“This Joint is Jumping,” Fats Waller said in a musical declaration at the tail end of the Harlem Renaissance. “Come in, cats, and check your hats,” Waller sang in 1938, “I mean, this joint is jumpin.'” Flash forward about 75 years and the same can now be said of Hamilton Heights, a section of West Harlem that extends from 135th street to 155th, and from the edge of the Hudson River to Edgecombe Avenue.
Not too long ago Hamilton was the Heights many New Yorkers could not point to on a map, but that seems less likely now. “If you look at the search word data,” Jeff Green, a residential realtor with Bohemia Realty Group, says, “Hamilton Heights is one of the most searched Google words for people looking uptown. So, there is a lot of name recognition in this last year or so—for Hamilton Heights specifically.”
“I think it’s a lot of Columbia pushing its campus north and spreading out this kind of name recognition,” Green adds. “Your typical student is no longer able to afford the rents that are being charged in the immediate area around the Columbia 116th Street Campus.”
One sign that investors are starting to take this slice of Harlem seriously is J.P Morgan Chase, which rang in the New Year by opening not one but two new bank branches on Broadway at 136th and 149th street to complement the branch that had long served the neighborhood at 144h Street.
District 7 Councilman Mark Levine says while many constituents on the Upper West Side are sick of bank branches, Hamilton Heights is currently under-banked, so this new activity is likely welcome.
Still, he is concerned, because he says “even before the first building has opened its doors” at the Columbia University expansion campus, it is already fueling “a real epidemic of displacement through evictions of long-term residential tenants.”
Hamilton Heights makes up roughly half of Levine’s district, which he says is recording about 2,000 evictions per year.
“Imagine the scale of this impact once the buildings are up and running,” Levine says, adding that the Columbia expansion is “going to dramatically impact the real-estate market and that creates perverse incentives for landlords who might have tenants who pay their rent on time every month, are productive and healthy tenants in every way except that the landlords know that if they vacate the units, and can exploit the loopholes to take it market rate—they’ll be able to double or triple the rent.”
Elsia Vasquez says residential rents in Hamilton Heights have traditionally ranged from about $800 to $1,500 per month, but are now is spiking “to $3,000 per month.”
Vasquez came to the United States from the Dominican Republic when she was seven years old, and is now the founder and executive director of People Against Landlord Abuse and Tenant Exploitation (P.A.L.A.N.T.E.) in Harlem. “The community needs to be educated to what their tenant’s rights are, and the community needs to be empowered,” she says, “because if they are not empowered, we are going to disappear.”
The Columbia expansion onto the Manhattanville tract at 125th Street has been the subject of community debate and court battles for more than a decade and now that the first building has been topped off and is nearing completion, there is general agreement in the neighborhood that the project is driving major changes. The disagreement comes as to whether they are for the better or worse.
When complete, the 17-acre campus that Columbia vows will be environmentally sustainable and publicly accessible will stretch from 125th Street to 133rd Street between Broadway and 12th Avenue and from 131st Street to 134th Street on the east side of Broadway.
While that development actually falls just outside Hamilton Heights, the neighborhood is in prime position to feel its secondary effects, for good or ill. Still, the Columbia development is only one part of a dynamic development landscape.
What’s happening in Hamilton Heights needs to be viewed in connection with larger trends, according to Kenneth T. Jackson, a Professor of History at Columbia University and editor of the Encyclopedia of New York City. Jackson says, “The whole West Side, in fact most of Manhattan, is becoming more desirable. Prices in Manhattan have held steady or moved up over the past ten years while the suburbs are down.”
Jackson (whom Columbia University’s press office suggested we contact when we asked them for comment for this story) says the Columbia expansion will push real-estate prices up. “This huge infusion of money will, I hate to use the word ‘better,’ but make it more expensive, more lively—it was not lively before—and it will probably benefit the city.”
“It will be better for the region because it’s a big economic engine,” Jackson adds. “Whether it will better for the people who live nearby and the long-term residents is a separate question.”
A community resource
An undeniable bright spot, happening now at the heart of Hamilton Heights near the intersection of 145th Street and Broadway, is the former PS 186 High School, which was donated to the Boys and Girls Club in 1988. It had been vacant and derelict for enough years that large trees were sprouting through the old classroom windows.
In recent years, the Boys and Girls Club found financing in partnership with Monadnock Development and Alembic Community Development for renovation into what’s being called a residential and community facility,at 521 W. 145th Street.
There will be a handful of market-rate apartments in the project, which is scheduled for completion in June of 2016. But Levine calls it a “double win of preserving an historic structure without any additional height or bulk added and getting 85 percent of affordability in these new apartments being constructed.” The project will also provide space for the Boys and Girls Club. “It is really something to celebrate,” Levine adds.
Even as that good news story is taking shape on 145th Street, just a block uptown there is a property that tenant-rights lawyer John Gorman calls, “a poster child for indifference and greed.”
“The elevator doesn’t function. There is no gas. Trash is not collected. The hallways are a mess. The owner just does not want to spend any of his resources in maintaining the building,” Gorman says.
He identifies Nima Navabi as the owner of the 43-unit property 545 West 146th Street Inc., and says Navabi has twice appeared on the Public Advocate’s list of 100 worst landlords.
Asked whether it was the Columbia expansion that was driving this behavior, Gorman replied, “No one but an insider will be able to state what precisely drives an owner to seek the removal of regulated tenants.” He added, “Logic obviously compels us to believe that the area near the vast expansion of Columbia will be where students, faculty and staff who will populate Columbia’s new buildings will search for housing.”
Gorman says the overall trend in West Harlem is troubling: “There are incidences where landlords have completely abandoned their obligation to maintain properties in habitable condition. They are eager to get rid of occupants so they can jack-up rents.”
In an attempt to mitigate some of that housing pressure, Columbia University agreed to replace some of the affordable housing units that were taken to construct the new campus. That is the reason behind the new mixed-use building that is currently under construction at 3595 Broadway. Those replacement housing units are rapidly nearing completion, expected this coming fall.
Affects stores as well
This same new hustle and bustle in the residential market can also be detected in commercial development in Hamilton Heights.
Until recently, many blocks along Broadway and Amsterdam saw the same repeated pattern: a barber shop, a hair salon, a bodega and then every few blocks a hardware store or laundromat. But the past year has seen a wide variety of new businesses attracted to the neighborhood. A Tandoori restaurant, a pizza place, a wine and liquor store, and a soon to be opened “pulled noodle” restaurant all arrived on just one block of Broadway in the past six months.
The turnover and new diversity of businesses is being repeated along Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue. The neighborhood has enough buzz that little more than two years after they opened Harlem Public, some of the investors in that popular local pub decided to double down on Hamilton Heights and open a second bar and restaurant right next door.
At the same time commercial rents in the neighborhood are on the rise. They have risen to the point that that that they are killing long-time establishments like Mi Tierra,a a restaurant owned by Ramona Ramos on Broadway at 146th Street that specialized in Dominican dishes for working-class customers. The business prospered for 20 years, offering deals like $5 for a Cuban sandwich and a cup of café con leche. But Ramos says she had no choice but to close the restaurant in January, because the landlord was demanding $250,000 in cash payment for what he claimed were back taxes. She says the landlord was also asking for a rent increase, from $15,000 to $17,000 a month but, she says that new rate was not guaranteed because she could not get a written copy of the new lease until she paid the cash.
Luis Tejada, the founder of the Mirabal Sisters Cultural and Community Center, says it’s not just restaurants, but also bodegas, furniture stores and even some neighborhood churches that are feeling the pinch. “My concern is that the landlords, they don’t want to renew the lease for a small business that has been there for 40, or 30 years,” Tejada explains. “They ask for money under the table—$40,000 or $50,000—and they will only give you a lease for one or two years.”
Quenia Abreu, the president of the New York Women’s Chamber of Commerce, says it is illegal for landlords to demand money under the table. She adds, “These kinds of unscrupulous practices have been going on for years, and the Columbia expansion is only making matters worse.” She says a big part of the problem is that “commercial tenants have no rights once their lease is up.” That’s why her group has been pushing the City Council to pass a Small Business Survival Act. The measure failed to garner enough votes when then-Council Member Robert Jackson offered it two years ago, but she hopes to see it resurrected this year.
Green, the realtor, say commercial rents tend to run about $70 to $90 per square foot in Hamilton Heights and West Harlem in general compared to about $120 per square foot south of 125th Street. He says small business owners are used to paying more like $30 to $40 per square foot, so, even the relatively low new price in the neighborhood is “a big commitment.”
He thinks the main factor driving new business to Hamilton Heights is the untapped market in the area. “Quality establishments do very well here,” Green explains, “because it’s not oversaturated, and there is pent-up demand from new and long-term tenants.” He adds, “So whether you’re opening up a third-wave coffee shop, or even a boutique wine store—there’s a customer base that’s here and you’re going to have free reign. There won’t be any competition.”
Seeking a balance
Council Member Levine says the success of relative newcomers like Harlem Public should be celebrated, but there also needs to be protection for businesses like Mi Tiera which he refers to as one of “countless neighborhood treasures where the owners were local, where they knew their customers, where the kinds of products and services that people have come to depend on are available.”
One possible solution, Levine says would be to have, “some sort of mechanism in place to mediate between landlords and tenants when a commercial lease is up for renewal, to prevent exorbitant increases.”
Levine says his office is also fighting to slow the pace of residential development to protect tenants. “It’s not that we don’t welcome everybody, including our wonderful neighbors in the Columbia community,” Levine says, “but we want to make sure that that doesn’t push out any long-time residents—the folks who fought incredibly hard to help make this a better place to live, and now, in a bitter irony and injustice, are potentially losing their homes just at the moment when the neighborhood has become more desirable.”
To protect vulnerable tenants, Levine says, he is working to get them legal services in Housing Court which few currently have, and adds that he is “more broadly trying to strengthen rent laws to protect against unscrupulous or overly aggressive landlords.” Levine helped allocate $5 million towards legal services for tenants facing eviction in last year’s budget. He introduced a Council bill last year that would allocate significantly more funding.
Tenant activist Vasquez says she has her own solution to the rampant problem of rent gouging. “Landlords who are caught harassing tenants and forcing buyouts outs for apartments,” Vasquez says, “shouldn’t be fined; they should be put in jail. Because by the time they are caught, they have done it so many times, and have displaced so families in our community.”
At Mirabal Sisters, Tejada says it is probably inevitable that Hamilton Heights will lose some of its Dominican flavor, but, “It’s not only for Dominican people,” he says, “it’s for everybody. The most important thing for me is to preserve the affordable housing, because, I don’t care if you are white, Asian, or whatever. It doesn’t matter who is going to pay the rent, it’s important to preserve the housing.”
No greater question mark hangs over the future of Hamilton Heights than the final decision on what many consider to be an anchor property, the former Hamilton Palace Theater. The one-time Vaudeville theater turned grand RKO Movie Palace was home for many years to an El Mundo discount store, and most recently was a Halloween pop-up store, but it now stands vacant and in search of a tenant. Some worry it will become a big-box store.
Green agrees there needs to be protections for landmarked properties and for long-time residents, but he says it is positive sign that developers are finally getting off the sidelines and investing in rehabilitating distressed buildings.
“I think that’s why Harlem is so hot right now, because people not only see the potential, but they are inspired by the potential.” He adds, “They can have a blank slate, they can put anything they want up there—they can put residential, they can make it an artist residence space, they can make it a museum. I think that’s what has people coming up here. It’s not like everything has been manicured already, with a lot of the same old brand commercial spaces.”