A Rising Tide Lifts All Rents
For small businesses, development is a threat and a promise
By Harry Parker
Andre Morales, owner of Giant Tattoos & Piercing in Mott Haven, is “Andre the Giant” to longtime patrons. Covered face-to-foot in tattoos, he’s a walking advertisement for his work, which attracts legions of loyal customers.
The next chapter of his South Bronx success story could play out elsewhere. Luxury high-rises are cropping up along the Harlem River, bringing dramatic rent hikes that are forcing some businesses to relocate.
Morales currently pays $2,000 a month in rent, and he says in normal years his rent increases 3-4% per year. With the influx of higher-income residents, a neighboring business facing an increase from $3,000 to $4,000 a month moved out.
“If I was in his position, I’d raise it too,” Morales said of his landlord’s decision.
Many business owners who have faced rising rents have not yet seen an influx of new customers. They say many newcomers don’t patronize their stores.
Most retailers are thrilled with the new buildings, according to Lisa Sorin, president of the Bronx Chamber of Commerce.
“Whenever there’s a large development of housing, with it comes business,” Sorin said. Locals should have access to more green spaces and waterfront, and some families will be able to upgrade their housing, she added.
But the downside includes the likelihood that small businesses will see their rents rise.
“The landlord will find a way, squeeze you out,” she said. “Growth hurts in many ways…[it’s] never a complete win, there always will be someone who loses out.“
Where old meets new
Irving Cruz helps run Custom Design Studio, his family’s furniture store on Bruckner Boulevard. His parents, Enrique and Denise, have operated in the same location since 1993. Irving says the street used to be full of antique and specialty stores like theirs. Now, with the new high-rises, the only bars and restaurants are opening.
Younger, more affluent residents are not necessarily good for the family’s business.
“Their tastes of fabric or…the type of style of furniture they’re looking for…they could want a high-end style. But they’re not willing to, you know, pay the price for it.” Irving said.
Michael Brady, executive director of the Third Avenue Business Improvement District, says it’s too early to assess the impact of the new developments.
“I don’t see the residential population really moving in yet,” Brady said, citing the preponderance of vacant apartments near the waterfront. “Some people…have moved in there, but it’s really not enough of a tipping point.”
Brady said the BID will strive to work with business owners and landlords to keep rents as affordable as possible. His major concern: Higher rents might push the cost of basic goods and services too high for longtime residents.
“A cup of coffee is no longer $1.60, at the bodega. A cup of coffee is now $4 or $5…” Brady said. “It’s a red flag for us.”
New construction in the South Bronx also includes housing complexes that solely offer “affordable housing” further inland.
Toledo Grocery is situated down the street from The Peninsula development, a 740-unit affordable-housing complex in Hunts Point. Maria Toledo, who has run the store for 16 years, said she missed the meeting of local businesses years ago that gave them a chance to provide input on the housing complex.
She is all for the transformation of the site, which had been home to the infamous Spofford Juvenile Detention Center.
Toledo said she has not met a single local business owner who isn’t happy with the influx of residents, even with the knowledge that rents will rise. “COVID froze rents,” Toledo said. “They say it will go up…we’re happy with it.”
In Melrose, one neighborhood over from The Peninsula, another new affordable development, La Central, has risen. Reaction among businesses there is a little different.
Maria Iordanivis, owner of the Mama’s Kebabs food cart, has operated at 152nd Street and Third Avenue for 53 years. She ran the business with her husband until he died of COVID-19 last year.
The past few years had brought chain retailers, a surge of tourism and rising rents. Many businesses closed or relocated. Then the pandemic hit, freezing rents, which squeezed landlords.
Iordanivis said the new affordable developments didn’t bring new income to nearby businesses. She rubbed her thumb against her index finger to show what most of the new residents don’t have—extra cash to spend.
Bronxites on Gentrification
Videos by Natalie Peart
The Two Sides of a New Development
Bridgeline inspires different visions of the future from its neighbors
By Jason Gonzalez
Every day, the South Bronx becomes a little less Boogie Down and a little more SoBro.
Longtime residents can’t agree on whether the transformation of iconic neighborhoods in the borough that gave birth to hip-hop culture is a plus or minus.
Starting a few years ago, newcomers began arriving in large numbers, new businesses sprouted and rental prices in certain neighborhoods began to skyrocket, causing tension among many longtime residents and business owners, who fear they may be displaced.
The Bridgeline high-rise at 329 E. 132nd St. in Port Morris—four blocks from the New York City Housing Authority’s Mitchel Houses—opened its doors three years ago. The 12-story flatiron-esque building has 92 units, ranging from studios to two-bedrooms.
Apartments feature natural hardwood flooring, floor-to-ceiling windows, as well as modern fixtures and kitchen appliances. A small number have terraces. Other amenities include a roof deck, a lounge, a fitness gym, bike storage and private parking.
“I am not against it, but I am not necessarily in favor of it either, because of the neighborhood,” said Jesus Abreu, a resident of the Mitchel Houses in Mott Haven. “The majority of the people that live here in NYCHA are people of low income. This will cause rents to go up, things will become more expensive…I would like to live there but it all depends on what the rent would be. But I know it’s not feasible.”
Bridgeline is one of more than a dozen new developments rising on or near the Harlem River. Real-estate agents wax poetic about the short commute to Manhattan, stunning views and diverse neighborhood.
“It makes me feel good,” Mitchel Houses resident Pedro Antonio Negron said about Bridgeline. “There will be a lot of white people coming. They are people that spend money.”
In June 2021, Streeteasy.com listed rental prices at Bridgeline, which offers only market rate rentals, ranging from $1,650-$1,900 for a studio, to $2,300-$2,400 for a one-bedroom apartment and $3,100 for a two-bedroom unit.
Those prices are only slightly higher than what’s being charged today for new rentals elsewhere in Mott Haven, according to the May 2021 Bronx Rental Market Report. But they are indicative of where rental prices in Mott Haven are headed — up 12% from a year ago.
“By the way it’s looking, I’m pretty sure it’s a pretty good and decent place to live,” said Jaden McCunnie said, who lives next door at 331 E. 132nd St., a 12-year-old condo apartment building. McCunnie had never been inside Bridgeline and doesn’t know anyone who lives there.
However, he said he is happy to be a part of the “welcome committee.”
“Mostly all of the apartments here are full,” McCunnie said of his 13-story building. “So, it’s good that we finally have another apartment [building] where other people can go.”
Community activist Awilda Cordero said most Bronx residents with existing rental agreements pay considerably less than the rate for new rentals — typically about $1,200 for a studio, $1,500 for a one-bedroom, $1,900 for a two-bedroom and $2,300 for a three-bedroom. But when leases come up, she said, many landlords are raising rents in an effort to get closer to the new market rates.
“People are being kicked out of their homes because they can’t afford to pay the rent,” she said. “They then have to go to a homeless shelter, but all of the shelters are filled. So, where are they going to go?”
The rising costs have prompted long-term residents to double and even triple up on the number of people living in an apartment, she said. “In some cases you have families in which six or seven people are living in a one bedroom apartment. They do that to split the rent.”Jordan Suggs, a 21-year-old student who lives in a nearby NYCHA complex, said the contrast between living conditions there and the gleaming façade of Bridgeline is a sign of growing inequality. NYCHA tenants routinely contend with broken boilers during the winter, poor ventilation, rodent infestation, poorly lit corridors and the threat of crime.
“We’ve had that scaffolding for almost a year now,” he said. “This brings in rats and garbage and stuff like that, so it’s pretty weird.”
Valeria Gago, 47, another Mitchel Houses resident, felt differently. “To some degree, I am in favor of gentrification,” she said in Spanish. “It brings tourists and new people to the neighborhood. There are much more restaurants now. I used to have to travel to another borough, now I can stay here [the Bronx], close to home.”
Who pays the price?
City Council Member Vanessa Gibson, whose district includes the Highbridge section of the South Bronx and who leads in the Democratic primary for borough president, says that new higher-end developments are not the answer to her constituents’ needs.
“I definitely think gentrification is a real problem and Bronxites face displacement every day,” she said. “Many of them are rent burdened, where they pay more than 30% of their income towards rent.”
Gibson wants to see the city deal with the affordability crisis by stabilizing rents more widely. But until the Bronx’s area median income (AMI)—the calculation that determines “affordable” rents—is accurately reflected, longtime residents are likely to continue to be priced out of their old neighborhoods, housing advocates and tenant leaders say.
Ads for the many new developments sprouting up in these neighborhoods tout a Manhattan vibe without having to pay a Manhattan price. More and more, Alexander Avenue resembles a miniature Bushwick, with all of its juice bars and sidewalk eateries.
Local lawmakers see themselves as virtually powerless to stop a lot of the development taking place, according to Gibson, because much of the vacant land in Mott Haven and Port Morris is privately owned.
“We don’t have the legal authority to dictate the type of development on that private property, unless we have some sort of a public-private partnership and there is a usage of tax credits or government programs that will finance the construction of that particular development,” she said.
A tenant at Bridgeline who was asked about the apartments declined to respond. “This is why we moved here. We moved for privacy. Not to have people asking us all sorts of invasive questions when we come outside,” the tenant said. Bridgeline Superintendent Jose Gonzalez also failed to respond to an email request for comment. A few tenants at Bridgeline said the landlord was sometimes willing to negotiate rents.
Melissa Bellinger, 30, a student at City College who lives in Port Morris, said the changes taking place in the South Bronx remind her of the Lower East Side’s transformation from a neighborhood that largely housed immigrants to one that today draws affluent buyers and renters.
“I find it tasteless to capitalize on someone else’s culture to attract dollars, especially when those dollars are not either going towards or coming from the individuals who have historically lived there, who created the culture, who spent the time to create and develop a neighborhood,” she said of the influx of newcomers. “It creates a system that is not equitable.”
Not everyone who lives or works here agrees. Eric Kelly, 40, owner of the South Bronx Boxing Gym located across the street from the Mitchel Houses, said he sees the changes as a gift.
“It’s the last borough in New York that has that authentic New York feel. It’s the South Bronx,” said Kelly, a Brooklyn native and resident. “The natives keep it popping, the natives keep the flavor and the natives keep it a place where people feel it’s authentic.”
“Gentrification tends to take away a lot of the authenticity of the neighborhoods, but we’ve got some institutions here and those institutions are going to keep it real,” he added. “At the same time…it’s going to make nicer coffee shops, more restaurants, art galleries and museums here.”
His prediction for the future? “People are going to be willing to come up, willing to come and try different things in the South Bronx.”