Northern Manhattan Tenants Feel the Squeeze

At a building meeting on Nov. 14, almost 20 tenants complained bitterly of falling ceilings, of vermin in the walls. They told stories of being repeatedly taken to court on frivolous nonpayment and holdover cases—few, in fact, had never been to Housing Court. They told of a succession of landlords growing increasingly negligent and hostile toward tenants—some of whom had lived in the building for ten years, and some for their entire lives.

Meanwhile, an energetic work crew was busily renovating a ground-floor apartment for what was sure to be a gleaming, market-rate unit. On a Saturday, no less.

This was not a scene out of Williamsburg, or Hell’s Kitchen, or the Lower East Side. This was 295 West 150th St.—a Harlem building, one of several in northern Manhattan organized by Met Council in recent months. The six-story, 33-apartment building was sold last winter for $7.9 million to 295 West 150 LGK Associates L.P., headed by Yitzchak Horowitz of Far Rockaway. One-bedroom apartments there have been advertised recently for $1,650 to $1,700 a month, and two-bedrooms for $2,200. Most current tenants are paying half to two-thirds as much.

“We have to get organized,” says Orlando Cotto, founder of the 295 West 150th Street Tenants Association. “The new landlord just wants to get longtime tenants out of here. The whole neighborhood will be gone if we don’t fight back.”

Indeed, conventional wisdom is finally catching up to what tenants have been noticing for years. The 21st century has brought a hot real-estate market to the entire island of Manhattan, and tenants are feeling the consequences.

Landlords, selling newcomers on short commutes, beautiful parks, and vibrant culture, are seeing dollar signs. Forcing out a rent-regulated tenant, renovating the apartment, and removing it from rent regulation can bring in north of $10,000 a year. A negligent landlord is one thing. An actively hostile one is another. This is what the tenants of northern Manhattan are facing.

The consequences are visible in these neighborhoods. Harlem is rapidly becoming whiter and richer, as long-term residents are driven out. The number of white residents in Central Harlem went from 672 in 1990 to 13,800 in 2008. Hamilton Heights, Washington Heights, and Inwood, once thought untouchable by gentrification, have all experienced rent spikes.

“It’s bad, because of the rezoning,” says Cotto, referring to the ongoing process to allow the construction of upscale housing in East Harlem, currently being fought by community groups. “Ever since we had the rezoning, these real-estate companies come by, they’re buying these buildings, and forcing tenants out.”

This serves as a reminder: A hot real-estate market does not result from chance. It results from political decisions, made by our elected officials. When those decisions affect tenants, politicians must be held accountable. 

In the meantime, tenants in northern Manhattan are paying the price, as affordable units disappear. “Tenants need to stay in their apartments,” concludes Cotto. “They’re never going to find the rent they’re paying again.” The only solution for tenants, as always, is to organize.


Daniel Moraff is a Met Council organizer.