October 30, 2011; Source: New York TimesEven though the vacancy rate in Manhattan is only around 1 percent, in East Harlem the specter of a four- or five-story building, where everything above the first floor is vacant, is not uncommon. Restaurants and stores and even banks may be actively functioning at street level, but above empty windows with torn curtains testify to the unwillingness of landlords to rehab the buildings so that they can be rented. According to the Times, the reasons for the warehousing of apartments may be many but there is no doubt that they are a very long-term drain on the vitality of the neighborhood.

On the corner of 108th Street and Third Avenue, the manager of a first-floor optical center said that the apartments above their space had been vacant for 30 years. In fact, a number of business owners in such buildings report that the apartments in their buildings have been vacant for decades.

“It deprives the blocks of a certain vitality, and it doesn’t take advantage of the opportunities of converting those structures to residential use,” said Hunter Armstrong, the executive director of Civitas, a nonprofit that studied the problem. Of course, anyone who has shared their neighborhood with abandoned properties knows the effect on the neighborhood’s safety and viability, but the fact that the problem has persisted for decades should make it the city’s business. The city has, in fact, attempted to intervene, but with no real progress to date.—Ruth McCambridge