East Harlem Continues to Change as Developers Avoid Low-Income Regulations

As the economy improves, more residential developers are choosing to build apartments with private funds to avoid city and state regulations that require them to provide affordable housing for low-income residents, forcing the streets of East Harlem to change, along with the people who once walked them.

According to Wayne Benjamin, Director of Residential Development for the Harlem Community Development Corporation (HCDC), a state corporation dedicated to assisting community-based developmental projects in greater Harlem, said as the economy changes and the market strengthens, less developers depend on city financing, so those who have the option of using private funds toward their projects are not bound by certain laws that would otherwise force them to accommodate for tenants who cannot afford increased rent rates.

Benjamin said although the HCDC has worked with private developers for over 12 years, these days there is less collaboration between the two entities because less land belongs to the city. Benjamin said as long as the market is strong, developers will want to own private property with a market-rate, which is around same rate as any current competitive price, based on the idea that they can successfully complete the project.

“For decades, there was a tremendous amount of city owned apartments in Harlem, but now [these are] exhausted,” said Benjamin. “[What’s] happening is privately owned property doesn’t have the city of New York saying they own it and here are the rules that we attach to our property.”

According to data gathered by the Furman Center For Real Estate and Urban Planning, a New York City urban development research organization, in the past two years building permits plummeted, going from about 1200 in 2008 to about 39 in 2009.

In 2008, the most recent data available, about 54 percent of homes were subsidized rental units in East Harlem and 34 percent were rent-regulated.

Director of Policy and Communications at the Furman Center, Caitlyn Brazill, who works on the external affairs and non-academic research dissemination for the organization, said the overall trend throughout the city in 2008 and 2009 showed less building permits being authorized for development, which means fewer buildings were being built than in 2006 and 2007 when the market was stronger.

Brazill cautioned, however, that although data wasn’t available to directly support the HCDC’s observation, things can change drastically with real estate in a short time.

“It’s possible that buildings are picking up again,” she said. “I think probably given the dramatic drop, even with the increase, there’s just less building.”

Benjamin said the city is now trying to team up with developers to increase subsidized rentals and co-ops in privately owned buildings because “increasing affordability is an issue.” Critics worry that as privately owned properties that do not provide subsidized housing increase in East Harlem, less options are left for low-income residents.

But despite the decrease in subsidized housing, several community residents and business owners seem to appreciate the changes that are happening in their neighborhood.

“There are more businesses in Harlem and it is better for the community,” said Guillermo Gomez, a businessman who has worked in Harlem for over 6 years, speaking in Spanish. “Before there used to be a lot of fighting [in the streets], now there are more whites, more police officers.”

Living in Johnson Houses, a housing project on 115th and Lexington Ave, Benny Hill, 26, said with the changes, people feel safer in the neighborhood and the city has even built a brand community center in his project. “There’s a lot of good change — it used to be dangerous,” said Hill.

According to Chief of Staff for 68th District Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powel, Evette Zayas, there are a lot of developmental changes in East Harlem and although it’s good, the city will lose its culture and people if developments exclude the existing residents.

“Unfortunately, East Harlem is going to lose its identity,” she said. “The identity we know.”