Move over SoHo, here comes Harlem

Quest for affordable housing accelerates gentrification from New York to Oakland.

J Daniel Stricker grins a lot for someone who's just spent half a million dollars and expects to be scraping paint for the next 30 years. "I never even conceived I could live in a house in Manhattan," he says.

Now the AIDS activist not only lives in one, he owns one: a palatial 19th-century townhouse in Harlem. Never mind the silver paint splashed across the onyx fireplace and the brittle floorboards - after Mr. Stricker is finished, this house will rival anything on the Upper East Side.

Stricker is among a wave of Harlem newcomers. Affordability and space, in a city with an acute housing shortage, are creating a buzz around Harlem, with its romantic history and dropping crime rates. Compared with downtown, Harlem is bargain city, and young renters and established professionals like Stricker are forsaking downtown digs for brownstone mansions.

"People go crazy over these houses," says Willie Kathryn Suggs, one of Harlem's busiest Realtors. "You can actually afford to buy a home here."

What's happening in New York is not an aberration. Buyers and renters are snapping up property on the fringes of the once-notorious Cabrini Green housing project in Chicago, in San Francisco's Mission District, and in depressed West Oakland, Calif. As new money arrives in these areas, property values rise and, often, longtime residents depart.

That's when the story of urban renewal gets complicated.

Harlem was among the last places in Manhattan where poor and working-class people could afford to live. And some longtime residents see happy new homeowners, like Stricker, as sure signs that the neighborhood as they know it is going, if not gone. This has led to a flurry of tenant association meetings and home-buying seminars, sponsored by the Greater Harlem Real Estate Board, to encourage long-time residents to pursue ownership.

"It would be a real shame if we lost the sense of community we've built," says Tom DeMott, who has rented an apartment just off 125th Street for 30 years.

Mr. DeMott has little to fear if Stricker is representative of the newcomers. "My goal was to own a home in a neighborhood with a sense of community," he says.

That same desire compelled Carey Shea to move from the Lower East Side to Harlem. "Harlem has that neighborhood feeling that I was very used to," says the community redevelopment specialist. "My neighbors are so warm and so welcoming. It takes me a half hour to get from my front door to the subway because everybody stops me and talks."

Unlike trendy Brooklyn neighborhoods that gentrified as a result of housing speculation, Harlem's transformation is the result of a major shift in urban policy toward privatization. When Rudolph Giuliani was elected mayor in 1994, he decided to sell off property the city had condemned years ago. Many such buildings, with their boarded-up windows, line the streets of Harlem. Developers now can bid for city-owned property and then rehabilitate the buildings, with the provision that some apartments must be reserved for low-income residents.

"When you put millions of dollars into neighborhood improvement, it's going to improve," says Shea. "I think as the neighborhood becomes more income diverse, the outcomes for all of the people in Harlem will be better."

Some community advocates, however, remain skeptical. They say living in Harlem is becoming too pricey. A few years ago, it would have been absurd to ask $1,000 a month for two- or three-bedroom apartments. Now landlords get twice that amount.

The real-estate market in San Francisco is similarly supercharged, fueled by money from dotcom upstarts. Developers have swooped into blighted areas to build on vacant lots and convert abandoned buildings into offices or hotels. The economic expansion and competition for space has caused property values to soar.

The fact that some residential property values in Harlem are increasing by 25 percent a year has tenant associations planning protests. "If you are poor, middle class, or working class, you cannot afford to live in this city," says Nellie Hestor Bailey, executive director of the Harlem Tenants Council. "We have been inside 50 buildings where they're trying to jack up the rent."

In the building where DeMott lives, the landlord has filed 16 lawsuits against individual tenants. "There's a serious motivation to get people to move on," says DeMott, who leads his building's tenant association. "There's so much incentive to turn lower-end rents into high-end rents."

But not everyone in Harlem fears the rising property values. A handful of older women on Shea's block who grew up and inherited their homes are excited about the changes. A renewed pride in homeownership bodes well for the community's future, they say.

"When I close a deal nobody in the neighborhood asks what color the new folks are," says Ms. Suggs. "They want to know what they do for a living. They want to make sure that whoever moves in realizes this is a special place and that they have a responsibility to sweep their sidewalks every morning like everyone else does."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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