Harlem For Whom?

The City says its housing plan will renovate Harlem. Tenants fear it will remove them.

Tiered sconces light the pale sage walls and faux-marble floor of the corridor of 228 West 140th Street, where, in 1997, 42-year-old Denise Tuzo moved into a newly renovated apartment. Less than five years ago, the building had been a roofless shell, long abandoned by its owner and vacant for well over a decade. Now, it's home to 18 families. "It's very nice here," says Tuzo, a student and secretary at nearby City College who moved from the St. Nicholas Houses on 127th Street. "This entire block is being uplifted, and in five years, I think it will be very upwardly mobile. I was born and raised in Harlem, and I don't have any plans to leave."

Just a few blocks away, on West 129th Street, 73-year-old Josephine Richardson settles into a gold-hued, plastic-covered divan in a parlor crammed with porcelain figurines, crystal candy dishes, glass vases, and myriad chotchkes. "My ladies gave these things to me," says

Richardson, recalling her years as a domestic in Riverdale. After 34 years in this three-bedroom apartment, the gifts, including high-back chairs, china closets, and rich draperies, have piled up. Now, Richardson's landlord wants her to move to make way for renovations; one of her fears is that she'll return to a smaller apartment. "But the landlord doesn't care," she says. "They don't give a kitty, as long as you move out."

Tuzo and Richardson are neighbors, living within a 15-block radius in Harlem. And they are also joined by a Rudy Giuliani­inspired housing program that promises— some say threatens— to forever change Harlem. Called the Neighborhood Entrepreneurs Program, NEP's goal is to return to private landlords tens of thousands of apartments across New York that fell into the city's hands when owners abandoned them decades ago. At the same time, NEP aims to draw working-class and middle-class tenants to some of the most neglected neighborhoods, including Harlem, Bed-Stuy, and the South Bronx.

Since the program began in 1994, 6000 units citywide have been renovated or are undergoing renovation through NEP. But NEP's significance lies not only in the number of buildings and tenants it touches; it is also the linchpin of the Giuliani administration's housing policy. While not on the scale of Robert Moses's slum clearance efforts, NEP's transfer of publicly owned property to private hands, its relocation of thousands of tenants, and its aim of drawing wealthier tenants to poor neighborhoods is a contemporary feat of social engineering.

"NEP is a very big part of the administration's policy, but it's a terrible idea," says Peter Marcuse, head of the doctorate program in urban planning at Columbia University. "Generally, reliance on the private market to provide decent housing in New York is a mistake. It's not going to help people who need housing."

If Giuliani's goal of privatizing city-owned housing is most clearly articulated in NEP, nowhere is NEP more prominent than in Harlem, where a third of all NEP apartments are located. Decades of abandonment by private owners left the city holding title to much of the community's housing and turned it into Harlem's biggest landlord. NEP aims to change that. And while the people who run the program say it promises better housing, a better income mix, and, in their estimation, the advantage of less government, tenants and their advocates say NEP is freighted with problems.

"We're worried about the lack of affordable housing that will ultimately develop," says Harvey Epstein, a lawyer at the Community Law Office in East Harlem. "City-owned housing has historically been a place where people could afford to live, even if it wasn't in the best condition. Now, the city is giving it to private landlords who have incentive to get tenants out. What they're attempting to do is bring the middle class into Harlem, but it's pushing poor people out." Says Donald Richardson, Josephine's son who lives with her, "We just don't fit in this neighborhood anymore."

Under NEP, longtime tenants like Richardson are temporarily relocated during renovation. But because NEP assigns permanent apartments based on a renter's income and family size, tenants don't necessarily return to their original units, or even their original buildings. Especially hard-hit are seniors who have lived for decades in large apartments where they have raised families that are now grown. They are likely to be permanently placed in studios or one-bedrooms; most will pay 30 percent of their income for rent. New tenants, like Tuzo, rent NEP apartments they find in newspaper ads and usually pay market-rate rents.

George Armstrong, who directs NEP for the New York City Housing Partnership, which runs the program with the city, says NEP does not drive out low-income people. "We really cater to the existing tenants," says Armstrong, who notes that NEP properties include a mix of vacant and occupied buildings so tenants can be relocated during renovation and new tenants brought in without displacing old ones. "We do market to other tenants, but it doesn't necessarily mean they're higher class. They're working-class people who maybe work for the Transit Authority and have five kids. To the extent that we can bring these people to the community, we don't see anything wrong with it."

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