Can Harlem Stay Black?

Black residents arrived to Harlem after 1905, as part of the Great Migration that saw Blacks flood northern cities like Chicago and Detroit. By the 1930s the Harlem Renaissance took place, and was probably one of the greatest cornerstones of African-American art history. The iconic Apollo opened during that period, a venue for almost exclusively African-American artists. And although the Black population in Harlem peaked in the 1950s, Latino residents have joined African-Americans to continue the Afro/Carib culture in the community.

If any place in New York City was Black, it was Harlem. And now some are asking how long before Harlem is Black no more?

Since New York City’s economic revival in the late 1980s, gentrification has become a more commonly heard phrase, growing into a hotly debated issue in the City’s formerly “written off” neighborhoods.

Williamsburg, Crown Heights, even Bed-Stuy, and of course Harlem have experienced gentrification.

Last month, a Harlem townhouse sold for $4 million.

In this economic environment, it’s understandable that some do wonder if Black people can afford to remain in a neighborhood they were historically (and ironically) redlined into. We investigated, and the answer is surprising.

First, some foundation. In 2008, 153,000 Blacks lived in Harlem according to the NY Times, but estimates from the 2010 Census could put that number as low as 100,000 or about 40% of the neighborhood’s population. Blacks are the largest single race in any Harlem neighborhood, at least twice as large as the second largest race.

According to Zillow, the average household income in Harlem is $21,466, or $10,733 per individual adult. This places the average Harlem resident below the NYC poverty line (but notably, above the Federal poverty line).

Now the frightening part; a studio apartment in Harlem rents for $1,350 per month, average, according to Zillow. But, the average household in Harlem is at least 2 people, closer to 3, so it’s more realistic to consider rent for a 2 bedroom apartment, which runs $2,100 monthly, on average.

According to the above assumptions, the average Harlem individual would have to spend 151% of their income on rent to live alone. Roommates sharing a 2 bedroom apartment, or parents who want a different room from their child would need to spend 117% of their income on rent.

Rent above 25% of income is not considered “affordable” by most landlords, according to CBS. For a household to afford living in Harlem, they would need to make at least $100,800 annually.

Yes, at current market rates, living in Harlem is unaffordable for the average Harlem resident. How people remain in the neighborhood is explained by affordable housing and income supplements. At least 41% of Harlem’s residents are receiving some form of income supplementation, and Harlem may be home to the most NYCHA properties.

But it doesn’t end there. Who could afford to live in Harlem?

Nationally, Black households make about $40,000 on average. The average African-American household would need to spend 63% of its rent to live in Harlem.

The national average income doesn’t give us a good idea of how much Blacks make in or near Harlem though. Considering the difference between the national Black household average income, and the average household income of majority-Black Harlem, it’s safe to assume that the average Black household in Harlem makes about $30,000 annually. With that in mind, the average Black Harlem household, probably not receiving income supplementation at this point either, would need to spend 84% of its income on rent to live in Harlem.

Don’t even think about how that leaves around 16% of income ideally to purchase food, entertainment, and save.

The above data makes it clear that the average African-American household could barely afford to live in Harlem, and wouldn’t be able to do much else but live either. Even worse, the average Black household in Harlem can’t afford to live there without income supplements, and even then they can’t afford to participate in the neighborhood’s economics or invest in building wealth.
Red Rooster in Harlem New York City

With Blacks ruled out, there’s legitimate reason to fear that Harlem won’t stay Black, especially without affordable and public housing near. So who can afford to live in Harlem, who is moving into the neighborhood?

The decline in White residents in Harlem stopped in the 1980s, according to the NY Times. But, since 2000, the number of White residents has steadily climbed. Can they, or anyone, afford to live in Harlem?

The average American household would need to spend 47% of their income on rent if they lived in Harlem, 16 percentage points lower than what African-Americans would need to spend. The average NYC household, with lower income than the average American’s due to the city’s diversity, would need to spend 49% of their income, 35 points lower than what we estimate the average Black Harlem resident would need to spend. Both the average American and average NYer would be able to live in Harlem and build sustainable wealth faster than Blacks nationally or locally.

All of this means that, although not for certain, life in Harlem seems virtually unsustainable for Black residents, and will probably grow more so over time. While life seems barely affordable now for those replacing Harlem’s original residents, if the cost of living doesn’t begin to decrease the market will naturally bring higher income residents in – and continue to displace lower income residents until the average annual household income reaches $80k to $90k.

Can Harlem stay Black may no longer be the important question, even more important: can Harlem be affordable once again?

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