Harlem For Sale To Highest Bidder? Harlem is the epicenter of a heated debate on gentrification. It's something that Willie Suggs knows firsthand. Known as the "Queen of Harlem Real Estate," she's been in the business for more than 20 years. She tells NPR's Tony Cox she's more concerned about a buyer's finances, not their race.
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Harlem For Sale To Highest Bidder?

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Harlem For Sale To Highest Bidder?

Harlem For Sale To Highest Bidder?

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TONY COX, host:

This is News & Notes. I'm Tony Cox. There is a heated debate going on over Harlem's so-called gentrification. The word has some to symbolize wealthy newcomers displacing the poorer long-time residents. Higher income families have been moving in the historically black community for more than a decade. Harlem's home prices have skyrocketed. But some want Harlem kept as an affordable community for blacks.

What should happen to Harlem? We'll hear from both sides. But first we've got Willie Suggs. She is the so-called Queen of Harlem Real Estate, and has been in the real estate business for more than 20 years. Willie, welcome to News & Notes.

Ms. WILLIE SUGGS (Real Estate Broker): Thank you for having me.

COX: Can you describe an average home in Harlem and what it's selling for these days?

Ms. SUGGS: The average home now would sell for 1.7 million. It would need approximately 350 to a half-million dollars worth of renovation on top of that.

COX: And what are some of the changes that you've noticed over the past two decades, as far as prices and quality of properties in Harlem?

Ms. SUGGS: On the A blocks, those would be the most desirable blocks, Strivers' Row, the blocks facing Mount Morris Park, or Convent Avenue, or Hamilton Terrace in West Harlem, the A blocks have gone up as much as 40 times. On the side streets, West 122nd Street, for example at the foot of Columbia, those properties are now up to four or five times what they would have sold for 20 years ago.

COX: Many people in Harlem say that you are the reason that housing prices in Harlem are soaring. First, is it true, and second, how do you feel about that?

Ms. SUGGS: Well, it's obviously not true. I haven't sold every home in Harlem. What my office did, going back to 1985 when I became licensed, was we decided to represent the sellers. Many of the owners - and you have to remember, the majority of the homeowners in Harlem are people of color - if they decide to sell their house, they're going to sell it to whoever is going to give them the most money. What I found in my nine-month search for homes was people were underselling their houses because they had no idea what they were actually worth.

So our philosophy is very simple. We list the house for the most the bank will appraise it for. The owner can take anything they want. We've had owners undersell their houses deliberately. Some, no matter how much we get for them it's not enough. So you can't blame or give credit, depending on your viewpoint, the rise, the steep increase, on a broker. It was a confluence of events that created this.

Nobody that I know wants to live in a slum. So if you can bring crime down - and everybody knows that crime in Harlem dropped precipitously, if you can eliminate the vacant buildings, the vacant lots, and thereby eliminating the venues for criminal activity to take place, people will simply feel safer and want to move there.

When I first came to New York in 1972, I wasn't moving to Harlem because it was out of control, as were other parts of the city. I came up in 1984 and had seen a change. When I started looking in '84, I was late, because there were already three white families on the block that I moved on to. So it wasn't me. It was just simply people paying attention to what was going on in the neighborhood. Policing improved, crime dropped, and the city started unloading the properties that they owned.

New York City at one point owned 70 percent of the housing stock in central Harlem. Well, they started to divest itself - divest the city of that property. Those houses were renovated, some turned into condominiums, others co-ops, and then families of affordable means - most of the housing programs in Harlem or in New York City are geared to people who are lower-middle income, meaning there are income caps. I didn't qualify for them because I had a very good job and I made too much money. So though that first wave of housing, the housing renaissance in Harlem, was directed at the lower and middle classes, to keep them and myself from moving to Jersey.

COX: Now, is that still the case with the prices having skyrocketed in the way that you have described? Is it still a place, Harlem, where a person of middle income can go and find somewhere to live as well as a person of higher means?

Ms. SUGGS: Yes, but it's going to be much, much harder, obviously. The big shift is in the private houses. People call them brownstones. They're actually just houses in a row, they're row houses. Those are virtually unaffordable by normal people when you're spending 1.7 million dollars. But what we do have a lot of are condos and co-ops. Cooperative home ownership is much cheaper. And what's interesting is if you're looking to buy a studio or a one-bedroom, it's going to cost you the same in a 24-hour doorman building in Harlem, on a good street, as it would on the Upper West Side. You see the gap begin to grow when you have these two- and three-bedroom homes.

But the city still has programs geared specifically for area residents, where you get preference in the lottery for the property. My nephew, who is a flight attendant, was offered a condominium for 375,000. That's cheap in Harlem and it's cheap in the rest of the city. But he got transferred so he couldn't take advantage of it. Their - their building is called HDFCs, they are formerly owned by the City of New York. Those apartments are deliberately kept stupidly cheap. You're talking 90,000 dollars for a five-and-a-half room apartment. You simply have to know who to go to to find out where these bargains are, but they do exist.

Harlem will never become an all-white neighborhood. Harlem and New York City is not like the rest of the country. We're a different breed of animal, mainly because of the city laws here. We have very strong rent control and rent stabilization laws here to protect tenants, and the overwhelming majority of the residents in Harlem are renters, they're not homeowners.

COX: Yes, that's an interesting point I was going to get to, as a matter of fact. Is there a misconception, do you think, of who Harlem belongs to, or does it belong to anybody?

Ms. SUGGS: Harlem belongs to the people who live here. When Harlem was first developed, it was an upper-middle-class suburb for white people. Blacks were the second, third, fourth or fifth owners of the properties. By 1977, we were overwhelmingly an African-American neighborhood, but then the shift began.

I don't see it shifting more than, you know, 30 percent non-African-American for one simple reason. The majority of the residents live in apartments, they're protected by law, they're not going anywhere. You will see a shift, as we've seen a continuing shift of who owns the houses, the individual row houses, and in the new construction. We have new construction that's funded by the city or the state, and then we have new construction with private owners. The private ownership, though, that construction, that's going to be overwhelmingly non-African-American. Some lady paid 8.8 million dollars for a condo. Well, that was not an African-American lady. The African-Americans are buying, and Hispanics, people of color, are buying the subsidized units that are well below half a million dollars.

COX: The final thing is this. How has both - how have both the culture and the appearance of Harlem changed with this new money and these new properties, newly priced properties?

Ms. SUGGS: Well, the culture is even more vibrant, because we have people that have moved in who have the money to contribute to the children's art carnival or the Dance Theater of Harlem or the Harlem School of the Arts. I mean, it's not just myself, it's brokers, other people who have moved in are writing large checks to these organizations, like the Studio Museum in Harlem. They weren't thriving before. Some of the organizations didn't exist before. The culture is only going to continue to be as great as it is and continue.

What you notice, though, is the complexion of the people walking down the street. In the bad old days when I moved up to Harlem, if I wanted to go shopping, you had to get on the subway and go to 42nd Street. Now I just walk down to 125th Street, and everything I want is there. And while I'm walking down the street, I see people from around the world. We get tourists from around the world, in addition to the non-African-Americans who are now residents of Harlem. So the face of Harlem is changing, but the culture is not going anywhere. The non-blacks who moved to Harlem moved there because they want the nightlife that we can offer.

COX: Willie, thank you so much for being with us today and sharing your points of view.

Ms. SUGGS: You're quite welcome.

COX: That was New York real estate broker Willie Suggs. She's been selling houses in Harlem for more than 20 years. She was at our New York studios.

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