Racetracks, Parks, Offices: A Frantic Search for Migrant Housing
New York City officials are casting a wide net as they scramble to house the influx of migrants. The Flatiron Building said no.
When the real estate industry looks at the Flatiron Building, they see an internationally famous 22-story skyscraper that has sat mostly empty for four years, its value dropping in the pandemic-driven collapse of the commercial office market.
New York City officials, however, see something else: a potential home for the continuing influx of migrants.
And so they asked Jeff Gural, a Flatiron Building owner, what he thought.
Mr. Gural rejected the idea.
“There’s no bathrooms, there’s no heat, the building’s been gutted,” Mr. Gural said.
Facing an expected deluge of migrants in the coming weeks, an overburdened shelter system and an impossibly tight housing market, New York City officials are beginning to prove the adage that desperation breeds creativity.
In recent weeks, city officials have approached major landlords, business leaders, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in an effort to find spaces large enough to house substantial numbers of migrants from the southern border.
By Friday, a Trump-era immigration policy called Title 42is set to expire. The ostensible purpose of the policy was to protect public health, but it has been used to expel hundreds of thousands of migrants from the country, including those who might formerly have been granted asylum. The end of the policy is expected to spur cross-border migration, eventually affecting New York City.
New York City is the only major U.S. city with a “right-to-shelter law.” As of Wednesday evening, 61,000 migrants have come to the city in the past year, according to City Hall officials. Over 37,500 of them are now in city care at more than 120 emergency shelters and eight larger-scale centers.
The city is now scrambling to make room for even more.
Late Sunday afternoon, Mayor Eric Adams’s chief of staff, Camille Joseph Varlack, gave the head of every city agency until 5 p.m. Monday to identify “any properties or spaces in your portfolio that may be available to be repurposed to house asylum seekers as temporary shelter spaces,” according to a copy of an email acquired by The Times. Those spaces should be at least 10,000 square feet in size, contain “no known health hazards” and have running water.
Mr. Adams underscored the urgency of the problem, telling agency leaders in a meeting Monday afternoon to alert his staff about any suitable space, even if those spaces currently hosted programs.
The search for help has stretched well beyond the walls of City Hall.
At a hastily arranged meeting on Monday morning, city officials asked leaders of the New York real estate lobby for assistance, asking if landlords might repurpose empty office space to house migrants.
“I think they and different owners are going to take a look at that,” said Jim Whelan, president of the Real Estate Board of New York, which represents nearly every major landlord in New York City, though he warned, “It’s not easy to do.”
City officials have also sought help from the Partnership for New York City, the business group whose board is populated by Wall Street executives.
The city has asked the Port Authority if it could use airplane hangars to house migrants at John F. Kennedy International Airport, which the Port Authority controls, and is weighing whether to place tents in Central, Prospect and Flushing Meadows Corona parks; in the parking lots of Citi Field, where the New York Mets play; and at Aqueduct Racetrack, according to a report in CNN that a city official confirmed on Monday.
City officials have also asked state and federal officials for a list of all armory and military bases in the city and have discussed using the now-closed Kings Park Psychiatric Center in Long Island, the city official said. They have even talked about shutting down city streets to accommodate tents and commissioning cruise ships, the latter an idea that has long intrigued the Adams administration.
Many of these ideas are easier said than done.
The city on Friday announced it would relocate some migrants to hotels in Rockland and Orange Counties, on a voluntary basis — a plan that local officials immediately contested.
In March, the mayor announced a partnership with SUNY Sullivan, a community college in Sullivan County, to house and provide job training to 100 migrants.
On Monday, Jay Quaintance, the SUNY Sullivan president, said that the city and the school were still in contract negotiations.
Repurposing underused office space to house migrants is also complicated. It would probably require a fully empty office building, Mr. Whelan said, and even then, the buildings are designed for commercial use, not residential.
It is a challenge compounded by others.
“This weekend alone, we received hundreds of asylum seekers every day, and with Title 42 set to be lifted this week, we expect more to arrive in our city daily,” said Fabien Levy, a spokesman for the mayor. “We are considering a multitude of options, but, as we’ve been saying for a year, we desperately need federal and state support to manage this crisis.”