Yeshiva University confirmed this week that it will soon sell 10 apartment houses in the immediate vicinity of its Washington Heights campus, helping to alleviate some of the school’s precarious financial situation, but at the same time threatening the Jewish character of the neighborhood.
The 10 buildings, home to mostly young Orthodox couples with connections to YU, offered subsidized rents to many who now fear that market-rate rent hikes from a new landlord might prompt young couples to leave the neighborhood; that could erode the already-minority Jewish atmosphere in the streets surrounding the campus.
In the past decade, Washington Heights has been the single fastest-growing Jewish community in New York, with 40 percent of that growth being young people between 18 and 39. Until about a decade ago, most of that Jewish growth had not been in the YU area but in one with better housing, once known as Frankfurt-on-Hudson for its German-Jewish texture. Questions of safety and the severely hilly neighborhood limited foot-traffic between that side and he YU side. Yeshiva’s purchase of the 10 buildings virtually adjacent to its campus, led to a considerable influx of young Jewish tenants (YU would not say how many) to the YU side, as well.
The university issued a statement acknowledging the sale process “as part of the ongoing efforts to strengthen our institution’s financial position and continue investing in our future. The University is pleased to have been part of the transformation of our local Washington Heights neighborhood into a vibrant and flourishing campus environment, and looks forward to continuing to build this important community.” The university would not respond further to any questions about the sale, or new impositions on the tenants, such as YU eliminating the daily bus that 50 women used to commute between Washington Heights and the campus of YU’s Stern College for Women on 34th Street.
One tenant who is familiar with the real estate negotiations told The Jewish Week that the university is hoping to arrange for any new owner to designate a portion of the apartments for tenants connected to the YU community, but no one from the university would confirm that.
Any revenue from selling the buildings will be sorely needed. The university has been plagued by ongoing budget deficits, some $300 million since 2010, in addition to being defrauded of nearly $100 million in 2008 in the infamous Ponzi scheme by Bernard Madoff, a YU trustee. YU’s economic tailspin prompted Moody’s Investors Service to recently slash its rating to Baa2, what Bloomberg News called “an unprecedented four levels below investment grade, spurring investors to sell Yeshiva debt.”
Bloomberg News quoted Emily Schwarz, an analyst at Moody’s in New York who focuses on higher education, saying of Yeshiva’s problems, “It’s about their management.”
The buildings to be sold (403 and 407 Audubon Ave.; 90 Laurel Hill Terrace, the street directly east of the campus; 497 W. 182nd St.; 501 W. 184th St.; 521, 551 and 555 W. 185th St.; 475 W. 186th St.; and 480 W. 187th St.) are mostly six-story pre-war buildings “in good shape,” with elevators, and many apartments with sunken living rooms. A month’s rent for a one-bedroom is said to range from $900 to $1,200, but is likely to rise considerably without YU subsidies.
Julian Horowitz, a founding member of the Maccabeats, the popular Jewish singing group, lives with his wife in one of the YU buildings. He said it was always nice having a campus neighborhood, rather than the school being isolated in that part of the Heights. He recalled that at some yeshivas in Israel “it was always nice to have yeshiva alumni gathered around a yeshiva. YU never really succeeded in pulling that off. They bought these buildings trying to create something like that, and to some extent they succeeded, but now the future is uncertain. It’s unfortunate.”
Horowitz added that he was grateful to YU and loved being part of the community. “We hope that we can continue being part of that community, even if we’re not two blocks away anymore,” he said of himself and his wife.
Without facts provided by YU, the tenants are left with rumors and hearsay. “No one knows what actually is going to happen,” said Horowitz. “They sent us an email, saying they’re planning on selling the building; whether that means everyone is kicked out or everyone stays, who knows?”
Hannah Dreyfus, editor of The Observer, Stern’s student newspaper, who with her husband lives in one of the buildings put up for sale, told The Jewish Week that if the rents are raised significantly, the students and post-graduates “might disperse and find other options.” A possible rent hike would adversely affect many of the recent graduates, since some “don’t have jobs yet.”
Tenants fear a loss of community if some are forced to move. Dreyfus, a former editorial intern at The Jewish Week, said there is a great feeling of fellowship in the overwhelmingly Jewish buildings. “If there is bad weather,” said Dreyfus, “someone will have a minyan in his apartment. People are constantly going to each other’s homes for small favors or Shabbat dinners. You really feel the difference when you move from the ‘regular’ Washington Heights to a YU building. Anything outside the perimeter” of the 10 buildings “is a very different Washington Heights. … You shouldn’t walk there alone at night.”
She suggested that some tenants “might end up moving” to the German side of the Heights, though Horowitz said “That is practically a different neighborhood.”
Dreyfus added, “That side is gentrifying pretty quickly. It already has a significant Jewish population, it is known as the safer side of the Heights, and that is the side where people have already been moving who can’t get YU housing.” That side also is home to the area’s one Orthodox day school, Yeshiva Samson Raphael Hirsch, and access to parks.
The sale of the buildings have been accompanied by other cuts, such as the replacement of the 50-seat shuttle bus to Stern with a 15-seat van reserved for students in certain graduate programs. Without the bus, the trip to Stern will require taking three different subways. One Stern student who lives in the Heights told the Observer, “Yes, this change is harsh enough as it is, but even worse is the manner in which this decision was made. No warning, no consultation, no conversation — just cuts.”
Other fears were voiced in The Commentator, Yeshiva College’s student newspaper in the Heights, where an editorial noted that over two-thirds of the university’s housekeeping staff have already left, some academic departments “are now being asked to slash 20 percent of operating costs [and] rabbis who don’t have ‘chazaka’ (similar to tenure) have begun looking elsewhere, knowing that layoffs loom.”
Yes, Yeshiva University is in a financial crisis and the cuts “may convince creditors that YU is making the right steps,” said the Commentator, but cut too deep and “you’ve ripped the heart and soul out of the college. And that’s a price too high to pay.”