Friday Freestyle Flavor: Random Ramblings About Real Estate

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.

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11 thoughts on “Friday Freestyle Flavor: Random Ramblings About Real Estate

  1. Well spoken Illoquentgent, I agree with you on almost all points except these 2: Gotham Developers–they did my first buidling–The Hamilton. And while they did mess up some stuff, we actually got a really great building with wonderful apts, and they did take a huge risk with that development. Some did have construction defects, but I was absolutely thrilled with my own apt. Also, all of these new buildings are not created equal, but some of them are quality through and through. My current bldg, The Dwyer, was done very well and I have absolutely no complaints. I was in Avalon Bay over the weekend and I have to say I was also very impressed (rentals though they maybe). Currently I am watching 5th on the Park very, very carefully to see how well done this next “inside” phase goes. I will go into deeper detail on these two points on my next blog entry. C

    Regards,

    J

    James

  2. Thanks,D for trying to put your ‘ramblings’ in such a balanced light. I have to agree that any conversations about Harlem today are unfortunately polarized into either real estate or crime. It’s a shame really being that Harlem has so much going on. However, real estate is a subject that affects everyone who lives here down to the core.

    It seems that when developers set their eyes on Harlem, it became a call-to-arms (metaphorically) to protect one’s tenancy very much the way one anticipates an invasion or a tropical storm. That ‘s in part because we became complacent and felt a certain entitlement to living here. I’ve admit it before. We somehow felt that the reward for surviving in Harlem was the ability to always keep our homes at the lowest prices possible. This made it easier to cope with the drug dealers on the corner, the shootings, the thumping loud music, the excessive littering and loitering, and many peoples’ complete disregard for their living conditions. The consolation prize was, “at least we can afford this decent-sized apartment in Manhattan and pay the bills.”

    When we saw the roll-out of HMV, the Disney Store, Old Navy, the Magic Johnson Theatre, and Blockbuster we were overcome with joy that someone actually cared about us enough to give us these couple amenities to make us feel like it’s not all bad. We were naive. The truth was that it marked the beginning of a very organized and concerted effort to finally reap from Harlem what all the developers who bought those abandoned buildings and empty lots had been promised. That they would become millionaires. The signal had been sent and it was time! You saw areas being cleared for condo buildings. On the community relations angle you had organizations like HCCI facilitating sign-up lists for these new residences and inviting people to credit workshops, etc. I suppose one should be grateful that the churches had bought some property as well. In the spectrum of things I’d rather go with the devil I know than the devil I don’t know. And i don’t say this to villify the them. These are the same churches who fought for Harlem decades ago. I have to believe that they will have a little more regard for me than than Gotham Developers would. To somehow accuse them for capitalizing on these investments is absurd. And to think that they will not have issues maintaining their properties because they are connected to the church is also naive. People are people. Business is business. Money they don’t have to spend on fixing violations is money that can be invested on something else that will provide bigger returns. Shady but profitable.

    Along with the new developments, Columbia began to reveal plans for Manhattanville. All this was compounded by landlords who smelled what was in the air as well and figured why settle for city housing subsidies when they could make 3-5 times as much with a little sprucing up of the buildings and some decent marketing. All they needed was to motivate some of the “weaker link” tenants to move out…always operating just on the brink of the legal, occasionally trespassing into illegal territory. Shady but profitable.

    All of a sudden it became a “we vs. them” mentality. Tenants vs. Landlords. Blacks/Latinos vs Whites. Educated vs. Uneducated. Young vs. Old. Truth is everyone moving here is doing so because of prices. It’s still cheaper. No one moving in has the express agenda of erradicating minorities. You go where it’s cheaper no matter who you are. It’s the market in its purest sense the results of which cause unease among people who have been here a long time; those who somehow feel that the newcomers are capitalizing on the gains that hardworking families made.
    We’ve made it more personal than it really is. Everyone is just looking for a place to call home.

    The landowners, lawyers, and politicians have already rolled the dice. It has become bigger than any of us. It is not about black and white. It is about green. This does not mean that efforts to secure affordable housing should be abandoned. Every inch of housing that can be secured for the working class should be pursued. Housing for the elderly should be protected. Other than that it’s every man/woman for themselves. It means that we must begin to if not embrace then acknowledge the changes are indeed coming with bulldozer resolve. Instead of pointing to the landlords and newcomers as the source of our woes, we should be actively securing our living arrangements as best we can by learning our rights as tenants if we are renters and/or considering jumping aboard the home ownership wagon.

    I’ll be the first to say that most of these new condo apartments are garbage from a design and quality perspective (even most of the “luxury” ones). They’re all small…the walls are thin…the floors are cheap…the carpentry is generally shoddy. Some of the newer ones have tried to improve on those shortfalls what with places like Curbed constantly “blowing their spots”. Most of those who have gone with the market rate penthouses and duplex units are getting a fairer deal (and even some of them have admitted to me that they’ve discovered bad work). But it is what it is. The condos that have been “separated” for community residents will never be more affordable than they are now. Get on the lottery lists, get as much cash as you can on hand (25K-35K), read up on mortgage loans, and buy a home. Do not be left behind!

  3. re: “Blacks were better off when Manhattan did not care about anything above 96th Street”.

    This is one of the most ignorant comments that I have ever read. Just take a look at this website of photos taken of various blocks in Harlem 20 years ago and the same sites shown in 2007:

    http://forum.skyscraperpage.com/showthread.php?t=149448

    Do you honestly believe that blacks (or anyone, for that matter) prefer to live in what was basically a “war zone” filled with burned-out, falling down buildings, where drug dealing, murders, and other crime were running rampant? No way!!!

    Change in any form, but particularly that which brings “outsiders” to a neighborhood – whether those outsiders be businesses like Pathmark, or individuals (of any race) buying apartments in Harlem – will always meet with resistance from some longtime residents. I wonder how many of those who resisted having Pathmark open up in Harlem now shop there? Did you know that the 125th Street Pathmark is the highest grossing store in their entire chain? Does not that fact alone speak loudly about what had been (and to some extent, still is) the deplorable lack of good grocery stores in Harlem?

    As for the Abyssinian Development Corporation – God bless them for having the courage and conviction to believe in rebuilding Harlem. Again, look at those pictures from the 1980’s – Harlem was a bleak place back then, certainly one of the most unsafe places for anyone – black, white, whatever! Kudos to ADC for helping to change that!

    Finally, regarding the comment about the churches in Harlem selling out, and the fact that you see so many cars double-parked on the streets in front on churches on Sunday morning, indicating, perhaps, that many of these churches parishioners drive in from outside of Harlem. The handful of churches who did sell their property/air rights to developers in exchange for a new church building, did so because their building was falling down, or they were in jeopardy of closing their doors due to lack of funds. It was a survival tactic for them – what’s wrong with building new facilities which may include modern spaces for kids to play, or finally having the funds to launch various community programs? And as far as people driving in from other neighborhoods, boroughs, states, etc. to attend church in Harlem, this is the plight of pretty much all churches in Manhatten. The demographics of church-going people in Manhatten has changed dramatically over the last 25 years, with many of them coming from the outlying suburbs.

    Gentrification happens everywhere, but the gentrification of Harlem ignites such passion in many people primarily, I think, because people automatically pull the race card out in the discussion right up front, rather than recognizing, as many people have in this blog, that it is really a class issue. That is no different from any neighborhood going through gentrification. One of the main differences in Harlem, though, is that both the City and organizations like ADC, are working hard to ensure that affordable housing continues to be a major presence in Harlem, which is as it should be. Will everyone ultimately be happy with the changes happening in Harlem? No, of course not. But change is inevitable, and as time goes on, most people come to embrace that change, at least the positive aspects of it.

  4. It’s awfully interesting to see folks who wouldn’t normally set foot above 96th street now living in and navigating their way through Harlem. It’s pretty obvious, in my opinion, that they’d rather be living elsewhere – if they could only afford it. The problem is those folks are being priced out of more desireable neighborhoods on the island, and as a result have had to come up with other solutions to the NYC housing crunch – which means ultimately living in a neighborhood that they never would have considered otherwise.

    I’m one of those people. I totally resent that I’ve been priced out of my downtown apt. I now live in a neighborhood in Harlem where delinquent behavior goes unchallenged… ever see the ongoing dice game under the scaffolding at the Theresa Hotel. I could go on but I won’t. Harlem has become blindspot for people with bad behavior to carry on as if it were normal. Gentrification, or better yet, Desegregation, cannot happen fast enough in my opinion. It’s time for Harlem and other historically segregated neighborhoods to finally join the mainstream. And as for the people who are being priced out of Harlem? They’ll find something, I did.

  5. I have to agree regarding the stationery store. I’ve had almost the same experience. Went there twice to give it another chance. Preferred to get on the train and go downtown until Staples came to Harlem.

  6. Anon: Thanks for bringing up the lady who owned the stationary store. I meant to mention her in the post. I have to respectfully disagree that she was “driven out.” I remember when that woman was featured on “Oprah” and if I’m not mistaken she wanted to get her daughter through school and was planning on the closing the store anyway. When my friend and I happened to go into her store to try to talk to her, she wasn’t interested in engaging in conversation. She had a huge space and the only things she had in there were some dusty pens and a few old, stained reams of paper. Literally not much else. And I believe her prices were not competitive since she had no competition. As a matter of fact, she was no competition for a store like Office Max or Staples. Is that all we deserve up in Harlem? Shouldn’t we have a choice? If so, more times than not the store that offers the best selection and service will win out. I never shopped at her store because she didn’t provide the service I needed. I spent my money downtown at these same businesses before Harlem started opening them in the community. Folks used to drink Starbucks. They just bought it downtown. As someone said, the issue really is multi-layered and I think people want it to be simply black and white. Harlem has always had several different classes of people…the difference was that it was fairly homogenized. Yet, one could even argue that point. West Indians, Africans, African Americans, and Puerto Ricans have been living together for decades. Now there is a different mix to the stew and it has political and social implications that are turning up the heat.

  7. Tacony…What other’s think shouldn’t deter you from making positive choices about your own personal wealth. If I were you, and I lived in CB 10, I would enter every single housing lottery for these new developments that are coming online. You get pref b/c of that, race is not a factor. Just have good credit and some money as a down payment (beg, borrow or steal), and wait it out. This is exactly how I entered the real estate market and I was making $42,000 at the time.

    James

  8. Anon at 9:33, Agreed, it is all about the color green, but Harlem is in America which is all about the bottom line, for better or worse, and Harlem cannot isolate itself from being part of the good old US of A.

    One thing you forgot to mention is Harlem has always been for sale, and at a bargain price and for a long time, when no one else would dream of living there, it was back then that the good people of Harlem should have taken ownership and made Harlem great, block by block driven by pride of ownership, a few did but not enough.

    The future of Harlem and America as a whole is more integrated communities, both in terms of color and economics. Overall this is a good thing for everyone, as opposed to the old isolated monolithic Harlem, just look at Queens with its amazing diversity, some say this is the future of America. I think Rev. Butts is seeing the big picture when he talks of diversity in Harlem.

    One good part of New York living is you become accustomed to neighborhoods, the bad part of New York living is you always see those beloved neighborhoods melt away and change, as is true for all of New York, not just Harlem.

    As a final note, I cared about the loss of the 125th hardware store, I liked the owner, she and her staff always had a good attitude and I would go out of my way to shop there, even though it may not seem like it, some people new to Harlem do care.

  9. Thanks for bringing this subject up in a thorough way. The Times article was a good starting point for this discussion, but clearly there’s much more going on here. On the street, many people feel as the person who left this anonymous comment, and I do feel that there are some excellent factual points made here, but the truth of the matter is that people do care about what is going on…both in the street, and in the board rooms too. Developement in Harlem has been in full swing now for almost a decade. Magic Johnson’s development on 125th really got the ball rolling and I have to say he deserves a ton of credit for bringing big business back to Harlem. Furthermore, he brought business that Black consumers were sorely lacking, and I have never seen more happy Black families in my life, than when I pass by Chuck-E-Cheese on my way home from work. Not that Pathmark or Chuck-E-Cheese is the savior of Harlem, but they are great additions to this neighborhood. Loosing Bobby’s House of Music was a shame, but how many record stores in general have folded in the past 5 years? Nearly all of them in Manhattan…why? Not b/c of gentrification, but b/c of the change of technology. Yes, their building was bought out…the terms of which I am as yet still ignorant of, but to say that Blacks are better off before anyone cared about anything above 96th St. is totally off the mark. It just goes against almost all of my own personal observations over the past 15 years. Yes Harlem is changing, some for the “good”, some for the “bad,” and I put this in quotes b/c these are relative terms, but the fact is, I personally have seen a huge jump in the personal wealth of many native Harlemites who have embraced these changes rather than decry them. Can this transition be better managed? Of course, but when ever I go to Pathmark and see ever single cashier, patron and manager to be Black, I think, yes this is working. And far BETTER than anyone expected. To further this dialogue, I have started posting information, photos and testimonials on my blog: http://harlemhybrid.blogspot.com

    Regards,

    J

  10. I wish people would stop making excuses for Abys. They’re not better, no worse than anyone else, incuding Willie Suggs, etc.

    Harlem is selling out and everyone is making money where and how they can, culture be damned. Lots of Harlem churches have gotten into the real estate business in some form or fashion and are taking the money and running with it. Charles Rangel has no shame in historically denying a Harlemite a needed Rent Stab apartment while he’s had 4 at Lenox Terrace. Yes, he’s had his apartments back when Lenox Terrace still offered Rent Stab apartments.

    If you notice more of the Churches in Harlem have church goers NOT FROM the community, they drive to the Church. I look forward to it coming full circle and the churches seeing they have no more local congregation.

    There is no community love or unification, the color of Harlem is GREEN, culture be damned. Back in the late 90’s there was a Black owned and operated office suppy store where Blockbuster now stands. No one cares that lady was driven out of business. Remember the BLACK OWNED and Operated Hardware store on 125th? Across the street from Con Edison? NO ONE CARES that Black owned and operated store is out of business, even though she was the only HardWare store of size to support the community pre-gentrification.

    No one truly cares, it’s all about money, this is self evident and clear if you look around and open your eyes. The Churches are no better than anyone else out to profit on the new Harlem.

    M&G’s Bobby’s House of Music, Copelands, NO ONE CARES.. Blacks were better off when Manhattan did not care about anything above 96th Street.

    The politicians don’t care, the community does not care, that’s pretty much the story of Harlem. The future of Harlem is green. If you can’t play the game, get out.

    Carl of Annie Ruth’s was forced to sell and got out, he’s in NJ Now. Patrice Clayton of the Harlem Tea Room is closing next month. 2 Young Black business owners OUT OF BUSINESS in Harlem.

    No one cares or gives a damn. If you dispute this, again, I refer you back to that Black woman that supported Harlem for years with her Hardware Store on 125th.

    No Church, no politician, no one cares about the fate of that woman. That’s the real Harlem, and I am not necessarily complaining about the absence of real concern, I am just speaking truth for those with eyes wiling to see it.

    Money, money, money. That’s it, culture be damned.

  11. There’s a lot of class envy wrapped up in the real estate market in New York, and of course in Harlem this is inseperable from race. I make $40k a year, which would be the lower end of the target population for what you’re considering “affordable” housing. Most new affordable projects use percentages (typically 60 to 100 percent) of the NYC area median income, which is really high due to the fact that it includes Westchester and Long Island, so I also fit squarely in there.

    The problem? I’m white. A lot of people up in arms over affordable housing are really frustrated that Harlem isn’t as black as it once was. A white guy making $40k a year isn’t who they have in mind for affordable housing in Harlem.

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