Decrepit To Epic — An Entire Block Of Harlem Brownstones Is Transformed To Affordable Housing

It took well over a decade and $200 million to give Harlem residents their homes and neighborhood back.

By Jeff Vasishta January 5, 2017

It’s the kind of thing urban real estate developers dream about, getting a whole block of historic brownstones in the Big Apple to renovate. That dream almost became a nightmare when, over a decade ago, the New York City Housing Authority emptied out 22 decaying tenement buildings, some 307 units in all, on the south side of 114th Street in central Harlem, in order to renovate them. However, what should have taken three years ended up taking twelve as the project lurched from one crisis to another.

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The Randolph Houses renovation, when fully complete, is expected to have cost a total of $198.5 million reports NY Yimby with each apartment costing the princely sum of $750,000. The story begins in 2000 when the NYCHA (New York City Housing Authority) realized that the 36 buildings they had purchased on either side of the block and converted to public housing were about as decrepit as they could be and unfit for human habitation. They planned to demolish the lot and build new structures, fearing the mold and disrepair would be too costly to repair. However, New York State Historic Preservation Office declared that the city couldn’t tear down the historic walk-ups.

The city spent six years relocating 159 families from the south side of the block to apartments on the north side or to other public housing developments. Meanwhile, 130 households remained in the brownstones on the north side, waiting for the housing agency to repair. A further three years were spent on deciding how to redevelop the site and not destroy its 19th century details.

In 2010, a plan was decided upon with architects and preservation experts. Harlem’s building legacy would survive on the outside. On the inside brand, new buildings were to be born. The contract was awarded to Boston based developer Trinity Financial who broke ground in 2014 and completed Phase One of the project last year. Residents, many of them former occupants began moving back in early 2016, stunned at the transformation of the studios to four bedroom apartments. In November, workers began demolishing the interiors of the 14 brownstones on the north side of the block. Their 145 apartments will be rehabbed into 115 below-market units, ranging once again from studios to four-bedrooms. The extra room accounts for larger bedrooms with closets, as per code and public areas such as yoga and computer rooms. In total by 2018, Randolph Houses’ 452 tiny apartments will have been reconfigured into 283 modern units.

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There little disputing that the almost $200 million in costs to renovate was excessive (money came from: the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, NYCHA funded $41.5 million of Phase 1, which cost $95.5 million. The second phase will be financed by a mix of public and private sources, including tax credits for low income housing and historic restoration, for a projected $64 million.) The combination of time delays and exacting preservation, sky-rocked the costs but tenants, many of them life-long Harlem residents with low incomes are thrilled to be back in their old neighborhood, much of which is now beyond their reach financially.

“There were rats coming into people’s apartments,” 72-year-old Robertus Coleman, who has lived in Randolph Houses for 40 years and heads its tenant association, told NY Yimby. “A lot of the ceilings were leaking. Some had holes that were patched and never repaired. So it wasn’t a very healthy or happy place to live at the time. But we had a place to live, we weren’t homeless, so we made the best of a bad situation. So many of the residents passed away before the completion, so I’m overjoyed and very grateful,” Coleman explained. “It’s simply beautiful.”

Jeff Vasishta



Jeff is a writer, husband and father but not necessarily in that order. As a music journalist he counts Prince, Beyonce and Quincy Jones amongst those he’s interviewed. He's also owned and flipped homes in Brooklyn, NJ, CT and PA.

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