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Buildings Sit Vacant for up to 30 Years, Homeless Advocates Push for Habitation

By DNAinfo Staff on August 25, 2010 12:18pm

By Tara Kyle

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

MIDTOWN — In the heart of Midtown, across from Madison Square Garden, the James Farley Post Office and Brother Jimmy’s BBQ, the first floor of 411-413 Eighth Avenue hosts a pizza place. But the three upper levels are all empty.

They’ve been that way since 1979, according to Picture the Homeless, an advocacy group that staged a tour of vacant properties in Chelsea and Midtown West Tuesday night, in an effort to send a message to City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.

Picture the Homeless wants Quinn to help speed up the progress of a bill introduced in February that would enable the city to conduct an annual census of vacant properties in the five boroughs. They believe shoring up that data could provide a crucial first step in converting some of those empty lots and buildings to affordable housing.

“We want a sense of who owns them and why they’re vacant,” said William Burnett, a housing campaign leader for Picture the Homeless. “We need to know the breadth of the problem, but we can’t do that without a count.”

The sites visited by the advocacy group Tuesday night included 489 Ninth Avenue, 411-413 Eighth Avenue and 315 West 35th Street, and are all in Quinn’s district. They were identified as vacant in a 2007 report the group conducted in collaboration with Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer’s office.

They are now visible on Picture the Homeless’ just-launched crowd-sourced map of vacant properties.

“I’ve watched too many buildings in my 54 years sit empty,” Kendall Jackman, who is currently staying in a homeless shelter in the Bronx, said while walking up Ninth Avenue. "I grew up in this city… I need housing.”

About a half dozen NYPD officers began to follow the tour after participants passed the Midtown South Precinct around 6:30 p.m. Police continued to monitor the marchers as they performed skits in front of the Eighth Avenue post office and set up their sleep-in next to 411-413 Eighth Avenue, before departing the scene a bit after 8 p.m.

Armed with blankets, snacks and rain ponchos, about 25 marchers stuck it out for the start of the sleep-in, held across the street from Madison Square Garden and Brother Jimmy’s BBQ.

“I’m tired,” said Arvernetta Henry, a former schoolteacher in her 60s. Although Henry has been homeless since 2008, Tuesday was the first night she slept on the street. “However, this represents the population of homeless, and their families, and their children who need housing and don’t understand why they don’t have it.”