By Eliana Basher & Rebecca Raghunath
For decades, Columbia University has aggressively expanded its real estate holdings into Harlem and Morningside Heights through its influence over the New York Authority (NYCHA). Columbia University has expanded its portfolio by buying properties throughout New York City for its university's resources (including financial centers, medical centers, and student and faculty housing), driving up the market value of surrounding neighborhoods at the expense of low income families and minorities. They have continued this practice since 1947. Though they argue that expanding their portfolio helps support their faculty and students, Columbia’s gentrification of Harlem has diminished the soul of the community for generations.
“Many universities are agents of gentrification,” Matthew, a Manhattanville Houses tenant, said. “At the same time, Columbia University is raising tuition on its students and not raising wages for its staffers amid rising inflation.”
On September 22, 2022, residents of the Morningside Heights area and students of Columbia University gathered in the middle of Columbia’s main campus to protest the privatization of public housing and the gentrification scheme of the Permanent Affordability Commitment Together (PACT) program. The protest was co-organized by the United Front Against Displacement (UFAD)—an anti-gentrification advocacy group—and two Columbia student organizations, the Housing Equity Project and Student Worker Solidarity.
Members of the UFAD called out Columbia for deciding to evict the Red Balloon learning center, a pillar of childhood education in the community since 1972, and for the Ivy League institution’s blatant encouragement of gentrification with its ‘Co-Designing Smart Cities class. During a public forum, it was revealed that the class was funded by the Adams administration, allowing students to redesign Harlem using NYPD security surveillance databases without input from actual residents of Harlem. Community members argue that over-policing policies and security databases, like the one used in the class, contribute to the mass incarceration problem in Harlem and surrounding neighborhoods.
On September 22, 2022, the Dean of the School of International Public Affairs (SIPA), Keren Yarhi-Milo, spoke out in defense of the class. “Student projects are not intended to “redesign Harlem” or “design a better Harlem,” she said. “Rather, students have been charged with researching challenges identified by community members, identifying potential strategies to help address these challenges, and making (and explaining) recommendations to stakeholders as part of the educational process.” Regardless of the university’s intentions for the class, it continues to ignore the people in the community who actively speak against it.
Public housing tenants made it clear that they disapprove of Columbia’s presence in the community. At the protest on September 22, Manhattanville tenants and Columbia students held up signs urging the university to “get out of Harlem.”
“[Columbia] has a whole community benefits agreement, 150 pages long, and you guys are not doing a damn thing for Manhattanville Houses,” Matthew said at a protest at the “Manhattanville Community Day” celebration that was hosted by the university. Manhattanville Houses tenants were not invited to attend this event.
At the protest, advocates and students demanded that NYCHA “Pay for all necessary repairs at the NYCHA Manhattanville and Grant Projects,” and that Columbia “Use its enormous power and influence to stop the privatization of NYCHA.” Residents of the Grant and Manhattanville projects also described the unsafe and unsanitary conditions they endure because of NYCHA’s neglect. They complain that elevators that are chronically out of order, heat and hot water disappear often, sometimes for days or weeks, and mold infestations and toxic lead are commonly found throughout the buildings. NYCHA’s neglect causes many residents to upkeep building maintenance on their own dollar.
Residents allege that NYCHA is intentionally neglecting the Manhattanville Houses to rally support for PACT. NYCHA says that PACT will help complete some of the estimated $40 billion in repairs their developments need by converting public housing to Section 8 housing. Through this program, NYCHA will lease properties to private corporations that will take over management responsibilities and claim any profits.
But repairs are not the only thing on tenants’ list of concerns. Residents at Manhattanville fear that PACT will increase their rents and their chances of eviction. Under PACT, the private landlords that lease the development will receive 30% of a tenant’s gross income, and a voucher provided by the federal government which will cover the difference between what the tenant pays and the market rate of the unit. Though rents are currently capped for NYCHA residents at 30%, many pay less and cannot afford the rent increase that would come with a PACT conversion.
A study of NYCHA’s data by Human Rights Watch found that eviction rates have increased post-conversion at 2 NYCHA developments: Betance in the South Bronx and Ocean Bay in Bayside. This heightens many residents’ concerns about NYCHA’s future plans for the Manhattanville houses.
Grid Group, a real estate development company, has proposed to build a 26-story luxury condo tower in a vacant lot at the Manhattanville Houses where a grocery store used to be. At a community meeting hosted by the UFAD, residents expressed fear that this project will further increase the value of their units, as the new building would be market-rate, and further encourage private corporations to seek opportunities to profit from private housing.
Many residents can only afford to live in New York City because they have access to public housing. As public housing becomes privatized, residents fear an imminent wave of mass displacement, and anticipate that many displaced individuals and families may become homeless. PACT converted developments issue different leases than NYCHA, and these leases can include new regulations that may make current residents ineligible or financially unable to remain in their homes long-term.
But tenants do not only blame NYCHA for promoting displacement within their community.
Columbia's influence over NYCHA has been ongoing for decades. Alongside other institutions, Columbia formed the coalition Morningside Heights Inc, led by David Rockafeller, in 1947. The coalition’s intention was to gather information and carry out their goal of “promoting the improvement of Morningside Heights as an attractive, residential, educational, and cultural area.” In practice, the coalition’s money and influential founders allowed it to pressure many New York agencies and purchase private housing stock to begin slum clearance projects. This was a direct assault to many low-income community members and was the catalyst for major demographic change in the area.
In 1968, Columbia began constructing a private gym for faculty and students in Morningside Park, but the project faced vehement opposition. The gym was intentionally designed to offer limited community access despite being on public land, with entrances separate for Harlem residents and Columbia faculty and students. Columbia students and Harlem residents accused the institution of blatant segregation and racism, and protested by taking over campus buildings, causing the university to shut down for the rest of the term.
Columbia claims the culture of Harlem is part of what makes it the prestigious institution it is today, but the university has done much to remove and strip the community of its culture. Columbia has always claimed responsibility for the community surrounding its campus, but members of the community are tired of the institution not following through on its promises. While the institution provides many education and health services to residents of NYCHA, such as free onsight vision screening eye exams and providing scholarships for students, tenants feel that these initiatives do not make up for the damage done to their community by Columbia’s aggressive portfolio expansion. They argue that these contributions do not justify or make up for the displacement, rising rents, and erasure of history that Columbia’s practices have accelerated.
Affordable housing should not equate to terrible living conditions. It is obvious that Columbia and the city believe that certain people give worth to the neighborhood, while others take it away. If Columbia continues to displace families, and neglect residents, the history and culture that makes Harlem so vibrant will be erased. Without the people that built and contributed to the growth of the community, Harlem would become a place owned and populated by the economic elite. And Harlem without its people is a Harlem not worth living in.