The Real Deal New York

WaHI: island’s top with bottom prices

October 15, 2007
By Tom Acitelli

Stretching to the northern tip of Manhattan, Washington Heights and Inwood cover the last three square miles of the island from 155th Street to the Harlem River. They are arguably the city’s oldest neighborhoods – the Dutch supposedly bought Manhattan Island from the Lenape tribe in 1626 in what is now Inwood Hill Park. Both areas are among the fastest-growing and the least expensive on the island, drawing people fleeing the pricier digs farther south.

Washington Heights and Inwood – sometimes dubbed WaHI by locals – added nearly 30,000 residents in the past quarter-century, according to the city planning department. Most of its more than 208,000 residents live in apartment buildings along streets with wide sidewalks. The area is more than half open space and parkland – and less than 12 percent commercial.

These land-use numbers, coupled with the neighborhoods’ lower rents, make WaHI a bargain for that certain breed of Manhattanite who wouldn’t think of skipping the island for an outer borough, but who can’t quite swing $2,500 a month for a Chelsea studio.

“The rental market and the buying market is still much lower than the market below 110th Street,” said Klara Madlin, owner of Klara Madlin Real Estate. “However, it has gone up significantly in the last year or two, and I believe this will definitely continue.”

More than 94 percent of the residential units in WaHI are rentals, according to the city planning department, and their average monthly rents are generally half what they would be in other Manhattan neighborhoods. A one- or two-bedroom in WaHI rents for between $800 and $1,500, according to various sources. A one-bedroom generally costs $100,000, according to Manhattan Apartments Inc., and a three-bedroom can start at $200,000 – this during a year when the average price of a Manhattan apartment cleared $1 million for the first time.

This real estate landscape pulls in a mix of second-generation Latinos, recent immigrants, young professionals, and struggling artists. The Latino population of WaHI increased 16.3 percent during the 1990s, and the neighborhoods are now nearly three-quarters Latino, the majority with origins in the Dominican Republic.

WaHI is also young: Forty-one percent of its residents are ages 20 to 44. Post-collegiate professionals taking those first tentative steps into the real world and couples with young children are taking advantage of the lower prices, particularly for rentals with bedrooms. Artists, particularly musicians, have staked a claim to Inwood as a cheaper alternative to the lower Manhattan neighborhoods like Soho and the East Village, which welcomed their artistic predecessors.

The area’s first real boom came in the early 1930s, after the completion of the George Washington Bridge, and the Eighth Avenue subway line reached 207th Street. For decades, WaHI remained a northern stretch that lower Manhattan residents rarely considered, let alone visited, and the city often neglected the area. By the 1970s, the area was known more for crime than anything else. However, over the last decade, WaHI has seen a steady decline in violent crime and drug dealing, opening it up to a larger number of new arrivals.

Robert Kleinbardt has lived in WaHI for a quarter-century. About 13 years ago he founded New Heights Realty in Inwood, giving him a keen view of the changes in both neighborhoods. He said the single biggest groups of recent WaHI arrivals hail from the Upper West Side, noting that the neighborhood itself was once a destination for those looking for an inexpensive Manhattan address.

WaHI might not be cheap much longer. Recent legislation is freeing its landlords from rent stabilization, and long-time tenants are being priced out of many WaHI buildings. The vacant apartments are selling for prices unheard of a decade ago, and the free-market land rush has made WaHI a broker’s delight.

“There’s just so little available,” Kleinbardt said. “Everything that comes on the market lately goes fairly quickly, and often there’s bidding wars.”

Since the late 1980s, co-ops have been on the rise in WaHI, according to brokers, with demand outstripping supply. Many landlords are also looking to convert their rental buildings soon into co-ops, Madlin said.

The northward creep of people seeking cheaper rentals and purchases in WaHI is starting to transform the neighborhoods from predominantly Latino enclaves of affordable living into a younger version of the Upper West Side and its smaller cousin, Morningside Heights, the neighborhood around Columbia University, which has rents similar to WaHI.

“The housing in Washington Heights and Inwood consists of many prewar building which are similar to the Upper West Side,” Madlin says. “I think that the area will be undergoing conversions similar to what happened on the Upper West Side 20 years ago.”

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