighborhood demographics to change, so they can develop more expensive
housing units - a practice that causes immense harm to communities and
We were making little progress until we decided
to step outside the box of conventional, conservative organizing tactics.
In March 2006, we initiated a series of monthly sleep-outs in front
of abandoned buildings in Manhattan - braving rain, cops, drunk pedestrians,
and New York City rats - to draw attention to the injustice of properties
being kept empty while people are forced to sleep on the street and
Our first sleep-out was in midtown, on 3rd Avenue
between 43rd and 44th streets, in front of a row of boarded-up buildings.
Two major television news stations covered the action, and several independent
journalists slept out with us to film and write articles about the event.
Stories were published in independent newspapers and on numerous blogs
and Web sites.
The week after our first sleep-out, Manhattan Borough
President Scott Stringer agreed to collaborate with us on a count of
vacant buildings and lots in the borough. It was our first major victory.
Our next sleep-out was uptown in Harlem. While
midtown passersby reacted to our presence with surprise or apathy ("We
had no idea these buildings were empty; we never looked up before!"),
the response in Harlem was visceral and immediate. One woman, relieved
to hear someone else complaining about the problem, told us, "That
building was boarded up when I moved to this block 30 years ago, and
it's still boarded up!" Empty buildings have languished in Harlem
for decades, and even when some are developed, the housing units are
generally far more expensive than local residents can afford. People
were excited about the opportunity to get involved with our campaign,
and on the night of our first Harlem sleep-out, nearly 200 community
residents signed up to count buildings.
Our sleep-outs received tremendous response from
local residents - while they had heard lots of people talk about the
problem, they were excited to see something done about it. What's more,
they galvanized the homeless community, as many new homeless leaders
stepped up and worked hard to make the protests and the building count
In July of 2006, after we conducted the first half
of the building count, we received positive news coverage in The
New York Times, the Amsterdam News, El Diario/La Prensa,
and even the conservative Daily News - all of which was a major
slap in the face of the Bloomberg administration and its claim that
"abandonment is a thing of the past." By September, we were
meeting with City Council members who wanted to introduce legislation
to make it illegal for landlords to keep buildings empty.
In May 2007, Picture the Homeless released a report,
"Homeless People Count: Vacant Property in Manhattan," documenting
our findings. Specifically, we found that there are 24,000 potential
apartments in vacant buildings and lots in Manhattan alone - enough
to house every homeless person in the entire city. That's 1,723 empty
buildings with 11,170 apartments, and 505 vacant lots.
Imagine that. If the city wanted to, it could snap
its metaphorical fingers and completely eradicate homelessness as we
know it. It could house the 16,000 households (according to the NYC
Department of Homeless Services) living in shelters, as well as everyone
living on the street.
Homelessness has largely become a social-services
issue, thought to be the result of personal problems - not systemic
issues - whose solution is drug treatment, psychiatric help, and charity.
Yet homelessness is fundamentally an issue of poverty. It cannot be
comprehensively addressed without drastic change to a system where real-estate
development is seen as the engine that drives New York's economy and
its politics. What homeless people need is not just more subsidized
housing or better code enforcement, but rather an end to a system where
landlords are permitted to profit at the cost of human dignity.
That's what led the homeless at PTH to challenge
the practice of property warehousing when no one else wanted to touch
it. And now that we've quantified the problem, there's an amazing buzz
building in the progressive community and a growing demand for the city
to take real steps to stop landlords from keeping buildings empty.
"Situations like this become revolutions in the streets," says PTH member Wayne Thomas, when asked what he thought the housing situation would look like in 10 years. "If they don't deal with us now, they're going to have to deal with the ones who come up behind us, and are a lot madder, and don't have a problem taking what they need." If City Hall is going to survive the coming storms, it had better wake up to the fact that pinning the city's social and economic health on the desires of real-estate development is in direct opposition to the needs of its residents.
Sam J. Miller is a writer and community organizer who lives in the Bronx, N.Y. Some research and writing was contributed by Black Ink Enterprises, blackinkenterprises.com.
Homeless People Count: Vacant Property in Manhattan
Will the Homeless Count? by Jean Rice
of Picture the