Amid a pandemic-induced economic recession, the financial struggles of nonprofits in Morningside Heights and West Harlem have impeded their efforts to provide much-needed relief to local residents.
Nonprofit organizations worldwide have experienced financial downturns due to the effects of the pandemic. According to a survey conducted by La Piana Consulting, a strategy consulting firm for nonprofits and foundations, 73 percent of nonprofit organizations surveyed across the country reported a loss in revenue during the pandemic.
In Morningside Heights, funds such as the Morningside Heights Community Fund and the West Harlem Development Corporation’s COVID-19 relief fund have played an increasingly crucial role in supporting local nonprofit organizations and sustaining the work that they are responsible for. These reparative trusts are funded by monetary contributions from local institutions and developers as a show of goodwill to the community. Despite these contributions, new developments have raised concern among residents who believe developers have taken advantage of outdated zoning policies to build high-rises or expand campuses, changing the community’s character.
The Morningside Heights Community Coalition was formed in 2016 to call upon local institutions and developers to mitigate the harmful impacts that new real estate projects will have on the community. The coalition negotiated agreements with developers to acquire monetary contributions as a form of reparations for the new developments.
The Morningside Heights Community Fund was then formed as a vehicle to collect this money and distribute it back into the community. The fund does not work like most trusts, as it does not invest significant amounts to grow the account.
The West Harlem Development Corporation was created to oversee money donated from the University in response to its 17-acre Manhattanville expansion.
Members of the Morningside Heights Community Coalition already decried that the millions of dollars in agreed upon funding was less than they anticipated. Now, as expenses rise, along with fears that financial contributions from developers to these organizations cannot offset it, community members have started to express concerns regarding the financial stability of community nonprofits.
“Groups have lost money from the public and also private sources, so [the Morningside Heights Community Fund] may just be making up for money they’ve lost, so they can continue what they’re already doing,” Dave Robinson, a member of the Executive Committee of the Morningside Heights Community Coalition, said.
Broadway Community, a local nonprofit recently awarded a grant by the Morningside Heights Community Fund, is one nonprofit that has had to shift its operations in a costly manner to adapt to the constraints of COVID-19.
Prior to the pandemic, the organization provided a meal service for community members in an indoor space with reusable silverware and dishes. Due to the current health concerns of the pandemic, however, the meals must now be served in to-go containers and bags, and all of the food for the meals must be bought in individual portions.
This, coupled with an increase in need from the community, raised Broadway Community’s expenses by upwards of $1,500 a week, said Kathryn Graybill, a board member of Broadway Community and frequent volunteer.
“We’ve brought that down by exploring multiple providers and getting better at navigating it, but it’s still costing us a good $1,200 to $1,300 extra a week to provide meals in take-out form,” Graybill said.
The pandemic has also drastically lowered the number of available volunteers, according to Graybill. With insufficient funding and volunteers, Broadway Community has struggled to run its programs efficiently throughout the pandemic.
Despite the Morningside Height Community Fund’s effort to distribute aid to local nonprofits, the financial security of these organizations is still a concern for community members. This is exacerbated by the sentiment that local real estate developers and corporations are not investing enough into the community, especially during a time of crisis when many residents are struggling.
“There are a lot of older people [in Morningside Heights], people who have been activists in the community, people who have given a lot back to the city and the country, so we feel like the commitment should be mutual,” Robinson said.
MHCC came to agreements with both Union Theological Seminary and Jewish Theological Seminary, two Columbia-affiliated seminaries, to invest money back into the community in 2018 and 2020 respectively.
Between the two seminaries, a total of $6.25 million will be invested into the neighborhood — $650,000 of that amount will go towards the Morningside Heights Community Fund. However, the remaining amount of the investment will go back to the institutions for their own programs to help the neighborhood.
Despite having negotiated these agreements with UTS and JTS, MHCC members expressed that they had hoped to acquire a greater sum of investment from the institutions than they ended up receiving.
They also noted that the majority of the money is going back to the institution’s own programs, not to the various outside funds.
The developers of the Vandewater, the new development under construction at the site sold by JTS, also refused to contribute to the Morningside Heights Community Fund. Instead, they independently donated around $100,000 to four local organizations following community pressures, but have not shown any further commitment to allocating donations for the neighborhood.
Furthermore, the coalition has not yet come to an agreement with the other two active developments in the area. One particular point of contention concerns the development at 30 Morningside Drive. The developer of this project, Delshah Capital, has received $27.5 million in subsidies for the development from the federal and state governments but has so far refused to donate to community funds or local organizations in West Harlem. None of the other developments focused on by the coalition have received subsidies from any level of government.
“We are really more than annoyed that [Delshah Capital] has gotten tens of millions in state and federal subsidies and won’t give anything to the neighborhood that is suffering from the COVID crisis,” Harry Schwartz, a member of the MHCC Executive Committee, said.
Representatives from Delshah Capital did not respond to a request to comment.
Despite these setbacks from local developers, the Morningside Heights Community Fund is already contemplating a second round of donations to aid in the COVID-19 relief efforts of local nonprofits.
Both Schwartz and Robinson are longtime residents of Morningside Heights. Like many other community members, they have been dismayed by the recent rise of luxury real estate developments in the area, but hope to continue acquiring investments from local developers to preserve the neighborhood’s unique character.
“We live in this neighborhood dominated by these institutions, and there’s a lot of wonderful aspects to that—it’s an exciting and thriving community—but they also have a lot of power and control over the community,” Robinson said. “We feel the fund is part of their obligation and commitment to making our neighborhood a better one to live in.”
Staff writer Maya Mitrasinovic contributed to the reporting.