Washington Heights: Emotional Costs Rise with Gentrification

Disclosure: Due to no access to directly interview Marlene, her story here is being told from the point-of-view of a friend and associate, Esdras Santana. Due to privacy, the building address could not be released. 

“Gentrification is happening everywhere to so many poor individuals of color,” says Esdras Santana, a young Dominican woman recently affected by gentrification in Washington Heights.  For many residents of Washington Heights, the phenomenon of gentrification is growing tremendously.

Washington Heights residents who have experienced gentrification have seen a great deal of emotional impact upon the quality of their lives.  It has resulted in the destroying of cultural traditions communities and the rise of tensions.

Beginning in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, there was an influx of Jewish refugees in Washington Heights.  Then later after WW2, an influx of African-Americans began flowing into the neighborhood from Southern states and parts of Harlem that were beginning to be significantly overcrowded.  In addition, an influx of Dominicans began migrating to the area in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s due to political instability and repression under the dictatorship of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina.  All of these influxes helped the neighborhood become more diverse and culturally vibrant. Washington Heights attracted quite a number of professional creative individuals such as actors, musical artists, and dancers, etc.

Esdras Santana, Marlene, and her husband are Latino residents who were displaced from their Washington Heights apartments.  Marlene, a teacher, and her fiancee at the time, who is a police officer, wanted to purchase an apartment in the neighborhood.  As Esdras explained, the couple went to check out the apartment and immediately recognized that the “kitchen sink needed repairs as it was in terrible condition and barely working.”  Marlene and her husband told the landlord, on countless occasions, that they would like the kitchen to be fixed and in good condition.  After some time, according to Esdras, “the landlord began to get annoyed as if they were being demanding and asking for things that any normal human being would not be asking for.”  Unfortunately, as a result, the landlord rejected selling the couple the apartment.  In fact, the landlord wanted more for the apartment and figured that the couple would not agree to paying more, decided to ignore their request to have the kitchen sink fixed.  This couple was essentially prevented and pushed away from renting the apartment space.

This situation is not particularly unique, as many of these landlords will reject renting/selling a living space to an individual or some individuals who can actually pay but are wise enough to not pay anything more than what it is worth.  So via hear-say, the landlord had a plan to increase rent prices and try to rent to others who are less qualified and possibly more vulnerable to have the space.  Santana reported that the couple “for some months was left frantically searching for another place to live.”  That experience and the process and struggle of searching for another location left the couple feeling emotionally stressed.  Santana added that having spoken with Marlene a couple weeks after she and her husband’s purchase was rejected, that she could “hear how unsure Marlene had now become about finding a decent and affordable place to live” and also how stressed she was about beginning again the entire process of securing a place to live by a certain time.  Santana shared that Marlene and her husband would have really wanted to live within a neighborhood that was predominantly Latino and where they be a part of and contribute to their cultural traditions.  Moreover, the emotional toll of gentrification on Marlene and her husband’s work life was significant. Having to balance going to work and keeping a job while having to constantly search for somewhere to live took immense work and sacrifice.

The story of Santana’s gentrification started with the owners sending a letter asking her to vacate the premises by a certain date; however, she added, “that date was within one month of receiving the letter.”  Santana and her family did not leave within the time-frame and decided to fight that displacement for three years.  “Though we fought hard to stay there, they wanted to really get us out and if we had ever felt into arrears with our rent, that would have given them an easier opportunity to do so.  The fact that they refused to leave, the owners refused to give them a lease which left Santana and her family with very little rights.

After Santana’s husband was harassed in the courts when they unfortunately fell into arrears with their rent, some time was given (about six months) for them to get out of arrears, but the fact that they did not possess a lease, made it much harder for them to stay.  Santana reflected that to live years of your life fighting daily to remain with a roof over your head takes a lot of strength and eventually becomes tiring and stressful.  It is important to note that Santana’s building was a coop with no ‘real’ board approval, that allowed the owners to do whatever they feel no matter the extent of the negative impact on the tenants.  For Santana and her family, those three years felt so much like a cat and mouse game, being constantly chased and not knowing when you could finally be kicked out and then having to quickly figure out where you would go, if a place to live had not yet been found.  Santana actually went to visit her old building some time ago and surprisingly, heard that most of the other tenants had to leave as well, when their rents were raised by a certain percentage and they could no longer afford to live there. Similar to Marlene and her husband, for Santana, having a tense fight with the owners many times and having the owners’ lawyers harass you is an extra added stress, that made her at one point quite depressed and physically sick at moments during the struggle.

Eventually, Santana and her family found a new place where they have been living for about  a year now.  She remarked how much more peace of mind and less stress she and her family now feel. She acknowledges that the conflict over gentrification in Washington Heights is definitely increasing, not only within the housing market, but also with neighborhood restaurants and chain stores leading the way.

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