Friday, October 17, 2008

Locals Concerned About Economy at Harlem Town Hall

Locals Concerned About Economy at Harlem Town Hall
By Christine Choi

At a town hall meeting Wednesday night, West Harlem residents expressed concern that evictions and rent hikes would continue to worsen in the face of economic downturn and Columbia’s expansion into Manhattanville.

About 100 locals packed into the Harlem School of the Arts to address a panel that included Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, Councilman Robert Jackson, and CB9 chair Pat Jones. Questions ranged from traffic flow to after-school programs, but tenant issues, gentrification, and the economy dominated the conversation, occasionally making for tense exchanges between residents and officials.

Locals criticized the bailout plan and government as failing to hold Wall Street accountable and instead punishing locals.

“How will we benefit from Mike Bloomberg dealing with affordable housing that’s now trapped by predatory lending and mortgage fraud?” local resident Delois Blakely asked.Still more residents cited development of the area, including Columbia’s construction of its Manhattanville campus, as the key factor in rent hikes and evictions. Nellie Hester Bailey, co-founder of the Harlem Tenants Council, detailed the recent eviction of 22 tenants from an apartment complex due to rent increases as one of many similar experiences sweeping the neighborhood.

“Columbia University admitted over 5,000 tenants would be evicted as a result of their expansion,” she said, combined with other evictions that “are private investor driven. How are you looking at this shift that is going to bring in thousands of high-rise, high-rent tenants? How are you looking at it in terms of the economic meltdown?”

While Stringer reminded residents that he did not vote for the 125th Street rezoning project, which will bring in commercial development and which many fear will raise area rent prices, he defended Columbia’s expansion. Development of the area “would have happened anyway,” he said, but the project includes “millions of dollars in givebacks,” including more than $20 million in affordable housing that could be “leveraged for a lot more money.”

Furthermore, he said after the meeting, his office was attempting to further address the issue of rent hikes “by taking big landlords to court,” including Pinnacle Group International, many of whom now operate on a “business model based on the number of evictions that would result in increase in rent.”

But Jackson said, it is “up to tenants to organize in a building that has been threatened with MCI rent increases and strategize and identify an attorney that can represent your interests.”
For many residents, the conversation was not enough. Tom DeMott, CC ’80 and active member of Voices of the Everyday People, asked, “When you gut the 197-a plan, what kind of hope do we have that a back and forth like this has any value?” Another West Harlem resident, who identified herself as Cookie, said after the meeting that officials “haven’t been reflective of the community. Their allegiance is somewhere else.”

Andrew Lyubarsky, CC ’09 and member of the Student Coalition on Expansion and Gentrification, said that the panel “left a lot of questions unanswered,” including specifications on a community benefits agreement.

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