The New Harlem

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

For those whose parents exchanged their first smile in a Lenox Avenue church or who learned the art of political debate on blazing afternoons on 125th Street, strolling through Harlem in the '70s was like watching your mother publicly stripped. Blocks of once elegant buildings that had been abandoned overpowered the oases of life that were churches, beauty shops, and liquor stores. In the decade after the riots in the '60s, more than 100,000 Harlemites fled to the suburbs. Landlords walked away from buildings that weren't producing profits. The city took ownership of more than 65 percent of the buildings in the community. Miles of land stood vacant. Where Malcolm X's speeches once echoed through these streets, his words now seemed more like whispers buried in the concrete.

Flip the calendar forward 30 years. August, 2002: Several Harlem pols—State Senator David A. Paterson, Councilmember Bill Perkins, and Assemblyman Keith L.T. Wright—stand proudly at the ribbon-cutting ceremony of 30 new town homes dubbed "affordable housing." The developments, having received nearly $900,000 in city subsidies and support from Abyssinian Baptist Church, sell in a flash for between $300,000 and $600,000—a far cry from affordability for most residents in Central Harlem, where the median income is $26,000 year.

What happened over those two decades is an urban planner's dream: booming housing and business markets that are mostly the result of the steadfast work of a tight-knit group of planners, professionals, and politicians who took action after too many bad years. And contrary to popular opinion, the change has not necessarily translated into a white invasion, though that population has increased. The long-term gentrification that has been going on in Harlem is predominantly an influx of the black middle class—professionals from all over the country who want to be part of this "Second Renaissance."

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

Yet many longtime residents are outraged by rents and real estate values that have gone higher than they, or their children, can manage. That outrage has manifested in a rally, a town hall meeting that attracted an angry crowd of 700, and the formation of a housing task force this past summer alone. Fueling the fury is the belief among some that the Harlem political machine—that same tight-knit group that turned Harlem around—did not protect this community from major developers and big business. There is the obvious example of 125th Street, which has come to resemble some alter ego of a middle-American mall and was created largely by subsidies from the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone (UMEZ), an economic incentive organization spearheaded in part by Congressman Charles Rangel. But more vexing to the collective consciousness of this community is the new and expensive housing construction by big-name developers—many of whom received either dirt-cheap land or subsidies from the city.

At a June town hall meeting at the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture, audience members heckled forum speakers, including representatives from banks, UMEZ, the city's Housing Preservation Department (HPD), and the public housing authority. One elderly woman, whose voice was stronger than the fragile fist she threw in the air, screamed: "Where the hell are the politicians?" Though the forum was hosted by Paterson, there were, in fact, fewer elected officials in attendance than there are at most ribbon cuttings. The rage centered around one major demand: that existing powers halt funding and support for housing that the average Harlemite cannot afford. Anger was directed at elected officials, says Orlando Rivera, executive director of the Greater Harlem Real Estate Board Development Fund, because "the politicians have sat this one out."

Over the past five years, the cost of housing has become a problem on all fronts. Brownstone owners receive midnight visits from developers offering $800,000 for their properties. Those on the prowl range from Upper West Side doctors to wealthy entertainers. "You can't even start a conversation to buy a gutted brownstone for under $300,000," Rivera said.

Even for those who grew up middle-class in Harlem like Sharon Wilson, a social worker and mother of one, remaining in the community seems impossible. Earning a civil servant's salary, Wilson figures she will have to move out of the neighborhood when she needs more than one bedroom. Buildings in her area are charging $1500 a month for larger apartments. Generally, one-bedroom rentals that once would have been considered high at $500 now go for $1300 to $1500. And holding onto fairly priced apartments is becoming an increasing struggle. This year alone, there have been nearly 200 holdover-eviction cases in the Central Harlem zip codes. "We have seen a sharp increase in people losing their apartments due to landlord harassment for problems other than non-payment," says Nellie Bailey of the Harlem Tenants Council. "Money is in the air and everybody wants to get on the gentrification bandwagon."

Wilson says she would rather see Harlem developed as a middle-class community. "The question is, who is middle-class?" she asks. That's a question many activists are asking city officials and nonprofit development corporations, which, they say, are working for the wealthy. The city, which has directed huge resources toward thousands of units of low-income housing in Harlem over the years, has shifted toward supporting middle-class and market-rate home ownership opportunities.

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.

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.

Abyssinian's Harlem is a little more corporate. The church has worked on dozens of market-rate town houses and mixed-income apartments with major developers. These days, the church, led by Reverend Calvin O. Butts, is developing a multimillion-dollar mall with mega developer Forest City Ratner that will house a Marshall's, a bank, and an H&M clothing store. The mall will be built on the land once slotted for the Harlem International Trade Center. As an HCDC board member, Butts voted against the trade center in accordance with all of Governor George Pataki's appointees, defying the stated aim of hundreds of local Harlem business owners. Abyssinian is also involved in the development of several corporate projects, including a Papa John's Pizza and an International House of Pancakes.

Activist Bailey nearly spits every time she mentions Central Harlem's new Pathmark, or the gourmet Citarella emerging on 125th Street. She works hard to control the rage that can turn shrill when she questions why those who pride themselves on "stabilizing Harlem" are bringing in corporate heavyweights instead of funding local businesses. "Exactly who is the Empowerment Zone empowering?" she asks. Why is it that developers bring in businesses that raise real estate rates, but don't offer jobs that enable people to remain in the community? Abyssinian's Wright says her organization chooses to partner with corporations that provide good benefits, and that ADC offers financial counseling on "how to budget the $11 per hour" that employees will make.

James Simmons, a senior vice president at UMEZ, was clearly annoyed at the Schomberg town meeting when the crowd fired questions on an open mic about his organization's role in the housing crisis. The former investment banker explained with frustration that UMEZ's "mission" does not involve housing, it is to bring about new business and employment. UMEZ has become the favorite punching bag of many Harlemites since it has been publicized that the number of locally owned businesses receiving funding is dwarfed by corporate franchises like Time Warner's Disney Store. The people working in those stores, Simmons said, are happy to have a job and are not the ones complaining.

It's hard to think those involved in business and housing development are not linked and working toward similar goals of a corporate-run, upper-middle-class Harlem, say activists. HCCI's McEwan jokes, "There are those who will have you believe that the city purposely allowed landlords to abandon buildings so we could take the buildings and control Harlem. It's ridiculous." She is not totally off. Many a housing activist has at least quipped about that very conspiracy. Still, most argue that the development on every front has been spearheaded by a small group of planners who are all linked in some way. And they point to those who are career "Harlem builders". McEwan worked at HPD, then as the attorney for UMEZ before becoming HCCI's CEO. Her old boss, former HPD commissioner Deborah Wright, who began her career at the NYC Housing Partnership when it was very involved in Harlem's redevelopment, later went on to direct UMEZ. She is now the president and CEO of Carver Bank, which approves business and home loans in Harlem. Wright refused an interview with the Voice. There are dozens of others who have jumped from board to board, making crucial decisions about this community.

The concern isn't as much with résumé building as it is with the lack of objectivity in choosing the kinds of developers who will ultimately own Harlem. So far, the developers who have received property from the city or have partnered with organizations like HCCI aren't exactly community-based. The Gotham Organization, which received subsidies and loans from UMEZ to build Harlem USA as part of a partnership, also received land and property from HPD to develop at least 150 condominium units, 37 rental units, and almost 35,000 square feet of retail space. The company owns numerous luxury-apartment skyscrapers throughout Manhattan, mostly on the Upper West and East sides.

The Richman Group, listed by the National Multi Housing Council as one of the top 50 companies owning the most apartments in the country, is working on at least two major projects with building and land from HPD. Related Companies, which is on the top 50, is best known for creating AOL Time Warner's new Columbus Center at Columbus Circle. Most developers who have received subsidies or huge tracts of land for $1 have been given 20-year tax incentives to keep rents and mortgages affordable.

But in 20 years, when tax credits lift or when co-op values shoot through the roof, McEwan admitted, that's the Harlem people may need to be concerned about. Then again, she said, there could be "another wave of abandonment." That's reason enough to continue stabilizing development, she said.

If Harlem activists are looking for a politician to champion their low-income housing cause, C. Virginia Fields's office may not be the place to turn. A former Harlem councilmember, Fields has been a strong tenant advocate over the years. Recently, she has worked on reviving Frederick Douglass Boulevard, on which she plans to spend at least $3.5 million from her capital budget developing 16 sites. Most of the units will be middle- and moderate-income housing based upon HPD's middle-income standards. Harriet Tubman Gardens, for instance, a complex of 73 units developed by the Queens-based Bluestone Organization, is available for tenants whose income "can't exceed $97,500"—that's 165 percent of the area median income. Fields did not return calls to the Voice.

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.

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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