An Entire Block of Latino Businesses Are Facing Eviction in Washington Heights

Lead Photo: Creative Commons "Washington Heights” by Tom Thai is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Creative Commons "Washington Heights” by Tom Thai is licensed under CC BY 2.0
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Washington Heights is often called one of Manhattan’s last true neighborhoods – but it, like the rest of the city, is trying to cling to its ÑYC spirit in the face of gentrifying forces. In 2014, Curbed ranked Washington Heights #2 in a list of the five fastest gentrifying neighborhoods in NYC, citing a 28.8% jump in the median home price in the area. But it’s not just residents who are facing displacement as rents go up – commercial tenants are also struggling to hold on to their small businesses, as buildings get bought up from underneath them and new landlords decline to renew leases.

That’s precisely the issue unfolding on a block of Broadway between W 162nd and W 163rd. In 2012, real estate investors Israel Weinberger and Steven Neuman of Coltown Properties bought a building on this block that houses 12, primarily immigrant-owned small businesses, including neighborhood joint Punta Cana, which has been serving up Dominican mofongo to Heights residents for the last 40 years.

Earlier this year, the Village Voice reports, the new landlords gave seven of these businesses an ultimatum: either pay higher rent (in some cases, nearly double what commercial renters had been paying previously) or vacate. The eviction will essentially displace an entire block of Latino-owned small businesses, all of whom are part of the fabric of the Washington Heights community.

From the Village Voice:

When the building sold, says Quenia Abreu, the president and CEO of the New York Women’s Chamber of Commerce, the new owners declined to renew the commercial rental leases at 3880 Broadway. When a lease is not renewed, whether for a residential or commercial tenant, landlords can continue renting to the existing tenant under an implied month-to-month agreement until the tenant moves out or a new lease is negotiated. That’s where the trouble usually starts for businesses that fail to force landlords to issue a new lease.

“Buildings are being sold in the community, new landlords are coming in with no regard to the community, to the businesses, even the residents that have been there a long time,” Abreu tells the Voice. “You can open a business and invest your life’s savings, $100,000, $200,000. And when the lease expires, the landlord can say, ‘I don’t want you anymore, goodbye,’ and give you 30 days.”

In March, seven businesses at 3800 Broadway, including Punta Cana, were given eviction notices and told to vacate by the end of April. The businesses’ owners were each given the option of paying higher rent — for the restaurant, nearly double the current rate of $5,000 a month. When the Santos family [owners of Punta Cana] declined because they couldn’t afford the new rent of $9,000, they were given another month’s extension and then another, when the Legal Aid Society and Councilmember Mark Levine rallied to the business owners’ cause.

“It is not cheap to open a restaurant, so for them to pick up and leave in 30 days, it’s just not possible,” Abreu says. “We forget that a lot of these community businesses are immigrant-owned, they are disadvantaged, low-income. They’re not making a lot of money. They provide employment for themselves, for their family, and for other people in the community. But they’re not a multimillion-dollar company. These are mom-and-pop stores.”

Punta Cana is the only business that decided to stay and fight the evictions. They are slated to go to court on July 2nd, but the Santos family is not optimistic about their prospects.