Kool Herc Fights to Save Birthplace of Hip Hop


Kool Herc is fighting to save the rec room where he first wrecked it.
Photo by Flowizm via Flickr

Maybe there is hope for political hip hop after all. Last week DJ Kool Herc—known as the godfather of hip hop for using breakbeats and toasting in the streets of the Bronx in the bad old 1970s—led the latest in a series of events to highlight the erosion of Mitchell Lama affordable housing.

That’s because the owners of the building where he grew up and where hip hop was born, 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, are about to leave the state sponsored affordable housing program. That means hundreds of tenants in the boxy building in the shadow of the Cross Bronx Expressway could see their subsidized rents skyrocket. The owner, BSR management can officially opt out of Mitchell-Lama on February 23.

Faced with the prospect of losing their homes, residents of 1520 Sedgwick kicked it old school, calling the equivalent of the block parties that used to animate the neighborhood. Last summer they brought in Kool Herc to draw attention to their cause. Now the tenants are taking a play from the old days when hip hop incubated in the Bronx streets that landlord arson and municipal abandonment had turned to wasteland: They want to buy the building.

Back then tenants sometimes banded together to buy their home from landlords that had withdrawn services and walked away from buildings they couldn’t make money off. That was fiscal crisis NYC.

In the new NYC, even with the looming recession, the threat to tenants is reversed. It’s not that they can’t make money, rather they can rake in so much from market rents that landlords and management companies are willing to walk away from the state dole to do so. Mitchell Lama isn’t a subsidy to tenants. It’s a series of financial aid and tax incentives that landlords collect for providing affordable units to low and middle income people.

Once upon a time there were 105,000 Mitchell Lama units in the city, spread across 269 developments built by the state after the program was launched in 1955 to meet the housing needs of the workers that ran the city. Stuyvesant Town was Mitchell Lama. So was Starrett City and Coop City.

But developers can buy out of the program after 25 years, which is what BSR is contemplating. More than 25,000 units left the program between 2004 and 2006 alone, according to a study by the Comptrollers Office.

Another 37,000 units are in danger of disappearing if the current rate continues, according to an analysis by the Community Service Society, City Limits reported this week.
The 1520 Sedgwick Avenue tenants raised $11.5 million—a combination of private donations and subsidy commitments from the city. But they are still far shy of BSR’s $14 million asking price.

Bricks and Mortar will keep you posted on the fate of hip hop’s birthplace and the future of Mitchell Lama apartments throughout the city. In fact, 41 percent of the Mitchell Lama rentals that were home to NYC’s working class in 1990 are out of the program now, rented in an unregulated market that makes $4,000 the average rent for a one bedroom in the city.

In other words, nearly twice the monthly salary of a rookie cop.