Advocates are calling for Columbia to offer affordable housing to its Morningside Heights neighbors

Columbia University has long provided off-campus housing for graduate students, faculty and others affiliated with the university. But as the school continues to expand its already gargantuan footprint, some neighbors in Morningside Heights are calling for the university to also offer affordable housing to non-Columbia residents.

“We think it’s a good way to preserve diversity in our community,” said Dan McSweeney, an organizer with the JUST Housing Committee, a group recently formed by members of the Morningside Heights Community Coalition and other residents. He and others who spoke at a meeting Sunday expressed fears that Columbia would create a monoculture and push out longtime residents.

“We want to be a real neighborhood, and that means we have to have people living here who have different means,” McSweeney said.

One of the largest landlords in the city, Columbia currently manages 150 buildings with more than 8,000 residents, mostly located in Morningside Heights.

The JUST Housing Committee held a meeting with other housing activists near the Columbia campus at West 114th Street and Broadway, highlighting core demands and concerns as some students walking by stopped to listen.

JUST Housing is asking Columbia to set aside affordable units for people not affiliated with the university in its new developments — including properties Columbia recently acquired on West 112th Street and on the site of a former McDonald’s on West 125th Street. They also encourage the university to preserve existing rent-regulated units even after tenants die or move out, and to pass some of them on to community members not affiliated with the university. Those suggestions were included in a report the group submitted to Columbia administrators in August.

Organizers said they have yet to receive a direct response from the university. But in a statement, Ben Chang, a spokesman for Columbia, said, “We always welcome feedback and ideas from our neighbors about how we can help meet the needs of our community. We are reviewing the proposal and look forward to continuing to engage constructively with our neighbours, community leaders and elected officials on a range of issues of common interest.”

The Morningside Heights Community Coalition has worked with city council members since 2016 to advocate for the neighborhood to be rezoned so that new private developments must set aside a portion of their units for affordable housing. Dave Robinson, the group’s president, said at the meeting that it would only be fair that similar rules apply to Columbia University as well.

Councilman Shaun Abreu said he supports the new proposals from the JUST housing committee. “This would promote desperately needed safe and affordable housing and ensure our neighbors can comfortably remain in their homes,” Abreu said in a statement provided by JUST Housing. “I look forward to working with community stakeholders to make progress on this critical issue.”

Some speakers argued that Columbia has a mutual interest in keeping the neighborhood diverse because it makes it more attractive.

“Morningside Heights is an incredibly special community, and that’s not always recognized by Columbia, which prefers to see it as a corporate town,” said Barry Weinberg, chairman of Manhattan Community Board 9, which includes Morningside Heights and other areas . the crowd gathered on Sunday. “Community Board 9 … stands for keeping Morningside Heights a real community full of real people.”

Weinberg and other speakers also expressed support for the Red Balloon Early Childhood Learning Center, a nonprofit preschool slated to be evicted from a property owned by Columbia after being housed there rent-free since the 1970s.

“It will have a huge effect on affordable child care in the neighborhood,” said Annapurna Potluri Schreiber, president of the school’s parent board, who also spoke at the meeting.

Potluri Schreiber said Columbia intends to terminate the school’s lease at the end of the academic year and suggested it was a ploy to cash in on the space.

But Chang, the Columbia spokesman, said it was a decision “based on our expectations for Columbia-affiliated early learning centers.” He did not specify which standards the school is failing to meet, but said learning centers affiliated with the university must “maintain consistent leadership and adhere to other standards established by Columbia.”

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