In 2002, I had an idea to take vacant city-owned land and have developers and various trades donate their services to build a multifamily building, housing only destitute tenants in rent-free units. It was a utopian vision but the building did indeed get built with the collective genius of Helen Ng, Lance Brown, Mark Ginsberg, Tara Siegel, Rex Curry, Rick Bell, Karen Kubey, the late Margaret Helf and and countless other volunteers. Shaun Donovan of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development shared our vision and found us a site in the Bronx for us to build on. The architects on our team changed the vision and decided that a “green space, sustainability and replicable, affordable design” competition would be a more achievable theme. After being on the initial steering committee, I opted to fade into the background after the goals changed, but I was pleased that so many professionals took the call to action. Rose Associates ended up winning the competition, Via Verde was built in 2006 and thrives today. The process was known as the New Housing New York Legacy Project. However, the recession of 2008 derailed replicating it in scale.
Fast-forward to 2016. Bill de Blasio unveiled the Turning the Tide program to revamp the shelter system to help the homeless. The administration was saying the right things, vowing to build 90 new shelters. Muzzy Rosenblatt of the Bowery Residents’ Committee gets high marks for taking the initiative and building Landing Road as a model project, combining a 200-bed shelter subsidized by 100 low-income apartments. However, since it is privately owned, the numbers don’t work for the city to replicate it in bulk without simultaneously overburdening taxpayers.
Here’s a refined idea:
Have the city identify existing owned multifamily buildings that are abandoned or foreclosed or commercial buildings that can easily be converted to multifamily buildings. Since they aren’t yielding tax revenues anyway, a 10-year moratorium on property taxes won’t impact the budget.
Have developers take on the project pro bono with regard to fees. This might seem Pollyanna, but I have faith that the Real Estate Board of New York could get our members to step forward and take this on. The PR effect, goodwill and intangibles would be invaluable to said developer.
Ask contractors with excess capacity to reduce their rates to aid on the project. This is clearly a big ask. The city could barter other services to partially offset the reduction while getting neighboring restaurants and retailers to further donate to these trades.
The only tenants eligible for the building have to demonstrate extreme need. Start with those that are chronically homeless. Get referrals from the local soup kitchens and shelters. Convince retailers to furnish the apartments. Get clergy, social workers, job counselors and medical workers to help the tenants after they move in.