El Barrio’s Artspace PS 109 Provides Affordable Housing for Artists But Does Not Solve Affordable Housing Issue

Originally published October 9, 2014

Gothic gargoyles perch over decorative terra cotta. Copper-clad cupolas rest atop a steeply pitched roof. A delicately outlined central stoop rises from the middle of the H-shaped building. These are just a few of the unique, exterior details exhibited on the abandoned East Harlem PS 109 schoolhouse. Amidst these artifacts, a large blue plastic sign on a fence surrounding the building reads, “Affordable Housing For New Yorkers: For more information, visit http://www.nyc.gov/hpd or Dial 311.”

Photo // Charlotte Gibson
Photo // Charlotte Gibson

With the help of Artspace, a Minnesota-based non-profit real estate developer dedicated to “artist-led community transformation,” in collaboration with El Barrio Operation Fightback, a local non-profit organization dedicated to the housing, economic, and social service needs of East Harlem, PS 109 transformed from an abandoned Gothic revival schoolhouse to an affordable housing unit for artists and their families in the matter of two years.

El Barrio’s Artspace PS 109’s mission is to serve the East Harlem community by creating permanently affordable housing for people and families committed to the arts in a neighborhood constantly threatened by gentrified real-estate developers. The project aims to preserve the essence of El Barrio by reserving at least 50% of the units for current residents of East Harlem.

“East Harlem is not like other communities. We are going through our own transition and PS 109 highlights the needs of the community. This is another piece of the puzzle. Another piece for making East Harlem a destination location for the Latino community. An opportunity to experience the flavor of El Barrio,” says El Barrio Operation Fightback Executive Director Gustavo Rosado.

The $52 million dollar conversion project broke ground two years ago on October 2, 2012 with the help of funding from Low-Income Housing Tax Credits, State and Federal Historic Tax Credits, and other city, state and federal sources. According to Artspace Asset Manager Jennifer Marmol, over 15 New York City organizations and agencies help fund this project, including NYC HPD, NYC DCA, and NYC Council.

Currently, Artspace and El Barrio Operation Fightback are in the process of reviewing 52, 352 applications for the 90 unit apartment building, with the hopes of moving in residence by the end of November.

“Many of our applicants grew up here in East Harlem and we are trying to make our best effort for the people in the community,” says Marmol. “We will start with preference-based applicants, i.e. mobile, hearing, visual impaired, and then move on to community members and municipal employees. We have reserved 57 spots for these preferences.”

Dedicated to serving the needs of the community, El Barrio’s Artspace PS 109 offers apartment units affordable to low and middle income community members based off of East Harlem’s total median income of $30,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Rents will range from around $500 to $1,000 a mont depending on unit and family size and total income. From studio apartments to two bedrooms, each unit intends to be a “live/work” environment equipped with high ceilings, large windows, durable surfaces and wide doorways to accommodate and foster the creative process of its residents.

Since the project broke ground two years ago, Artspace and El Barrio Operation Fightback have received support from Community Board 11 and political advocates within the community.

“Artspace has to be commended because their vision isn’t just a gimmick, but they are committed to artists and their families,” says Community Board 11 District Manager Angel Mescain-Archer. “It’s the challenge that our community faces. We have a large population of folks whose median income is around $30,000 and they need somewhere to live, but they can’t afford their options.”

However, many local residents remain skeptical over the development of another affordable housing option.
For East Harlem native Brendan Marmolejos, applying to another affordable housing development wasn’t even an option because he knew he’d ultimately get rejected like the rest of the people.

Marmolejos says he doesn’t necessarily identify as an artist but he would have liked to be given the chance to apply and live in a place that’s affordable and not “the projects.”

“I am skeptical because with all of these affordable housing developments, there are always pitfalls and stupid reasons why you don’t get in, like if you don’t have gray hair or aren’t seriously living on the streets. I feel like Artspace is a small step in the right direction but right now with gentrification happening, all of the original culture and people are being pushed out of El Barrio,” says Marmolejos.

Only 0.2% of the applicants will receive housing in El Barrio’s Artspace PS 109. For many East Harlem residents, they will receive denial letters within the next few weeks from Artspace and will have to prepare for the next application process.

Those rejected from PS 109 will have the opportunity to be put on the apartment building’s wait list, in the hopes of receiving an opportunity in the future to live in the artist community.

Rosado says his organization is dedicated to the people of the community and they will continue to fight for affordable housing.

“We are trying to give the people some hope. If they missed the window on Artspace, another window will open,” says Rosado. “Right now, we are helping people apply for the Yomo Toro Apartments in East Harlem.”

The Yomo Toro Apartments offer 88 newly constructed units on 222 East 104th Street in East Harlem. El Barrio Operation Fightback and Rosado are currently working with individuals and families who meet the income and household size requirement to apply to this new housing unit.

Ultimately, Rosado believes that the efforts of affordable housing developments such as Artspace and Yomo Toro cannot compete against the private developers in the community.

“We are advanced as non-profit organizations and developers but we are not going to be able to stop private developers. The major difference is that we are not for profit and they are gaining something from their developments because they have the money,” explains Rosado.

El Barrio’s Artspace PS 109 remains vacant until the end of November of this year.