UPPER MANHATTAN — A lack of affordable housing options in Washington Heights and Inwood is driving residents out of the neighborhood, according to hundreds who rallied over the weekend to raise their voices about the problem.
Protesters called on the city to make good on Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s promise to build and preserve 165,000 affordable units by 2013 and to focus more attention on Upper Manhattan.
While the Department of Housing and Preservation has preserved or built 129,221 affordable housing units across the city during his tenure, only 139 of the 43,922 new units and 1,363 of the 85,299 units preserved were in Washington Heights and Inwood.
“We need to preserve this community as its residents fought hard to establish it and now can no longer afford to live there,” said Nicole Monegro, who participated in the rally with the Barack Obama Democratic Club. “We can no longer allow for our community members to be pushed out.”
Preliminary Census data showed that Washington Heights saw a population decrease of close to 10 percent, with 15,554 people leaving the area since 2000. Inwood, which is statistically linked to Marble Hill across the Harlem River in the Census, had 5 percent dip, with a decrease of 2,341 people.
"How is it that a community with a need as great as ours has not even received 1 percent of the affordable housing built in Manhattan?" Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez asked in a public statement.
Community leaders and elected officials, including State Sen. Adriano Espaillat (who just announced an exploratory commission for his bid for Congress), State Assemblymen Guillermo Linares and Denny Farrell, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, Upper East Side Councilwoman Jessica Lappin, City Council-hopeful Mark Levine and CB12 chair Pamela Palanque-North, said this needed to change.
A white paper issued by the Community United for True Affordable Housing, a coalition of Upper Manhattan elected officials and community leaders who took part in Sunday’s rally near a vacant lot on West 172nd Street and Amsterdam Avenue, said the city should provide the area with the same level of housing provided in other Manhattan communities.
"Our families spend more of their income on rent than those in East Harlem, Central Harlem, or Chinatown, those neighborhoods which each have reaped 20 percent or more of the new affordable housing construction," according to the paper.
HPD spokesman Eric Bederman said the department was united with the community in its fight but limited in its resources.
"We recognize there is a crisis of affordable housing. It’s in every neighborhood in the city and every borough," he told DNAinfo. "As far as construction goes, it’s a matter of resources and opportunity and neighborhood history."
HPD does not own any land in Community Board 12’s district, he noted.
The housing stock in CB 12 largely remained in the hands of landlords and tenants during the 1970s and 1980s when residents were fleeing the city, while in Harlem — in community boards 9, 10 and 11 — the city was able to purchase significant numbers of properties.
Much of the new construction throughout areas like Harlem, the South Bronx or East Brooklyn, is derived from land acquired through tax foreclosure during that time.
"CB12 didn’t really see that," Bederman said. "We didn’t get a lot of housing stock through abandonment and foreclosure."
Instead, the department has focused on working on the preservation of older buildings and is working with Department of Citywide Administrative Services to identify possible properties for new development in the future. Just last year it worked with Rodriguez's office to begin the preservation of a long-neglected Inwood building, which Bederman was a good example of the department's work to preserve affordable housing in the district.
Bederman also said the department plans to review of a list of nine potential publicly and privately owned properties submitted to the department by Rodriguez.
Community residents and leaders said they hoped the rally would inspire further discussion about affordable housing.
"I hope this rally is just the beginning of a united front by all of us in support of northern Manhattan's fair share of new affordable housing units," wrote Mino Lora, artistic and co-executive director of the People's Theatre Project.