Why Foreclosure Crisis Has Not Reached Harlem

 Harlem Building

Eight of the ten top neighborhoods hit by foreclosures in the New York area are overwhelmingly non-white. But the nation’s black capital has been insulated from the sub-prime meltdown.

By: Judith Matloff,

Recently homeowners in my corner of Harlem held a soiree in someone’s garden. We form a warm group of 130 people who represent the changing neighborhood — black old-timers with a growing number of whites. Everyone brought a dish or bottle and the talk over the macaroni was cheerful. Did anyone know a good contractor? How did the Little League do this summer? A door prize, a box of Godiva chocolates, was awarded to the longest resident — Dina Morrison, 93, who has lived with her older sister in the same place for 67 years.  No one mentioned foreclosures.

Foreclosure crisis? What crisis? Not in Harlem.

Harlem is full of the sort of people who are losing their properties all over New York City, namely little old ladies and working-class African-American families. But the nation’s black capital has been insulated from the sub-prime meltdown by the very thing usually blamed for destroying communities of color — gentrification.

While the dreaded G word has priced some residents out of the ‘hood, we’ve seen a paradoxical upside. The house values that have skyrocketed over the past 15 years in Harlem scared off many predatory lenders who targeted other black areas. These $1-million-plus price tags have also given homeowners who are struggling to keep apace with mortgage payments the option of selling out before the bank closes in.

“There tends to be a tight connection between property values and foreclosures,” explains Josiah Madar, from the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy at New York University.

He and other experts understand little about the mechanisms of abusive lending, other than the stark racial component.  Eight of the ten top neighborhoods hit by foreclosures in the city are overwhelmingly non-white. A map representing the worst afflicted areas — among them Bedford-Stuyvesant, East New York, North Bronx, South Jamaica — says it all. Each filing is a dot, and the aforementioned areas resemble solid metastasizing cancers, with several hundred foreclosures each.

Yet the area comprising Hamilton Heights, which claims some of Harlem’s most prized Victorian brownstones, had just eight foreclosure notices, so few one can discern the individual specks.

It appears that the conmen who besieged other black neighborhoods steered away from Harlem, wagering that anyone who lived in a valuable townhouse would be too financially sophisticated for their tricks. Unlike in the outer boroughs where the racial demographic is similar but house values lower, Harlem residents didn’t report a barrage of flyers pushed through mail slots that promised zero interest rates. The scam artists who solicited people to over-borrow just didn’t approach Harlem as aggressively. Take a look at the numbers. Only 0.8 percent of all home-purchases mortgages in the Hamilton Heights area in 2006 were sub-prime, versus 34 percent in Bedford-Stuyvesant and 39 percent in East New York. (According to the latest available figures.) Refinancing loans from risky lenders were likewise lower here.

“It was all a matter of the assumptions of the predators,” said Dwayne Jones, lending director of the Parodneck Foundation, a housing advocacy group. “They did not come to Harlem.” He credits the large concentration of organizations like his, as well as social networks like our homeowners’ association, for raising awareness among less savvy member of the community.

Those Harlemites who did borrow more than they actually owned could take the money and run. That’s what our next-door neighbor did. Literally a week before the bank jumped to possess her 1888 row house, she sold the property for a nice packet to a white family and found something cheaper. Granted, it’s disruptive to move but she was spared financial ruin.

The added positive effect is that properties like hers do not sit vacant during New York’s long foreclosure process. We see a vicious cycle in foreclosure-hit areas, where empty houses sink the cost of those nearby. As anyone who lived through Harlem’s dark ghetto days knows, no one wants to live next to a boarded up building that tempts drug dealers to loiter. Moreover, few people want to buy a boarded up building with a leaking roof, which is often the case as banks rarely maintain the properties they seize.

This is not to say that gentrification is great for everyone. Of course it has a bad side. Most Harlemites rent apartments and do not dwell in fancy mansions. The locale is losing its status as the last outpost of affordability in Manhattan. Those suffering are victims not of the white professionals who buy shells and fix them up. No, the destructive forces are the big developers who scoop up rent-stabilized apartment buildings and then try to force out tenants by doing improvements and jacking up the price. Some of these investors borrowed more than the value of their properties, and now risk default. Then what happens to the residents living on the premises?

For the time being, though, homeowners like Dina Morrison are in a good place. There’s talk among the homeowners of a jolly Christmas party, just like every year of plenty.

About the Author: Judith Matloff is the author of Home Girl — Building a Dream House on a Lawless Block. She is a contributing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review and teaches at Columbia University‘s Graduate School of Journalism. Matloff was a foreign correspondent for twenty years, lastly as the bureau chief of The Christian Science Monitor in Africa and Moscow. Her stories have appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times, The Economist, Newsweek, and The Dallas Morning News, and she is the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation grant, a Fulbright fellowship, and the Godsell, the Monitor’s highest accolade for correspondence. Matloff still lives in West Harlem with her husband and son.

Photo:  The Bearmaiden