New York City is home to some of the highest rent prices in America, and has the highest number of people sleeping on its streets. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

According to the Coalition for the Homeless, there were 63,101 people sleeping in New York’s homeless shelters in January of 2018. This includes more than 15,000 families with 23,309 homeless children. However, over the course of 2017, there were 129,803 people sleeping in NYC shelters, including more than 45,000 children. Data from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) shows that New York City leads the nation in homelessness, with HUD counting over 20,000 more homeless people in NYC than in Los Angeles, which ranks #2.

Cities with the most homeless people (Data by HUD, chart by Statista)

These figures are astonishing on their own, but even moreso given the sheer number of vacant apartments in New York City. A recent report by the New York Daily News found that there were 247,977 vacant apartments in the area, citing figures from the Census Bureau’s Housing and Vacancy Survey. The Daily News implied the figures were “early numbers” on the heels of the survey’s April 2018 publishing of vacant housing units for the first quarter of 2018.

Depending on whether or not you use the Coalition for the Homeless’ January 2018 count or the total number of people checked into NYC shelters over the course of 2017, there are anywhere from 1.9 to 3.9 empty apartments per homeless person. HUD’s count of 76,501 homeless people in New York in 2017 would mean there were 3.2 empty units for each person experiencing homelessness, assuming the count of empty apartments was roughly the same last year.

The number of vacant apartment units in New York has seen an increase of roughly 65,000 units since 2014, most likely due to the sky-high rent prices in the Big Apple. Data from real estate site Zumper found that New York City boasted the second-highest median rents in the United States (San Francisco was #1) with one-bedroom apartments in the city going for $3,340.

Some of the vacancies can be chalked up to reasonable circumstances. The Daily News‘ reporting found that of those 247,977 empty units, 80,000 were being renovated, 28,000 were rented or sold and are not yet occupied, 12,700 are due to issues with the owner’s health and age, and 9,600 were involved in ongoing legal proceedings.

However, that means there are still well over 100,000 vacant apartments that are available — the Daily News reported that 74,945 apartments were occupied only seasonally or temporarily, and more than 27,009 are simply off the market for no given reason. Using the Coalition for the Homeless’ count of 15,553 homeless families with more than 23,000 homeless children, it stands to reason that housing could be made available for them by requiring owners of vacant apartments to make those units temporarily available for families with children.

With tens of thousands of New Yorkers going without shelter on any given night, it seems like New York City’s government could easily find a way to end homelessness by financially incentivizing owners of unrented, livable apartments to convert those dwellings into temporary or even permanent shelter for homeless. Utah, for example, found that by simply providing homes for homeless people, local and state government agencies actually saved millions of dollars in money that would have otherwise gone toward social services often used by the chronically homeless.

No matter how you slice it, having more vacant apartments than homeless people should be an obvious wake-up call to any city.


Carl Gibson is a politics contributor for Grit Post. His work has previously been published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Houston Chronicle, Al-Jazeera America, and NPR, among others. Follow him on Twitter @crgibs or send him an email at carl at gritpost dot com.

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