The New Harlem

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

Harlem pols are in a quandary. While they have spent energy on expanding Harlem's tax base and attracting the middle class since the '80s, this summer's flurry of activity has tenants demanding that their elected officials seek further low-income housing subsidies, and adding tenant protections to their agendas. If pols suddenly shifted to demand further low-income subsidies, that could result in a severe case of foot-in-mouth syndrome. "A few of us have actually been admonished by Harlem city councilmembers for focusing too much on low-income housing over the years," says one Community Board 10 official who asked not to be named.

Rangel, who has been involved in Harlem's redevelopment throughout the years, didn't return calls to the Voice, but his chief of staff, Jim Capel, says the congressman was told by HPD that there would not be a cut in low-income subsidies in Harlem. Rangel has always taken initiatives for low-income housing, Capel says, adding that if there is a major shortage of affordable housing, city housing policy must be taken on by local politicians. Councilmember Perkins, for one, stands by the need for middle-income housing, but he says, "Where we have come is good, but now it's starting to get bad. This is the time to rise up for city and federal subsidies to moderate prices."

State Senator Paterson admits he may not be the most popular kid on the political block because of his low-income housing advocacy and his recent formation of a housing task force. "This is not like solving AIDS. This problem is finite—we could create housing that serves a realistic mixture of income levels, but there is no one whose interests seem to be served by doing so," he says. His housing task force includes all the parties involved, yet it remains questionable whether this group will succeed. For all of the years of development there have always been agitators, but typically they haven't agreed on common goals.

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 this second Harlem Renaissance, housing activists are in the unique position of fighting against those with whom they often worked in the past. NYC Housing Partnership's president, George Armstrong, noted how strange it is that his organization, which was so crucial, along with HCCI and Abyssinian, in fighting to revive Harlem for its longtime residents, could now be seen on the other side of the fence. The schism is a result of what Paterson calls "a community that can't get over its ideological differences." There are those who are on the extreme that want to see almost no development—and that's not going to happen, he said. And then there are those who are trying to get what they can before the whole community flips. If there is going to be some change, the two sides will have to find middle ground. That's a place he hopes his task force will land.

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