November 2, 2001

Commentary

Urban Renewal Displaces Poor Families

By Juleyka Lantigua

Skyrocketing rents are pushing black and Latino residents out of their communities. The polite word for this is "gentrification," and in New York it's becoming more than a nuisance.

Bill Clinton's much-publicized relocation to the heart of New York's famous black neighborhood, Harlem, risks bringing with it rising property values, opportunistic landlords ready to capitalize on their celebrity neighbor and big businesses eager to take over storefronts that have been locally owned for generations.

Clinton worried about what this could mean. "I don't want small-business people to be run out because I'm coming in," he declared to thousands of locals during his welcome festivities last week.

The good news, some argue, is the renewed interest from the business sector for places such as Harlem -- places long overdue for an economic renaissance.

The bad news is that as middle-class residents move into Harlem, the Lower West Side and my community of Washington Heights, longtime lower-income residents will be forced to pace up and leave.

Gold Old Lower East Side, a tenants' group, reports that in recent months, rents have skyrocketed from $350 to $900 for one-bedroom apartments in this historically affordable area.

Even in a city where government rent-control policies protect many residents, especially the elderly and the working poor, landlords find way to generate vacancies. The payoff is high, since rent-controlled units that are vacated immediately go for general market prices.

Landlords are now performing "self-help evictions," which means they are locking out longtime residents from their apartments and tossing tenants' belongings onto the streets, according to the City-Wide Task Force on Housing court.

And that's not the least of it.

Landlords have also filed unsubstantiated eviction suits that claim residents did not pay rent or did not complete a lease form. These bullying schemes succeed because poorer tenants often cannot afford to take time off from work to dispute the claims. They usually opt to move out instead of deal with the harassment and bureaucratic runaround.

Many of the newly displaced cannot afford to go anywhere else. Some are already using a large portion of their salaries to pay rent on their apartments. Approximately 37 percent of rent-stabilized tenants spend more than 40 percent of their income on rent, says Mark Green, a New York City public advocate and mayoral candidate. One in six spends more than 80 percent of his or her earnings on rent.

College graduates, young professionals, newlyweds and single people who are willing to split a three-bedroom five ways are arriving to the city in droves, ready to pay bloated rents for apartments historically occupied by poorer families.

What's worse, rents in New York city will likely continue to rise between 14 and 30 percent in some neighborhoods, according to a recent study cosponsored by the real-estate institute at New York University's Law School.

Communities like mine, usually referred to as "bad" or "distressed" neighborhoods, cannot afford to become prohibitively expensive for most working families. It is cruel to push rents so high that people can no longer live in the neighborhood they have called home for decades.

The trend is not all one-side. There are advantages my more affluent neighbors bring. New businesses, improved public services and more media and political attention often follow their arrival.

Already there's talk of a Starbucks finally opening up in my neighborhood, and a Mail Boxes Etc. just moved in across the street. Local restaurants have also undergone makeovers to attract these new faces. For my neighbors and me, these are welcome changes that make us want to stay right where we are.

But I still worry about my former neighbors who have been forced to move out. And about those of us still around, many whose days as neighbors are numbered.

Juleyka Lantigua is the managing editor of Urban Latino magazine in New York. She can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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