When I moved to Harlem, the deals to be found in the area were some of the best kept secrets in New York. Slowly the secret leaked out and before I knew what happened Harlem was caught up in the midst of what is virtually a real estate tug-o-war.
Now, nine times out of ten when you see an article about Harlem, it will have to do with the real estate market. The rest of the time it will be about crime, and very rarely we’ll see a “feel good” article squeeze past the gatekeepers of the mainstream media. There is a lot of good that comes out of Harlem and regular readers of this blog know that we strive to serve up a healthy balance of the true flavor of Harlem. But back to the real estate market.
Two newspaper reports have caught my attention recently. One is about Abyssinian and the other about the Riverton. Let’s start with Abyssinian. In the interest of full disclosure I have no connections to Abyssinian other than knowing several people who are members of the church. As a matter of fact, I’ve only been inside the church once and that was for the final viewing of actor Ossie Davis. When I was looking for an apartment in Harlem, I was referred to their development office, but learned that they had no vacancies at the time. I personally cannot even tell you which properties are owned and managed by Abyssinian. However, recent news stories have emerged that claim that Abyssinian is a slumlord and they are contributing to the gentrification of Harlem.
As the church’s development arm has grown in size and influence, however, it has become a target of critics who say it has ushered in a wave of gentrification that has displaced longtime residents and has been a neglectful landlord of some of its apartment buildings, which have amassed hundreds of unresolved violations.
Naturally Reverend Butts and his congregation deny these claims, and the President and CEO or the Development Corp., Sheena Wright, has received nothing but good press for helping the corporation double in size. There is no doubt that Butts couldn’t have picked a more qualified head of the corporation. Wright spent part of her childhood in Harlem, attended top notch schools (she went to high school with Bill Cosby’s late son Ennis, then graduated from Columbia’s Law School) and has worked for high profile, reputable companies — all before the age of 40. Wright is now raising her own children in Harlem, which indicates a commitment to the community.
“It is ludicrous for anyone to accuse us of building market-rate housing or pushing through projects that the community does not want,” she [Wright] insists, stung by criticism that Abyssinian is overstepping its mission. “We’ve never done any project that the local community board did not approve; all our housing is 100 percent affordable, there are just different degrees of affordable. To build 100 percent low-income housing you need a ton of subsidies: try going to the city and state for that level of funding and believe me, they’ll look at you like you’re crazy.”
Well, Wright is right that there are “different degrees of affordability” but we can all probably agree that the lower income population has public housing and those making over $150K can probably afford to live any number of places. So, affordability would like be for the population making anywhere from $30,000 to $80,000 in my opinion.
At another Abyssinian project, Odell Clark Place Condominiums, which is under construction on several parcels of land on 138th Street that the city sold to Abyssinian for a total of about $50,000 — perhaps one-tenth of what it would command on the open market — 14 of the 40 units will be sold to lower-income buyers.
Additionally, most of those 14 units will most likely be pegged as affordable for households earning $60,000 annually, four times higher than the neighborhood’s average household income of about $15,000, according to Abyssinian.
“One should not relegate Harlem to housing just for the poor,” Mr. Butts said. “Everyone must be able to live here.”
Yes, New York is an expensive city to live in but when you consider the commuter costs connected to the living outside of the city, it doesn’t make sense that those living inside the city limits should be forced out when they are working and paying rent just like everyone else. Seriously, what difference does it make if my neighbor pays $800 a month for their two bedroom when I pay $1500 for my one bedroom? If I can afford to pay $1500 a month and I was willing to pay it before finding out how much my neighbor was paying, why make a stink? Yet, that is exactly what is happening here in Harlem. People with different lifestyles, incomes, and circumstances are starting to come together and compare notes. The problem? All of the factors haven’t been taken into consideration.
Stick with me now, I warned it would be rambling and random. Reverend Butts feels that is the issue with the success of the church’s development:
“The claims that we have been responsible for gentrification, or whatever you want to call it, are usually made by people absolutely ignorant of our work, or jealous of our work,” Mr. Butts said. “We are really keeping to our mission. The other market forces coming into Harlem are things which most of us have no control over. We don’t own the real estate.”
Reverend Butts has a point. For years no one did anything to help revitalize Harlem. The church would be criticized for not being a facilitator of the change just as harshly as they are being criticized for being a part of the change.
Critics have a list of complaints: that Abyssinian does not keep the community apprised of its development plans; that it has pushed through projects over the objections of the local community board; that it does not ensure the hiring of minority contractors; that it has opposed historic preservation; and that it has virtually ignored small businesses in favor of chain stores that have damaged the small-town character of Harlem.
I wonder how many of the recent developments have kept the community apprised of their plans? What about the recent conversion of what was to be a luxury condo hotel living accommodation into a youth hostel? I’m sure the community would have had plenty to say about that. It changes the character of a community to have people coming and going as opposed to having committed residents. Why couldn’t these places be scaled down to meet the needs of people looking for affordable living? Just a thought.
Also consider the fact that these community critics were opposed to the opening of the 125th Street Pathmark.
The development corporation won its first major project in 1999, a $17 million, 65,000-square-foot Pathmark grocery store on 125th Street in East Harlem. The store had faced significant opposition from local shop owners, and originally, reluctance from Pathmark, which had expressed skepticism that a large supermarket in Harlem could be profitable. Pathmark has since opened a second Harlem store.
Had Abyssinian not pushed it through, Harlem would be in worst shape with the lack of quality supermarkets than it is in now. Part of the problem that I see with Harlem’s growth and revitalization that the community doesn’t pick their battles carefully enough. Maybe in some of these community board meetings there needs to be a line drawn as to what can be compromised and what are deal breakers.
Personally, I have found that the developments they have invested in thus far have been useful. Who can argue that the Thurgood Marshall Academy has been an asset to the community? The area was once isolated and abandoned now has a successful school and a thriving business. Some argue that IHOP is a chain. Well, the reality is that people were spending money with I.H.O.P. anyway. They were just traveling to get there. Now that we have lost our local breakfast institutions — Pan Pan, M&G, etc. — it would make sense that affordable places need to be replaced. Ideally, each time we lose an business we need a comparable business to replace it but we all know that won’t be a reality.
I’m sure there is also not a single person reading this who can deny that the Harlem Center that houses Washington Mutual, Marshall’s, and Staples haven’t been an added benefit to the community. Marshall’s and H&M have provided clothing and shoe options to career professionals who aren’t aspiring rappers or strippers. Washington Mutual offers free checking accounts with no minimum balance, giving some Harlemites their first chance to have a checking account in their own community. Who does that hurt? The check cashing companies? In my opinion they are dispensable if it means that people in the community can invest their money and start to save it — $5 at a time. Staples has been a god-send for school supplies, that emergency ream of printer paper or ink cartridge. I can’t complain.
Next on their agenda is cleaning up the blighted corner where the Renny once hosted dances and community events. A whole block of deteriorating brick does nothing to help the community whereas condos and commercial development in an area that is currently suffering from a lack of services can only be an asset in my opinion. The area, which borders Strivers Row, must maintain it’s character but it also needs to have necessary services available. The area was not always in that state and should be restored to its original grandeur.
Of course this shouldn’t be at the expense of those lower income residents who have been living in squalor for years. Getting back to the point of Abyssinian being accused of being a slumlord, it doesn’t look good that their current properties have outstanding code violations”
301 West 148th Street, a 13-unit apartment building, there are 295 open violations, including lack of hot water, peeling lead paint, missing smoke detectors, bars on windows blocking access to fire escapes, and apartments overrun by mice and roaches, according to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. Abyssinian said that the violations existed before it bought the building, and that a recent rehabilitation had resolved them.
Lisa Jones, who lives in a 24-unit Abyssinian building on 135th Street that has 143 open Department of Housing Preservation and Development violations, said tenants there had been withholding rent for several months until basic repairs were made. Residents have won three court orders forcing Abyssinian to make repairs.
I think a lot of Harlem landlords are of the mind-set that the solution to the problem is to generate income from market rate properties in order to repair the properties that have fallen into disrepair. I remember years ago, when I visited the Dunbar, the managing agent told me that they were performing emergency surgery…they needed to bring in money to stop the hemorrhaging before they could take care of the cosmetic. In my opinion, I believe that some of these developers are biting off more than they can chew.
Your thoughts are welcome in the comments section.
Ed. note: This is a first draft and will be cleaned up later. Please excuse the typos and missing words.
Stay tuned for part two where I will ramble on about The Riverton and their dire straits.