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Columbia Spectator Staff

To those who are involved in the movement criticizing the Manhattanville expansion, this month's public hearings on the potential exercise of eminent domain were a familiar spectacle. The university trots out its people—the few Harlem-rooted administrators affiliated with the project, well-treated commercial tenants, representatives of construction unions, headlined by the stentorian figure of beloved PrezBo. They present the University as Harlem's potential savior, a remover of blight, the redeemer of the promise of what Upper Manhattan could be. Community critics, numerically a far larger group, decry the expansion as a displacement plan that will destroy their neighborhoods and convert their working-class homes into gentrified playgrounds. There is sound and there is fury. The hearing officer sits stoically, moving only to call the next speaker or reprimand the audience when the Dominican grannies get too rowdy.

But beneath it all, these hearings, and the land-use review hearings that led to the approval of the expansion rezoning last winter, are a mockery of democratic community planning. The relevant city agency that calls the hearing applauds itself for listening to the will of the people and swiftly makes a decision exactly counter to that which most people were advocating for. Naysayers be damned, the engine of development lumbers ahead.

And the propaganda mill keeps churning. According to the University administration, the community supports the plan, which was approved in a public and democratic process. The process only started after Columbia reached out and involved the community in planning, and opposition comes from the part of a couple marginal groups that are against all development and are not representative of anyone. Besides, the University is going to mitigate all the displacement that rising rents in the surrounding neighborhoods will cause anyway.


Much is wrong with these claims. I'll begin, however, with one of the most important but least understood issues surrounding the expansion—how many people will be displaced by the University's presence.

The Final Environmental Impact Statement drafted by the University states that 3,293 people live in rental units that would be at risk of secondary displacement by the year 2030, out of a total of 5,035 people that live in market-rate units within a half-mile radius of the campus. The $20 million Affordable Housing Fund agreed upon by the University to mitigate its socioeconomic effects, according to the same document, would protect over 1,100 units in the community and mitigate 87 percent of the displacement. So is this mission accomplished?

Not a chance. Columbia makes a series of incredible assertions in the Environmental Impact Statement. Morningside and St. Nicholas Parks are considered "impassable barriers" to gentrification—the communities on their eastern sides are simply not studied. It also ignores rent-stabilized housing, which likely forms the vast majority of housing stock in West Harlem, on the grounds that it is not sensitive to rent pressure. This does not consider the probability of rent-stabilized housing leaving the program as the campus is built. Any tenant can tell you that landlords in gentrifying neighborhoods have every economic incentive to push them out and replace them with market-rate tenants.

While the details of the Fund are more complex than this, a simple "back-of-the-envelope" calculation would tell you that the total Columbia contribution-per-unit it claims it will create will be roughly $18,000—hardly enough to guarantee a permanently affordable unit to low-income residents. This is because the standard of affordability is being defined not by the median income of Manhattanville, Harlem, or Community Board 9, but rather by the much higher median of the entire metropolitan area, including parts of suburban Westchester and Nassau Counties.
In fact, no study seems to have been done on what parameters of affordability would have to be set to actually retain the most vulnerable—say, the bottom 15 or 25 percent of community members. Without such calculations, it is impossible to ensure that displacement actually will be avoided, as the "affordable" housing created may well be out of the price range of those it is supposed to be built for.

While $20 million may seem like a lot of money, it is only one-three-hundred-fiftieth of the total $7 billion cost of the entire project. Columbia is in a very special position, because in addition to clearly having the means to mitigate its effects on the community, its self-declared institutional principles suggest that the university would endeavor to do all it could to be a good neighbor.

However, the University's actions have made it abundantly clear that it would prefer to simply get its way than make any serious sacrifices. It has been enabled by a development-friendly City Council that seems too scared of the prospect of losing investment to hold them accountable to working-class people of this city. This needs to change—there will be no justice in this project until the University strongly increases its commitment to affordable housing .

Thoughtful students need to think globally and act locally here. There are great injustices all over the world, but our University's actions leading to the displacement of thousands of working-class people of color is something that we should find inexcusable. Before we point out the specks in our neighbors' eyes, let us take the log out of our eye first.

Andrew Lyubarsky is a Columbia College senior majoring in Hispanic studies. Cliché Guevara runs alternate Thursdays.

Cliché Guevara Manhattanville Expansion Harlem Displacement