In Harlem (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)
As a New York State Senator serving Harlem and an Executive Director of a Harlem community organizing group, we have witnessed the rapid transformation of our neighborhood over the past several years and the wave of gentrification that has accompanied it.
For a century, Harlem has been a refuge for working-class Black families and other families of color. But today, those families are getting pushed out by rising costs — and not just out of the neighborhood, but out of New York altogether. Over the past two decades, more than 200,000 Black New Yorkers have left New York City – a 9% drop – pushed out by the skyrocketing cost of living.
New York’s diversity is its strength. In particular, Harlem's rich Black culture and numerous contributions to our nation and the world’s civil rights movement must be preserved. Black people have a median average income of $53,000 per year compared to $98,000 on average for white people. There has to be targeted income-based housing coupled with enhanced tenant protections in the upcoming state budget agreement in order to protect current residents and make it possible for working class Black people and future generations of Black families to stay in New York City. If we want to preserve Harlem as a safe harbor for working families, and not just a playground for the rich, we need help to protect renters in Harlem and across New York from even more displacement.
There is a solution. The state must pass ‘Good Cause Eviction’ to preserve the stability of the community. Right now, landlords of unregulated apartments in New York are able to evict tenants for any reason and raise the rent as high as they want. If a tenant complains about basic health concerns, like a lack of heat or pest infestations, a landlord can legally retaliate by refusing to renew their lease. Given that more than a third of rental units in Harlem are unregulated, the lack of protections has a huge impact. Residents in these units have no protections against corporate landlords trying to squeeze profits from renters.
Good cause eviction protections, currently being considered by the State Legislature in negotiations with Governor Hochul, would provide important safeguards for tenants against arbitrary or retaliatory evictions. Put simply, the law would require landlords to have a valid reason to evict them, and give tenants the power to take landlords to court if they suspect they’re being kicked out for unjust or retaliatory reasons.
And the bill limits exorbitant rent hikes by capping rent increases at the end of a lease to 3% or 150% of the Consumer Price Index, whichever is higher.
Good Cause would give tenants greater security and peace of mind in their homes, knowing that so long as they are lease-abiding, rent-paying tenants, their leases will be renewed. And it would be particularly valuable for Black women, who are evicted at twice the rate of white tenants.
The lack of tenant protections has caused tremendous hardship for low-income renters in Harlem. Too many residents cannot afford rent increases and find themselves in shelters or on the streets. And not only do evictions take a toll on renters themselves, but they reverberate across the entire neighborhood. Research shows that evictions increase crime rates, hurt public health, and make it harder for children to succeed in school.
And, Good Cause could be good for small landlords, especially homeowners of color, who are increasingly getting squeezed out of the market by corporate landlords and big investors. Today, 89% of all rental units in New York City are owned by corporations, and the average apartment in New York City is owned by a landlord with 900 units – not a mom-and-pop building owner. The law would dissuade corporate real estate profiteers from slapping tenants with outrageous rent increases like many people have seen in the past two years. In January, rents in Manhattan hit an all-time high, with median rent spiking 15% in a single year.
As people who know and love our community and our city, we want to protect Harlem renters – and all New York tenants – more than anything. While new growth and development is an essential part of any city, we must ensure that it doesn’t take an undue toll on existing residents or decimate the character of entire neighborhoods. To maintain the vibrancy of our city and make sure New York remains a place where people from all walks of life can live, we must pass Good Cause this year.
Senator Cordell Cleare was raised in Harlem and currently represents the 30th District of the New York State Senate. Juanita O. Lewis is the Executive Director of Community Voices Heard, a statewide, grassroots organizing nonprofit based in Harlem. On Twitter @SenatorCCleare & @CVHAction.