The New Harlem

Who's Behind the Real Estate Gold Rush and Who's Fighting It?

Middle-income housing is based on salary requirements that match the median area income of New York City, which is $42,000—nearly twice that of Harlem. Rent and mortgage for moderate-income housing can be as high as 165 percent of the area media income. "I have seen moderate-income housing that requires tenants to earn $90,000," says Legal Aid attorney and Harlem resident Adrienne Holder. While community leaders have bent over backward to preserve Harlem's cultural history as what Perkins calls "the Mecca of the African Diaspora" by attracting black people to buy into redevelopment, they don't have a problem making it a wealthier mecca with outside corporate money.

HPD officials say Harlem residents need a more realistic view. It's not worth sinking low-income subsidies into a community where housing can easily sell at market rate. "In a world of finite resources, government is intended to spur a private market where it is not working on its own," says HPD spokesperson Carol Abrams. Ibo Balton, HPD director of Manhattan planning, says those subsidies "perhaps should be directed to the outer boroughs like Brooklyn or the Bronx that are more in need." He envisions the kind of change where young African Americans "who went to Yale can buy into Harlem." Balton, a Harlem resident, denies there is any lack of low-income housing in Harlem—though he said the city will continue to develop new low-cost housing in the 200 buildings it still owns.

Activists don't deny the need for economic revitalization, says Bailey. "But why do it at the expense of tenants who can't afford the new community?" Lydia Smith, owner of Efuru, a 120th Street brownstone guest house, is a Harlem transplant who says there is displacement in progress. Having received her house through the city's Homeworks Program at "a fair, though market-rate, deal," she admits there are people who are not that lucky. "What you have now is those who can afford and those who cannot," Smith says. As for displacement, "How could that be?" asks Perkins, when there were so many empty units in Harlem to begin with.

Nellie Bailey, of the Harlem Tenants Council, one of the activists fighting displacement of low-income residents
photo: Robert Hale
Nellie Bailey, of the Harlem Tenants Council, one of the activists fighting displacement of low-income residents

In 1987, Columbia University professor Lionel McIntyre, then a grad student, jumped at an offer to revitalize Harlem. The group that commissioned him was a coalition of churches called the Harlem Congregations for Community Improvement (HCCI) and the now defunct Harlem Urban Development Corporation (HUDC). Almost as groundbreaking as taking Harlem back from negligent landlords was the thought of 40 ministers from rival churches and various faiths working together as one. "Those guys were cutthroats," he says. But it was a dedicated group that had the backing of Harlem pols and resources from the city. Ultimately, it created the Bradhurst Plan, which spawned 1800 low-income housing units in city-owned buildings. Since then, HCCI and a number of other churches and nonprofit development groups have partnered with the city to create thousands of low-income units.

All of these planners "anticipated some changes" in Harlem's income range, McIntyre says. Their "naive notion" was to "stabilize" low-income and homeless residents and then to move on to creating middle-income and even market-rate housing to return Harlem to a mixed-income community. And in the '80s it was about as easy to predict the Internet economy of the '90s as it was to foresee its fall in the new millennium. That boom pressurized New York's housing market until it boiled over into Harlem sooner and with more intensity than expected. "Who could have guessed people would be willing to pay $5000 a month in Harlem?" McIntyre asks.

But the nonprofit development corporations didn't change strategies as the economic stars were rapidly realigning around them. Former mayor Rudolph Giuliani insisted that the city get out of the landlord business even if it meant unloading buildings to private developers. Not much later, with the help of UMEZ, 125th Street blossomed, resulting in a real estate-value explosion. Even an obvious trend among private developers creating hundreds of pricier apartments didn't force the city and nonprofits to re-evaluate. "When city policy changed, the churches had to go the way the money would go," McIntyre says.

Now, just blocks from where those first revitalized units in the Bradhurst section rebelliously sprung up among ruins, HCCI is currently building Bradhurst Court, a complex that will house a Pathmark supermarket and 126 market-rate co-ops. It's all to make Harlem "a community that doesn't just depend on government assistance," says HCCI CEO Lucille McEwan, adding that the group is now working on dozens more middle-income and low-income units. After years of developing low-income housing, HCCI's original plan was to balance income ranges, creating mixed-income communities. On a stroll through Bradhurst, McEwan pointed out the homegrown businesses her organization supported, ranging from Kev's Copy Center to a barbershop. Each co-op building consists of carefully chosen, dependable tenants with squeaky clean credit who can make a strong tenants association.

Abyssinian Development Corporation (ADC), the church's development arm, and the NYC Housing Partnership, both of which were instrumental in Harlem's housing revitalization, are following suit. After years of building low-income units, both are now mostly involved in developing middle-class sale units, many of which are available for those making upward of $45,000, while dozens are available to those making more than $70,000. ADC's new CEO, Sheena Wright, sees the need to do something about "the working poor who are being priced out of Harlem," but she says that's a fight for more low-income subsidies that should be taken up by city policy makers.

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