Thousands Forced to Leave Upper Manhattan

More than 18,000 residents have moved out of Washington Heights, Inwood and Marble Hill due to the lack of affordable housing. (Photo by Mariela Lombard/El Diario-La Prensa)

In the 30 years that Maritza Vásquez has lived in Upper Manhattan, she has seen many of her neighbors move to the Bronx and other boroughs, displaced by the high cost of rent.

“From the $203 I paid when I moved, thanks to the fact that I live in a rent-controlled apartment, I now pay more than $800, and I pay it with a lot of sacrifice,” said Vázquez. “But there are many families in the community that have had to move because they can’t pay the increase in the rent.”

Over the past decade, more than 18,000 residents have left the Upper Manhattan neighborhoods of Washington Heights, Inwood and Marble Hill, partly due to the thousands of rent-controlled apartments these communities have lost in recent years, along with illegal evictions and a lack of new construction of affordable housing. The city loses more than 10,000 low-cost apartments every year.

Although political and community leaders have spoken out so the city will build more affordable housing units, these neighborhoods are also faced with a lack of space.

However, for Ydanis Rodríguez, the area’s city council member, the problem is a lack of willingness.

“We have spaces that could be approved for re-zoning in order to build housing, if the city were willing,” said Rodríguez. “We’ve given the city seven options for plots of land where they could build housing, two of them located on Dyckman,” he said.

Rodríguez said the city has mismanaged the distribution of finances in Upper Manhattan to such an extent that New Housing Marketplace Plan (NHMP) – a Bloomberg administration initiative of $8.4 billion to fund 165,000 affordable housing units for 2014 – has only constructed two new buildings with a total of 137 rent-controlled apartments within Community Board 12, which runs from 155th Street to Marble Hill.

However, according to a recently published study by the Association of Neighborhood Housing Developers, the Bloomberg plan doesn’t guarantee that the housing units would be affordable for local residents. The study found that in half of the city’s 59 community districts, the apartments the project proposes to build “are too expensive for families with the average neighborhood income.”

“The city isn’t finding the space to build more low-cost housing, but here we have private projects that have found the room to expand, and one example is Presbyterian Hospital,” said Diógenes Abreu, a tenant organizer and community leader in Upper Manhattan.

Other issues facing Upper Manhattan tenants include illegal evictions, and harassment and neglect on the part of landlords. Local politicians Rodríguez, State Senator Adriano Espaillat and Assemblywoman Gabriela Rosa have been organizing public forums where tenants can learn about their rights directly from experts with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD).

“Our office works to ensure that the cases tenants bring to those forums are followed up and HPD resolves them,” said Rodríguez. “If we’re dealing with negligent landlords, we see to it that HPD sends an inspector to the building and checks the place out to prevent people from moving because the landlord didn’t keep up the apartment,” he said.

Teófilo Mármol, 60, said the high cost of rent makes living in Upper Manhattan a juggling act.

“I’ve chosen to live in rented rooms, but the cost has risen from $100 to $130, and because of that I’ve had to move twice in the last six months,” said Mármol, who makes a living handing out flyers.

Eric Bederman of HPD said the agency wants to help build affordable housing in whichever area needs it, “but it’s a question of opportunity and funding in a specified zone.”

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