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Housing activists demand landlords end ‘warehousing’ of empty apartments

Activists rally against warehousing on Hooper Street in Williamsburg on Nov. 18.
Photo by Kevin Duggan

Demonstrators at a recent Williamsburg rally called on landlords to stop keeping apartments vacant for years in order to bypass rent regulations.

One advocate decried the practice — known as “warehousing” — as especially cruel at a time of record vacancy rates during which more and more New Yorkers are becoming homeless.

“I find it inhumane that we are denying housing to these people,” said Yadira Dúmet, an organizer with the local community development non-profit St. Nicks Alliance, at a protest on Hooper Street on Nov. 18.

The End Warehousing Coalition, which includes St. Nicks Alliance and several other advocacy organizations, hung banners and demonstrated outside of two apartment blocks at 293 and 301 Hooper St., near Broadway, where residents say the landlord has kept 11 units vacant for years.

“The landlord really just refuses to rent them,” said longtime 293 Hooper St. resident Francisca Serrano in Spanish through a translator. “We have family who need apartments, we have friends who need apartments — many of us in this building know people who need apartments and there are many, many people in this city who need a home.”

Hooper Street resident Francisca Serrano said there were 11 vacant apartments in her building and the one next door owned by the same landlord.Photo by Kevin Duggan

Public records list the owner of the two buildings as the NYC Housing Partnership, a Manhattan-based non-profit that acts as an intermediary between city and state agencies and private developers to build affordable housing, according to its website.

A spokesman for the company said they were only “nominally” the owners on behalf of a landlord, but he couldn’t immediately say who the owners were. The rep did not return multiple follow-up requests to clarify who is responsible for keeping units empty.

Vacancy rates in Manhattan have been record-breaking for six consecutive months, with more than 6 percent of housing lying empty on the distant isle, according to an October report by real estate firm Douglas Elliman. The report did not provide vacancy numbers for Brooklyn.

Meanwhile, 53,925 New Yorkers were sleeping in shelters on Nov. 23, according to the Department of Homeless Services.

Ever since the state legislature passed a package of tenant-friendly bills in Albany last year, real estate bigwigs have been keeping more units empty in the hopes that politicians will undo some of those laws, and the consequences could be lethal for the unhoused facing down the pandemic without shelter, according to Manhattan Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal.

“People who are homeless will get sick and they have nowhere to go, this spells death for them and their families,” the Big Apple lawmaker said at the protest last week. “What [landlords] hope — although this won’t happen — is that we will roll back some of these tenant protections and they will once again be able to increase the rent and be able to take apartments out of rent regulation.”

Another method of landlords is to keep apartments empty until tenants next-door leave, enabling them to combine both units into a larger dwelling which they can then let at a higher price.

Vacant units can become a hazard for neighboring tenants because the deserted digs can be an unsecured entryway for burglars, and a breeding ground for vermin or other deteriorating conditions, which the city fails to check on, according to a housing lawyer.

“If these units go vacant for a longer and longer period of time and make everybody’s life more miserable, make the building less inhabitable, and terrify the tenants,” said Samuel Chiera, an attorney with Communities Resist, which provides legal services for low-income tenants. “Frankly you don’t know what’s going on [inside empty apartments].”

Activists with the End Warehousing Coalition dropped a banner outside 301 Hooper St. that reads “Housing for those who need it” in Spanish.Photo by Kevin Duggan

Assemblywoman Rosenthal introduced legislation in March that would make landlords pay fees for keeping units empty for three months or more, with the revenue from the fines going toward housing vouchers for the homeless, and the lawmaker said she will pick the bill back up during the coming session in Albany.

On the city level, Staten Island Councilwoman Deborah Rose, a Democrat, introduced a bill back in 2018 requiring landlords to register vacant units, but the legislation hasn’t progressed beyond committee stage.

Chiera said that pols should push for those kinds of laws along with regular inspections of vacant units by the city’s Department of Housing and Preservation to ensure they don’t become dangerously deteriorated for other residents.

“Let’s make sure that these buildings, if they have to be partially vacant, are safe for the people who remain,” he said. “This is something that everyone in New York should want, it’s very common sense.”

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