how displacement happens

Harlem & Washington Heights Today: Vibrant, but Vulnerable to Takeover

The communities surrounding the area that Columbia wants to take over include Harlem, Hamilton Heights, Morningside Heights, and Washington Heights—all areas with long and rich histories as working-class communities. Harlem is by all accounts among the most significant communities in the global black diaspora. For nearly a century Harlem has been considered the capital of black America—an essential economic resource and the cultural heart of the African-American community. Washington Heights and Hamilton Heights have for generations been home to vibrant working class immigrant communities, and for the last two generations, Latinos, especially from the Caribbean, have helped form the area into one of the most vital districts for new immigrants to New York. Beginning at the Broadway corridor from 135th, and carrying throughout Washington Heights, is the largest and most culturally important community of Dominicans in the world outside of the Dominican Republic.

For generations, these communities have served as a reliable source of working-class housing stock, and progressive rent laws helped to ensure the stability of the communities. Recently, however, Upper Manhattan neighborhoods have been targeted by real-estate developers and sought-out by wealthy professionals as never before. The frenzied Manhattan real estate market has put unprecedented pressures on low-income families in these areas, and the erosion of laws protecting renters across New York City in recent years has made a thorough and widescale community removal possible. The shift is shocking in its scale. Columbia’s proposed development would be in Manhattan’s Community District 9, which stretches from West 110th street to West 155 streets, West of St. Nicholas & Edgecombe Avenues. The most recent demographic data of CD9, even when including the wealthy areas of Morningside Heights, shows that half of the households in the district earn less than $25,000 per year—barely half of the median for the New York City region. One third of households in the district have incomes considered very low-income (less than $15,000 per year.) Rents for vacant apartments in even the poorest parts of the neighborhood, however, are currently going for $2,000 to $3,000 per month—well more than most families could afford if 100% of their combined incomes before taxes went to rent. Cooperative apartments and condominium units often sell in the range of 1 million dollars and townhouses for 2 million. Already, landlords and speculators have much to gain from displacing the long-term low-income residents of the community, and Columbia’s announcement that it wishes to expand up to 134th street has been the impetus for much of the recent upsurge in rental prices. Shifts in public policy in recent years have made it easier for landlords to de-regulate rent-stabilized apartments, remove subsidies for qualified low-income tenants, and move properties that were designed as low income developments into the general housing market at top-level prices. (“Bit by Bit, Government Eases Its Grips on Rents in New York” The New York Times, Nov. 19, 2003) A study published in May of 2006 by the Community Service Society reports that “nearly a quarter of the roughly 121,000 apartments built under federal and state subsidy programs dating from the 1960’s and 1970’s left those programs from 1990 to 2005. The rate of withdrawal grew in the late 1990’s and hit its highest level last year” (New York Times, May 27, 2006. “Lower-Priced Housing is Vanishing at a Faster Pace” ). A study by the New York Tenants & Neighbors coalition in 2002 reported that in the previous decade, and especially in the years since 1994 when changes in the rent-stabilization laws allowed landlords to de-regulate apartments via “luxury decontrol” clauses and other measures, landlords had moved more than 148,000 apartments off of rent-regulation (source: “Deregulation by Landlords is Increasing, Study Says” New York Times, Feb. 17, 2002 .) Each year, the pace at which regulated housing is lost increases.

Efforts to preserve the existing stock of housing that is affordable to the low-income residents would be overwhelmed if Columbia was able to expand. The influx of students from wealthy families and white-collar recruits from out of the area would drive up rents at a more rapid pace than these areas has have ever seen. The incentive for landlords to evict or harrass long-time tenants paying low rents would be exponentially increased. The general consensus is that if Columbia were to get the right to develop as it wants to in West Harlem, the surrounding communities would within a few years be virtually unrecognizable to the residents who live in them today. Columbia’s expansion could make apartments in the neighborhoods permanently out of reach for working-class families to move in, and for those able to stay, the character of the community will have eroded at such a level that many aspects that made the community welcoming will have been lost.

There are particular reasons to fear Columbia University’s expansion more than other developers eyeing the neighborhood. Every year, Columbia draws a new population of students to its facilities—most of them from outside of the area, and the majority from wealthy families. On-campus housing for Columbia students costs more than rents in the surrounding neighborhoods, driving many students to seek apartments in the private market every year. Landlords are able to use the fact that students are a reliably transient population as a way of accelerating the process of de-regulating rental housing. If these forces weren’t enough, Columbia University has a fifty-year history of actively working to displace low-income people from the private rental housing around its Morningside Heights campus. Some of the efforts were for previous expansions, but at other times, Columbia pursued the removal of low-income populations in the area for the sole purpose of remaking the surrounding community into an upper-middle-class area so to attract an elite faculty and student body. For a timeline of such efforts, please see “A History of Displacement” on this website.

The case of 3333 Broadway is a prime example of how tenants outside of Columbia University’s expansion zone are at tremendous risk of displacement because of the university’s plans. 3333 Broadway is across the street from what would be the northern edge of Columbia’s expanded campus. At its highest peak, the structure rises 35 stories, and the complex is comprised of more than 1,100 apartments—more than 90 percent of them housing very low income families. 3333 Broadway was built in 1976 as part of the Mitchell-Lama housing program—a New York State program that offered heavily subsidized construction loans, and exemptions from property taxes, for developments that would exclusively house low and moderate income families. Because the mandate was to build affordable housing, the land was sold to the developer for of one dollar. Most Mitchell-Lama projects offered developers the opportunity to re-purchase the original mortgage after twenty years, and opt-out of the low-rent requirement. This loophole in the law has been a double-blow to the public, and a boon to developers; after years of receiving massive public subsidies, developers have been able to turn these properties into high-rent, luxury apartments. 3333 Broadway, however, was supposed to enjoy at least 75 years as a low-rent building, because it is built atop a public school. But soon after Columbia University announced that it had plans to develop a second campus that would sit across the street, the owners of 3333 Broadway announced in April of 2004 that they would exit the Mitchell-Lama program and begin charging market-level rents in all of its units. While rents for long-term residents were for the most part in the range of $600 per month in rent, after exiting the Mitchell Lama program the owner began renovating vacant units and marketing them exclusively to a wealthy population; newcomers are paying rents that begin around $1500 and go above $2000 for many units, while long-time tenants who largely could not pay such exporbanent prices are feeling increased pressures, and feel that the threat of widescale displacement is looming. Rent-stabilization laws in New York City only cover buildings built before 1974, and 3333 Broadway was completed in 1976; therefore, the massive property that was built and heavily subsidized for three decades for the purpose of providing low-rent housing may soon be among the least protected, highest-rent properties in the neighborhood. There have been many rumors that the owner of 3333 Broadway has been negotiating a sale of the building to Columbia University; what is well known is that a few thousand community residents in this property alone are at imminent risk of wholesale eviction because the promise of an influx of wealthy outsiders—largely generated by Columbia University—has driven a speculation frenzy in the real estate market of West Harlem.

More info on Housing Issues in the Neighborhood:

Community Board 9’s resolution on institutionally controlled housing

News Articles about Secondary Displacement in Harlem:

The New Harlem: Who’s Behind the Real Estate Gold Rush and Who’s Fighting It? The Village Voice. September 18-24 2002.

Tenant Activist Discusses Harlem Gentrification. Columbia Spectator. September 25, 2006

Wave of evictions in Upper Manhattan. (translated from) El Diario, December 6, 2005.

Tenants’ Fear Rises With Rent. Columbia Spectator. November 16, 2005.

Harlem Building Ends Low Rent Program. Columbia Spectator. April 28, 2004.

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