In the face of luxury real estate development and rising rent prices, the Morningside Heights Community Coalition sent a memorandum to University President Lee Bollinger and several Columbia officials on Feb. 1, calling for the institution to preserve the rent-regulated units in its residential buildings as a source of affordable housing for the community. Local residents feel that the preservation of rent-regulated units is vital not only to provide much-needed affordable housing but also to maintain the neighborhood’s diversity and sense of community.
In the 1960s and ’70s, Columbia bought up several residential buildings containing rent-regulated units within the neighborhood. Rent-regulated units are crucial to affordable housing in the area, as they have set limits on the amount that the landlord can raise the rent.
Following the acquisition of these buildings, Columbia and other institutions in Morningside Heights regularly evicted tenants from the rent-regulated units and then rented the units to Columbia affiliates. The statewide Emergency Tenant Protection Act of 1974 attempted to address this issue by requiring institutions to maintain rent regulation for the duration of a tenancy.
However, when original tenants in rent-regulated units die or move out, Columbia can deregulate the rent and raise it to market-rate prices through vacancy decontrol. Columbia affiliates can then rent the units, which are no longer able to serve as a source of affordable housing for the community.
“It’s an understandable thing that they’re doing to provide housing for their affiliates, but what it does is take away, each time, an affordable apartment from the community—from the New York City community in general [and] from the Morningside Heights and West Harlem communities specifically,” Dave Robinson, a member of the MHCC executive committee, said.
The Morningside Heights and West Harlem areas have long struggled with a lack of affordable housing. Local rent prices have recently increased, especially amid Columbia’s $6 billion Manhattanville expansion, which has placed up to 1,318 units at risk of increased rent pressure.
“Even though Columbia did not build a luxury condo, they’re building the Manhattanville campus and they’re building the 125th Street site, which again puts further pressure [and] emboldens landlords to try to evict by any means possible, and they’ve been successful in the past,” Robert Stern, a member of the MHCC executive committee, said.
Recent luxury real estate development has raised concerns about rising rent prices and the threat of displacement, as predatory landlords have engaged in efforts to force out low-income tenants and convert their rent-regulated units into market-rate housing. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these issues, as housing experts predict that the influx in the number of Columbia students seeking off-campus housing may motivate landlords to push out rent-stabilized tenants to cater to this new market.
Amid these concerns, community members have sought to preserve rent regulation as a way to maintain affordability. This past November, Community Board 9—a local advisory board representing Morningside Heights, West Harlem, and surrounding communities—passed a resolution urging Columbia to preserve the rent-regulated housing units in their residential buildings.
“This resolution calls on the institutions that still hold some of those rent-regulated units from their buying sprees in the mid-20th century and calls upon them in the face of the crazy affordable housing crisis to maintain [these units] as rent-regulated units available for the public,” CB9 Chair Barry Weinberg said in the organization’s November general board meeting.
Since the adoption of the resolution, members of the Morningside Heights Community Coalition had a meeting with Columbia in December to discuss the rent-regulated units. MHCC members had been meeting with Columbia since March 2019 to discuss a variety of local issues and had come into this December meeting optimistically expecting answers from the University. In the meeting, however, they were disappointed to find that Columbia had made little progress in discussions about the rent-regulated units, and instead, Columbia asked them to come back early in the new year with a written position on the issue drafted in collaboration with CB9.
In its memorandum, the MHCC called on Columbia to “help alleviate the acute shortage of affordable housing in Morningside Heights by keeping its rent-regulated apartments as a resource for the community.” Citing current real estate development projects in the neighborhood stemming from the sale of Union Theological Seminary and Jewish Theological Seminary property and air rights in 2015, the MHCC claims that, “Of the 630 apartments now being built, not a single one will be affordable.”
Using the language from Bollinger’s Commitment to Antiracism, the MHCC memorandum calls upon the University to “take a significant step towards remedying these ‘deep injustices’ and accepting ‘new ideas’ by judiciously using the housing it already owns to benefit residents of the surrounding neighborhood at no additional cost to itself.”
Since sending the memorandum on Feb. 1, the MHCC has still not received a response from Columbia, which the organization’s members have found troubling.
“The lack of response by Columbia is really disheartening to us because this is an important issue. They asked us to write a resolution and a position paper that [we], with support from the others, did, and the lack of response means that they don’t seem to be taking this seriously,” Stern said.
In a statement to Spectator, a University spokesperson said that the administration “received the proposal and are currently reviewing it.”
Morningside Heights residents, many of whom have lived in the neighborhood for decades, are concerned about the demographic changes facing the community as a result of luxury real estate development and the loss of affordable housing.
Mimi McDermott, a longtime resident, said she has “watched [her] community pretty much disappear” due to an increase in the number of Columbia affiliates using University-owned buildings.
“Students come to New York City to go to Columbia, but also to live in New York City. Columbia has pretty much decimated that community by taking over,” McDermott said. “There used to be clothing stores, there used to be the small mom-and pop-diners and things. They’re all gone.”
Residents are concerned about the implications these demographic changes will have on the cultural value of the neighborhood. Dan McSweeney, SIPA ’07, who has lived in Morningside Heights off-and-on since the 1970s, argues that the neighborhood’s diversity makes it stronger.
“We want the neighborhood to be diverse. We want the neighborhood to not crowd out or price out local business owners. We want people from all different walks of life and relationships with the University … to live here. That’s the mark of a successful community in our view, the diversity of it, and the way that the different stakeholders interact with each other to create a greater whole,” McSweeney said.
When Tom Kappner, CC ’66, arrived in Morningside Heights from Peru in 1962, he found the neighborhood’s diversity to be an instant draw.
“As soon as I got here, I walked around the whole neighborhood and I realized I’d made the absolutely right decision because the neighborhood at that time was a wonderful mix of people from all parts of the world. … It was a real community. We were neighbors and we looked out for each other. I really felt very, very at home and in love with the community,” Kappner said.
However, as the demographics of Columbia-owned buildings have changed, the diversity of the neighborhood has decreased. “Whenever somebody died or moved, that apartment would be taken over,” Kappner said of the process he has seen occur over the past 50 years. “All the low-income people were basically moved out or pushed out. … Now those of us who are left are older people and there are fewer and fewer of us.”
Without the MHCC’s requested changes, residents expect this trend to continue.
“When I die, because I’m not moving anytime soon, this will be another affordable housing unit that’s taken off the market,” McDermott said.
To mitigate these effects, Morningside Heights residents affiliated with the MHCC are in full support of its memorandum and urge the University to preserve rent-regulated units. They believe doing so would have positive impacts not just on low-income residents but on the community as a whole.
“We have to pause for a moment and ask the University …, ‘Wouldn’t it be in everyone’s best interest to maintain the diversity and the authentic nature of this community?’ That’s a benefit to Columbia students. It’s a benefit to people who work at the University, it’s a benefit to the people who live in this neighborhood who have no connection to the University,” McSweeney said. “In the case of these several hundred apartments, we estimate, we’re asking that the University not act rationally, not act logically, and do something that is community development-oriented.”