Kofi Boateng, the first executive director of the West Harlem Development Corporation, is leaving the organization, according to a statement released by the WHDC on Nov. 20. WHDC board member and treasurer Zead Ramadan will serve as the interim executive director while the board searches for a permanent one.
The WHDC was born out of Columbia’s controversial choice to expand into Manhattanville, which residents feared would further harm the local community. Community pushback against Columbia’s expansion plan ultimately led to the University’s agreement to invest $150 million into the local community through the Community Benefits Agreement. As part of the agreement, Columbia created the WHDC in 2009 to distribute $76 million of the fund through nonprofit grants and affordable housing investments in West Harlem.
However, community members have long criticized the WHDC for failing to create sufficient affordable housing in the area or invest in nonprofit organizations not directly affiliated with the WHDC itself. The WHDC received $20 million from the CBA designated for housing; however, gentrification and luxury overdevelopment in West Harlem have drastically reduced the amount of vacant space available to develop rent-controlled units. Many community members are hopeful that Boateng’s departure will mark a new chapter for the organization.
“Community Board 9 was heartened to hear of the departure of Kofi Boateng from the position of executive director of the West Harlem Development Corporation,” CB9 chair Barry Weinberg said. “While we thank him for his service, Community Board 9 has long maintained that more must be done by the development corporation to improve the lives of those living in West Harlem affected by Columbia’s Manhattanville expansion.”
Boateng has served as executive director since his appointment by the WHDC board in 2012. Prior to the WHDC, Boateng was the CEO and chief operating officer of multiple international nonprofits. He was a fresh face in Harlem at the WHDC, and many residents took issue with his appointment, calling for a local community leader familiar with the granular complexities of West Harlem to spearhead the CBA.
“You can’t question his credentials,” Harlem resident Derrick Haynes said. “But it shouldn’t just be about the money. It should be about the relationships, and making sure that the money goes into the right community organizations.”
Though the reasons for Boateng’s departure have not been released, the WHDC has been criticized for controversial investment decisions—led by Boateng—in recent years. In 2019, the WHDC invested $2 million in the redevelopment of the former Ennis Francis Houses on 124th St. and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard—its first major housing investment in over 10 years. On June 20, 2019, The WHDC announced at the CB9 General Board Meeting that it was loaning the $2 million to Carthage Real Estate Advisors in the form of an unsecured, short-term promissory note to create the new Marcus Garvey village, which was to include 169 low-income rental units along with market-rate units. The promissory note was to be repaid in full, with interest, according to remarks made by Boateng at the meeting. To the surprise of many, however, the money may have been loaned via a convertible note, which is a type of debt that, rather than being repaid in full, converts into equity—or part-ownership of the project—as repayment.
Convertible notes are risky: If the money the Marcus Garvey Village project brings in through rental profits or sales does not leave a large enough profit after paying land acquisition, construction debts, and other costs, then the WHDC’s share of the development project may be worth less than the $2 million it invested. Worse, if the project’s debts and other costs are more than the revenues can cover, the development project may be insolvent and go bankrupt, and the WHDC’s $2 million investment will be worth nothing.
The current state of the WHDC’s investment in the Marcus Garvey Village is unclear. What entities the WHDC loaned money to or owns and what assets and debts these entities might have is unknown. Since 2019, the WHDC has not released any updates on the development project, and it could not be reached for comment despite multiple attempts.
Community members were critical of the decision from the get-go, noting that the project would fall outside of Community Board 9, which encompasses Morningside Heights, Manhattanville, and Hamilton Heights. The CBA states that priority for affordable housing should be given to CB9, followed by surrounding districts.
Elsia Vasquez, president of a local affordable housing nonprofit named People Against Landlord Abuse and Tenant Exploitation, felt that the WHDC should tackle existing issues in the area, such as homelessness and eviction, before investing in outside development.
“They’re moving to go help CB10 when CB9 is on fire,” she told Spectator in 2019. “We already have enough landlords. … What’s the point when we haven’t even taken care of our own backyard?”
Columbia is in a tough spot when it comes to its involvement in the WHDC’s allocation of funds. If Columbia were to interfere with the distribution, it might face accusations of acting in self-interest, which would negate the intention of the CBA. For this reason, the WHDC has operated independently of Columbia.
Community members—many of whom wished to remain anonymous—hope the next executive director will be someone with deep roots in the West Harlem community and in affordable housing.
“We look forward to working with the [WHDC] to make sure that the residents of West Harlem receive the benefits CB9 negotiated as part of the Community Benefits Agreement and Columbia’s Manhattanville expansion so many years ago,” Weinberg said. “Community Board 9 will be being much more proactive in our communication with and monitoring of the West Harlem Development Corporation as we move forward into the future.”