Empty Future: Why Vacant Buildings in Bed-Stuy Stay Unoccupied

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The many vacant buildings in Bedford-Stuyvesant have become eyesores, negatively impacting the community.

Moses Fried's unoccupied building in Bedford-Stuyvesant. (Keldy Ortiz / The Brooklyn Ink)

The Lefferts Hotel in Bedford-Stuyvesant was built as a pleasant place for guests to rest. There are no guests today, and it is hardly pleasant. The five story Lefferts building sits vacant and dreary, chains wrapped around its door handles.

The building’s history has been troubled in recent years. In 2006, the New York Sun reported that police were investigating prostitution there. The building owner, Moses Fried, told the newspaper at the time, “I’m a Jewish religious man. I would never permit to run prostitution there.”

No charges were filed and the hotel remained open, only to be closed in March 2010 by the Building Department because of unpaid building violations. According to department records, 127 Lefferts alone has accumulated $90,500 in unpaid fines since 2006. Most of the violations grow out of 125 and 127 Lefferts Place having been combined into one building “60 years ago,” Fried said, leaving insufficient “fire separation” under current codes.

And so it is that the neighborhood is now left with an empty building with signs on its roof and its side advertising for a hotel that is not taking in guests.

“It’s an eyesore now, the fact that it’s closed,” said three-year resident John Martinez, who lives on the same street as the closed building. “Ideally, [the building owner] would give up the home, and let someone fix it.”

The Lefferts is just one of scores of empty buildings in Bed-Stuy. Kendall Jackman, a homeless advocate involved in a citywide land-use study that is soon to be released,  said that the neighborhood “has the highest density per square mile of vacant property buildings and lots” in the city.

Such buildings are like a plague on a community. They run down surrounding property values by being unattractive and making the neighborhood feel dangerous.

Some are foreclosed homes awaiting buyers, a result of the ongoing real estate crisis. But others are the result of a more controversial practice called “warehousing,” in which the owners are merely sitting on the property, waiting, usually for years, for an opportunistic sale at a steep price when someone really needs or wants the property.

Fried said that that he is not warehousing the Lefferts Hotel. “I am trying to open the building as soon as possible,” he said. “I’m losing a lot of money to keep that building that way, but the city does not want to let me open it up. The city is still giving me violations worth thousands of dollars while the building is closed.”

 

An unoccupied building on Lefferts Place. (Keldy Ortiz / The Brooklyn Ink)

 

The city usually requires that all violations are paid up before it will give a permit to do almost any improvement on a building, or to rent or sell it.  Landlords faced with high fines or back taxes often sell buildings precisely because they need the income to pay up before the city seizes the building.

According to building department records reviewed by The Brooklyn Ink, the uninhabited building of 127 Lefferts Place has received 16 violations since 2009. Fried, nonetheless, insists that he intends to fix the building.

Derrick Catley, an 11-year resident of Bed-Stuy, stared up at the Lefferts from his nearby brownstone on a recent day. “I can’t imagine this building sitting there not (generating) money,” he said. “Why should it stay vacant?”

Exact numbers of vacant buildings and lots are hard to come by, but Jackman’s advocacy group, Picture The Homeless, plans in January to release a study it has done of the five boroughs. She said that the study will pinpoint places and numbers. The group’s interest is to find more housing for the city’s homeless.

Many factors have contributed to warehousing. One is that New York’s rent laws strongly protect the renter, even when they don’t pay the rent. The amount of rent a landlord can charge is also often regulated. Some of the oldest buildings are subject to stringent rent control laws, while many of those built between February 1947 and January 1974 come under more flexible but still limiting rent stabilization. The rent on many New York City apartments is thus less than market prices.

Specializing in tenant and landlord court disputes, attorney Serge Joseph said owners often just do not want to deal with tenants as a result. “Some landlords do not want to be restricted,” he said. A building owner can just decide to pay taxes and avoid the tenant headache, he said.

But sitting outside his home just a few feet from the empty building, 14-year resident Jimmy Holloman said that someone should live there. “It would be nice if the house is rented out to the homeless or something,” said Holloman. “It’s [in] a nice neighborhood.”

Bedford-Stuyvesant has been growing and gentrifying as new residents have been pouring into the neighborhood for more than five years running. “It’s an up and coming area,” said real estate agent Rosetta Allen, who has been selling buildings in the community for 16 years. “Before people wanted to be away from Bed-Stuy, but now there is more of a desire to be in Bed-Stuy.”

Property values in the area have ballooned with the demand.  According to various real estate websites, recent values of homes in the area range from $500,000 to upwards of $3 million.

This run down building on Fulton Street remains empty. (Keldy Ortiz / The Brooklyn Ink)

To Allen, it’s difficult to understand why owners let buildings like the Lefferts sit empty. “I don’t see why,” she said. “They don’t make any money just having it there. They are hoping that the value goes up, but the problem is that when it goes up, there will not be any buyers” because people will would have found other places, she added.

Michael Slattery, senior vice president of the Real Estate Board of New York, however, believes the opposite. Slattery said that an owner “can hold it as an asset.”

But that’s not to say that he opposes the idea of trying to make money by occupying and renting the building. “If you have a place that can generate some income and bring some tenants, it’s better,” he said. “It’s better to make some money than not.”

The city does provide enticing incentives for owners. Through the Department of Housing and Preservation exists the Housing Asset Renewal Program (HARP), which focuses on converting vacant buildings into affordable housing.

Then there is Habitat for Humanity NYC, which buys properties and places families from the neighborhood into those homes. The problem executive director Josh Lockwood says he faces is that “the owner is resistant” to sell to him. Lockwood’s response: “You can hope that property values will come back. But, it might be that this recession drags out. By selling this building, they take the risk out of the equation.”

An extreme measure to free property can be through eminent domain, said Tom Angotti, a former city planner, and currently chairman of Hunter College Center of Communities, Development and Planning. However, he said that Bedford Stuyvesant is “not on a high scale” when it comes to real estate.

Until then, Jackman hopes that once elected officials are made aware of the number of vacant properties in Bedford-Stuyvesant, they will force owners to up warehoused buildings. As a homeless person herself, and currently living in a shelter, she hopes that the city can provide homes to those who need them.

“There’s enough housing that there doesn’t need to be a homeless shelter,” said Jackman.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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5 Responses to “Empty Future: Why Vacant Buildings in Bed-Stuy Stay Unoccupied”

  1. Habitat-NYC
    January 12, 2012 at 12:51 PM #

    Thanks for highlighting the troubling problem of vacant housing in a neighborhood — and a city — struggling with a critical shortage of affordable housing.

    Habitat-NYC is seeking low-income working families who want to become homeowners in our affordable homes in Bed-Stuy and Ocean Hill-Brownsville. Applications and info are available on our website at http://www.habitatnyc.org.

    Please let New Yorkers know about these opportunities to own a slice of the Big Apple!

  2. Anon
    January 12, 2012 at 6:15 PM #

    They let the buildings sit there because they lose less money with them vacant. It’s simple economics. The owner is going to lose money on the building regardless, he has to just decide under what circumstances he looses the least money.
    Once buildings in crappy neighborhoods like that get in bad condition the only hope for the landlord is waiting for rents to skyrocket and lending to get looser.
    It’s just not worth the risk to fix up the buildings and apartments so you can get a tenant who won’t pay and a housing court that will give a non-paying tenant 12 months to squat before they are evicted. The housing rules are just too anti-landlord and vacant buildings are one negative result of these idiotic rules.

  3. Jake
    January 21, 2012 at 9:11 PM #

    The Lefferts Hotel was used for prostitution and drug use. No one mourns its closing. But, and perhaps not really relevant to the general issue, it isn’t in Bed-Stuy. It is on the west side of Classon, and thus in Clinton Hill. Hasn’t there also been recent work on the vacant building pictured with the article (which is on the corner of Claver Place, barely one block from the Clinton Hill border)?

  4. dp11209
    January 31, 2012 at 1:14 PM #

    This statement is extremely problematic: “Many factors have contributed to warehousing. One is that New York’s rent laws strongly protect the renter, even when they don’t pay the rent. The amount of rent a landlord can charge is also often regulated”

    First of all, if a tenant in NYC stops paying rent and a landlord takes them to court they will be evicted, rent stabilized, controlled or otherwise. The difference between NYC and other cities and towns is that we have a mandatory housing court process, so evictions are not automatic as they are elsewhere. There are multiple problems with this process — including the fact the 90% of landlords have attorneys in these cases and an equal number of tenants do not — but the fact that evictions are subject to a due process is not in itself a bad thing and it is a far cry from what is implied above.

    Second, it is true that the “rent laws” (by which I think we’re talking about rent stabilization and control here) regulate landlord profits. That is not the reason why landlords warehouse buildings. Landlords warehouse buildings because they are engaging in speculation. Rent regulations do not prevent landlords from making ANY profit, they prevent landlords from making MARKET-RATE profits when the market is inflated (as it has been for the last 20 years). If a landlord is truly not able to make a profit from the legal rent regulated rent, the state agency that administers this system has a “hardship” formula that allows rents to transcend the otherwise legal limit.

    In the report referred to in the article, you will note that Picture The Homeless recommends preservation of rent stabilized housing as a key recommendation. The report is excellent! In it, we have a roadmap for ending both warehousing and homelessness — but only if we dare to change priorities in our city.

    See: http://picturethehomeless.org/Documents/Reports/PH01_report_final_web.pdf

  5. Keldy Ortiz
    January 31, 2012 at 2:15 PM #

    Jake, that is some interesting piece of information that you share about the location about prostitution taking place there. I have not seen any work being done at the other location you mention as of recently.

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