The last affordable neighborhoods in Manhattan: ‘The air is fresher up here’

Long an ignored section of New York City by outsiders, the two neighborhoods that make up northern Manhattan are attracting attention not all of it welcome

Johnathan Audubon Perez, winds his way through the streets of upper Manhattan. He crosses fresh fruit vendors and men pushing carts selling fried pork. Street intersections reveal children playing in the water of opened fire hydrants, and older generations gathering around improvised domino tables. Bachata is blasting out of one window high up on one block, and from the portable speakers of a stoop on another.

These are the scenes of summer in Washington Heights. The neighborhood is baking from the heat, but it is alive.

Long a vastly ignored section of the city by outsiders, the Heights and Inwood the two neighborhoods that take up the entire northern section of Manhattan from 155th street to 220th street have suddenly attracted wide excitement and attention. Why? Real estate firms and media outlets have named them the last affordable neighborhoods on the island both for renting and buying. The median rental price in July in Washington Heights was $2,200, well below the $3,508 average for the rest of the island, according to real estate group Citi Habitats. According to real estate broker Cole Thompson, one-bedroom apartments in the area are available for $300,000, considerably less than the median $815,000 price of a one-bedroom across Manhattan as a whole.

For many whose families settled in the two neighborhoods decades ago, the added attention to their homes is creating a great sense of insecurity. Photograph: Devon Knight for the Guardian
Christopher Jackson, a Broadway musical actor, moved to Washington Heights last month. I was looking to move uptown because I wanted space and I wanted it cheap, Jackson said. He loves the neighborhood and has already enjoyed the nightlife and restaurants. The air is fresher up here.

For now, very few of his longstanding New York friends live this far north. They sometimes make fun of him for his choice in neighborhood. They say, oh I will come and see you, but I will have to find my passport. But those friends are living in tuna cans, in sardine cans, he says, referring to how much smaller their New York dwellings are.

But bargains for outsiders aside, for many whose families settled in the two neighborhoods decades ago, the added attention to their homes is creating a great sense of insecurity.

With their blocks upon blocks of hundred-year-old sturdy, brick apartment buildings, decorated with zigzagging metal fire escapes, the two upper Manhattan neighborhoods have long been the home to working class and immigrant communities who have enjoyed affordable, quality lives for a century.


Bill De Blasios housing plan would allow for the construction of more market rate developments in Inwood. Photograph: Devon Knight for the Guardian
Today, a majority of the neighborhoods residents identify as Latino or Hispanic, mostly of Dominican origin. For decades, Spanish-speaking residents have lived alongside a smaller orthodox Jewish community, and a slightly more middle-class white liberal community.

Whereas many New York City neighborhoods have seen new buildings rise in recent years, much of upper Manhattan maintains its original architecture. Through the 1970s and 1980s, when Washington Heights in particular became known as a murder and cocaine capital, and the crack epidemic led to the destruction of many lower-income neighborhoods across New York City, residents here made sure buildings were kept intact.

Led Black, a 41-year-old telecom analyst and founder of online news and culture hub the Uptown Collective, grew up in the same Washington Heights apartment he lives in today with his wife and daughters, where he pays a city-controlled rent of below $1,000 a month.

My mother was always about community, my house was always the house that people came to to have a meal, Black says.


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Johnathan Audubon Perez. Photograph: Devon Knight for the Guardian

Like Blacks apartment, three-quarters of Inwood and Washington Heights where nine out of 10 units are rentals are rent stabilized or rent controlled. Only 7% are market rate, according to city data.

New tenants are a blessing for landlords who can legally hike up rents far more than if residents stay put from 20% if nothing is done to the unit to 250% and up if work is done.

As a result, the Rev Antonio Almonte the pastor at Inwoods Church of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs says tenant harassment is rife.

Its often indirect harassment. Landlords refusing to turn on heat in the winter for years. Not replacing old pipes. Doing awkward repairs. If a toilet is broken, taking a week to fix it. When tenants complain, they are offered a few thousand dollars to move out. Almonte says these stories are very common and he hears them constantly.

But with renewed attention, landlords are not the only threat to the affordable, high-quality of life of these two neighborhoods.

In Inwood, neighborhood activists have had their hands full battling Mayor Bill de Blasios housing plans for the city that have zoomed in on this neighborhood.

The housing plan would allow for the construction of more market-rate developments, providing a proportion of them were categorized as affordable. Residents are not prepared to compromise, however, and see the acceptance of such a plan in a neighborhood void of any luxury development as a route of no return. Activists won a victory last week, when plans for a first construction were blocked by a city council responding to local pressure.

Mark Willis, a senior policy fellow at New York Universitys Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy, says blocking developments would only make the problem of affordability worse.


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Whereas many New York City neighborhoods have seen new buildings rise in recent years, much of upper Manhattan maintains its original architecture. Photograph: Ambient Images Inc/Alamy

The best way to address this problem is to increase supply, and one key way to do that is to allow for increased density.

Stephanie Baez, a vice-president of public affairs at the New York City Economic Development Corporation says that rezoning plans in Inwood are part of a broader housing plan under Mayor De Blasio that are precisely concerned with the community, and are under peoples terms.

Gentrification and development are the status quo, she points out, and without city intervention under the form of De Blasios Mandatory Inclusionary Housing plan, development will prevail, but at full market rate, only without the permanent affordable stipulations.

Baez stresses the rezoning plan is not yet finished, and there is ample time for community members to continue participating in its design. For now, residents have until September 2017 to express concerns.

Though he grew up in northern Manhattan, Perezs career means he no longer spends all his time in New York. But he always comes back to the same apartment his grandmother moved to in the late 1950s, and where his mother was born in the early 1960s.

Hes noticed some changes brought on by the new residents. They call 311 on us for everything fire hydrants, music in the street, he says.

While Inwood and Washington Heights are respectively the third and fourth <a draggable=”true” href=”” data-link-name=”in” body link” class=”u-underline”>safest neighborhoods in Manhattan, behind only the Upper West and Upper East sides, when it comes to noise complaints, they are top.

Today, the apartment is still filled with family members, but of his generation. The landlord has tried everything, including offering money, to get them out. But they wont go.

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