Over and over again we hear the argument that "gentrification," or the general upgrading in the availability of housing to higher and higher socio-economic groups is the inevitable "result of market forces." Columbia denies responsibility for the ethnic cleansing and economic homogenization of Morningside Heights that took place from the '60s through the '80s and similarly Columbia claims that the irrevocable eradication of the diverse socio-economic fabric north of 125th Street will occur without the proposed Manhattanville expansion. It is argued that Columbia is merely a contributing factor and, in any case, the $20 million revolving loan fund the University has pledged for affordable housing absolves it of any responsibility it may have. Though this sum is probably sufficient for less than 100 housing units at costs beyond the reach of most community residents in order to mitigate the displacement of thousands, the problem with the "invisible hand of the market" arguments is that they hide the very real actors and the concrete decisions they make that produce these "inevitable" results.
Columbia's policies have not been a contributing factor—they have been the major cause for the critical shortage of low and moderate income housing in the area between 110th and 125th Streets, a pattern that the current plans will replicate northward beyond the immediate expansion zone. The University acquired over 168 residential buildings, more than half of the residential real estate in the area between 110th and 125th Streets. Of the over 6000 housing units in those buildings, less than 600 long term residents remain in the rent-regulated apartments that Columbia has been deregulating. Currently, the mere announcement of Columbia's proposed campus in Manhattanville led the owner of 3333 Broadway, immediately North of the expansion zone, to opt out of the Mitchell-Lama subsidized housing program causing hundreds of low and moderate rental units to be vacated. This is merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Even Columbia's Environmental Impact Statement admits that the pristine campus it plans will displace 5000 low income residents within a ten block radius. In fact, it will be thousands more, primarily working-class Latino and African American residents from 135th Street northward, who will have to make way for the more upscale condos, co-ops, and luxury rentals that will make the area "respectable" for Columbia.
Moreover, University administrators have consistently acted to prevent the success of any alternative course of action, most recently by refusing to work within the framework of the community's 197-a Plan. This rejection of a development that would integrate Columbia and the community's needs favors the creation of yet another exclusive campus enclave. The University plans to push out the existing community and making the surrounding area more "amenable" to the type of people University administrators perceive to be more socially acceptable, ominously portending a direct repetition of the disastrous patterns of the past.
The brutal campaign of evictions which rid the neighborhood of thousands of "undesirables" (in the infamous words of the University's provost at the time) and turned it into an affluent company town was the fuel that exploded with the spark created by Gym Crow in '68. In the aftermath, anxious to clean up Columbia's image with some good PR, the newly inaugurated President Michael Sovern agreed to an Advisory Committee on University Housing Policies made up of representatives of major community groups and elected officials of the time. I chaired this board, which met with University VPs and the Director of Real Estate from 1980 to 19855 at Riverside Church. The idea was to find ways to meet the University's housing needs without doing so at the expense of the existing community. A variety of formulas were put forward that would provide for the coexistence of a stable long term residential community in the same physical space as the more transient Columbia affiliates. After five years of being strung along, Columbia came back with their counteroffer that would allow folks with more than 30 years of service the right to remain in their homes upon retirement. The community members saw no point in continuing fruitless negotiations and the Advisory Board was disbanded.
Then, as now, with the West Harlem Local Development Corporation's practically meaningless Memorandum of Understanding, it's all about PR and has next to nothing to do with any substance. If Columbia wants to be serious about meeting its responsibility for the lack of affordable housing, it could honor the suggestions in the 197-a Plan by ceasing vacancy deregulation and setting aside the few remaining rent-regulated apartments it owns as low income housing for community residents in perpetuity. That is certainly a much more cost efficient way to provide affordable housing than the $20 million mentioned in the Memorandum of Understanding, an amount which does not even add up to the units Columbia wants to take over in the expansion zone.
It seems clear that Columbia is determined to ignore the lessons of the past and will continue on its disastrous course. This can only hurt Columbia and the community. There are more of us than there were in '68 and we have learned our lessons. Sooner or later another spark will ignite the resentment from all the unnecessary pain and suffering Columbia has caused. We are entering a period when ignoring reality will no longer make it go away.
The author is a member of the Columbia College class of 1966. He is a founding member of the Coalition to Preserve Community.