Institutional Owned Land and New York City’s Housing Crisis: The Extent of Faith-Based Owned Land Ownership

April 24th 2024 | Matthew Murphy, Hayley Raetz, Sarah Internicola, Tony Bodulovic

As New York City grapples with its most severe housing shortage in over half a century, state and local policymakers are actively seeking a range of ways to promote housing development using institutionally-owned land, including Faith-Based Organizations (FBOs). To gauge the opportunity's scale, the NYU Furman Center analyzed the zoning of FBO-owned land in New York City, detailing its scope and geographic spread. For this analysis we relied on data from the Department of Finance, Department of City Planning, Department of Buildings, and ACRIS (Automated City Register Information System).

While our examination of FBO-owned land across the five boroughs highlights its significant potential as a source for housing development sites, our analysis is limited in scope and does not examine other issues, including capacity, access to capital, and other potential factors. To maximize the potential opportunity, state and local policymakers must undertake intentional deliberations on revising land-use regulations that currently restrict residential development, and pairing financial tools with technical assistance partnerships to support such initiatives.

Key institutional stakeholders, like FBOs and Hospital and Healthcare Facilities, often possess underused land or air rights, which present opportunities for development, particularly of residential uses that are likely to include some form of affordable housing. By liquidating land or development rights, FBOs can not only sustain their worship activities but also potentially enhance community welfare through mission-driven initiatives.

Extent and Variety of Land Owned by Faith-Based Organizations

Faith-Based Organizations own more than 92 million square feet of land across the five boroughs. For context, this is more than double the square footage that Hospital and Healthcare Facilities own, 23.0 times the size of Battery Park City, and 2.5 times the size of Central Park. 

FBO-owned sites have a wide range of lot sizes, but smaller lots are more common. Although some sites contain large churches and synagogues or other houses of worship, only 19 percent of FBOs have lots measuring greater than 14,000 square feet. As the following figure shows, the predominant site type is much smaller. The median lot size is 5,000 square feet, and 42 percent of FBOs have lot sizes at or below 4,250 square feet.

Although 24 percent of FBO-owned land is fully developed to its zoning capacity, many sites are underbuilt relative to their allowed Floor Area Ratio (FAR), a measure of the ratio of total building floor area to the area of its zoning lot. When considering this factor, our analysis shows that 86 million square feet of permitted residential FAR on FBO-owned land is not built to its fully allowed capacity. If there were no barriers to using this amount of zoning capacity, 86 million square feet would yield approximately 98,000 homes in multifamily buildings, based on an 80 percent usability rate and an average unit size of 700 square feet. Much of this unused capacity is in New York City’s highest-density areas. 

Local zoning law regulates residential density by categorizing land into zones with specific densities. For example, R1 districts are low-density, typically suburban areas, while R10 represents the highest-density zones in central urban areas. While FBO land is in all types of residential zoning districts, about 88 percent of properties are zoned for R3 or higher, with 50 percent of the total lot area zoned for R6-R10 development (after excluding properties that we estimate have already transferred their allowed development rights, which would prevent them from further development). This results in about half of the capacity being located in New York City's highest-density districts.

As the table above shows, on average, FBO-owned properties with R6-R10 zoning have 1.9 unused FAR, compared to just 0.3 average unused FAR among properties zoned R3-R5. Half of this unused zoning capacity is located in higher-density zones (R6-R10 zones). This suggests limitations in maximizing the use of allowed zoning in both higher-density and lower-density zones. In higher-density zones, reasons for underuse could include limitations on air rights transfers, lot characteristics that prevent new development, and landmarking requirements that prohibit certain types of development. In other zones, other barriers could be market conditions that make development infeasible, or issues like infrastructure limitations. Factors limiting development in both area types may include the institution’s choice to keep the site undeveloped, environmental remediation challenges, expected political opposition to development, among others. 

Land owned by FBOs consists of more than just houses of worship. While this is the  most common building type, with half of the total area of FBO-owned land designated as a church, synagogue, or chapel, there are other designated uses, as shown in the following table.  Seventeen percent of land is used as parochial schools or yeshivas, with another 9 percent of total lot area designated as a “miscellaneous religious facility,” followed by parsonages and rectories at 3 percent. 

Vacant lots make up 3 percent of the total area owned by FBOs, with a median lot area close to 3,700 square feet, according to city records. However, parking lots and structures tend not to be classified as vacant land. In our analysis, we find that about 2.4 million square feet (2.6% of all FBO-owned land) is used for parking purposes

Finally, a very small portion of FBO-owned land already has some allowed residential use. About 2 percent of the area of FBO-owned land is already being used as two-story single-family dwellings (More than 3% of the total number of lots), highlighting the diversity of structures on FBO-owned land.

The Geography of Faith-Based Organization Owned Land

Faith-Based Organization land ownership spans the five boroughs, with Brooklyn holding the highest share of lots. FBOs collectively own 7,643 of 1,120,884 tax lots across the city (0.68% of all tax lots). 40 percent of FBO-owned lots are in Brooklyn. Queens has the second highest share of lots owned by FBOs (27%), followed by the Bronx (14%), Manhattan (13%), and Staten Island (6%). 

Parcel sizes differ greatly by borough, with lower-density boroughs holding larger lot sizes, and higher-density ones holding small lot sizes. When incorporating that dimension, of all boroughs Queens has the highest amount of FBO-owned land (30%), followed by Brooklyn (27%), Staten Island (18%), the Bronx (16%), and Manhattan (9%).   

Manhattan has the greatest share of unused residential floor area, with 28 percent of the citywide total (23 million square feet). We calculated this total after subtracting unused area in sites that we estimate have transferred their development rights. FBO-owned land in both Queens and Staten Island may represent a large share of total lot area, but they are typically built out closer to their allowed zoning density, and would need to experience land use reforms to see any added residential capacity.


The data show that a significant amount of underused land owned by Faith-Based Organizations presents a genuine opportunity to facilitate residential development. While building housing on FBO-owned land would not alone solve New York City’s housing crisis, nor will all FBOs choose to build housing, advancing policies that allow FBOs to tap into allowed zoning that goes unused, alleviating any zoning restrictions that prevent multifamily development, and equipping FBOs with technical assistance to guide them through difficult real estate decisions could all work to ensure that housing development becomes a realistic option for New York City’s diverse set of faith-based institutions. 

« Previous | The Stoop | Next »