Vacant NYC Draws a Crowdsourced Map to Address Homelessness

"The city says it cannot afford to count vacant property. We think it can be done for free." So reads the banner at the top of the Vacant NYC website. In order to tackle the dual problems of homelessness and vacant property in New York City, the Vacant NYC project seeks to turn over the counting of vacant buildings to the public.

Vacant NYC is a crowd-sourced project, and it uses the mapping technology that we've written about here before, the Crowdmap hosted version of the Ushadidi crisis-mapping software. This service allows anyone to easily add information to a local Google map.

New Yorkers are asked to send in information about any vacant lots or boarded up buildings to Vacant NYC. You can email, text, or fill out the form on the website. "Stalled construction sites? Shiny new condos that don't have only a couple of units occupied, or none at all? Report them to Vacant NYC."

The issues of vacant property and homelessness are intertwined, argue the project organizers. "For years, homeless people have been demanding action from city government around the massive numbers of vacant buildings and lots in New York City. While the city spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year on providing shelter to the homeless, perfectly good property languishes in the hands of private landlords and city agencies. This isn't just about housing for the homeless. Vacant NYC is about housing for all New Yorkers. Keeping a lot of units off the market is an intentional strategy of real estate interests, so that we all have to pay more for the housing that is available."

When a bill before the New York City government that would require an annual count of vacant buildings and lots was squashed, and the city claimed it didn't have the funds for such an endeavor, Picture the Homeless activists created the crowdsourced mapping project.

And while certainly, Vacant NYC can be seen as saving tax dollars. To be able to turn over projects like this to the public -- to combine social media, mapping, and community volunteers -- serves to really open up government to the people. It seems obvious that local residents know their neighborhoods and landmarks better than others, and it's likely they would recognize important changes to property before others. And as such Vacant NYC is one of many similar projects where citizens are better able to share information with local governments and communities.