Yeshiva University confirmed this week that it will be selling 10 apartment houses in the vicinity of its Washington Heights campus to help alleviate the school’s difficult financial situation. The buildings, home to mostly young Orthodox families with connections to YU, have been subsidized by the school, and several tenants fear market-rate rent hikes might lead the tenants to move elsewhere, threatening the Jewish revival and atmosphere in the mostly Dominican streets surrounding the school.
Yeshiva officials 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 in the future,” the statement continued.
Washington Heights has been the single fastest growing Jewish community in the eight downstate New York counties in the past decade, with 40 percent of that growth coming from young people between the ages of 18 and 39. Much of the Jewish growth had not been near YU but on the west side of Broadway, an area with better housing stock that was once known as Frankfort-on-Hudson for its German Jewish texture. But approximately 10 years ago, in the severely hilly and sometimes unsafe neighborhood, Yeshiva’s purchase of these 10 buildings much closer to the campus led to a Jewish population surge on the YU side of Washington Heights as well.
The mostly six-story, pre-war buildings, with elevators and sunken living rooms, are said by tenants to be “in good shape.” The buildings are located between 182nd and 185th Streets, and Audubon Avenue and Laurel Hill Terrace, the street directly east of the campus. Some tenants said a month’s rent for a one-bedroom was typically $1,100 but they feared it could rise to $1,600 or more, without the YU subsidies.
A price has not been set for the buildings, but any profit will be sorely needed. The university has been plagued by ongoing budget deficits, as well as being defrauded in 2008 of nearly $100 million by Bernard Madoff, a YU trustee who is now in prison. YU’s economic tailspin led Moody’s Investors Service to recently slash its rating to what Bloomberg News called “an unprecedented four levels below investment grade, spurring investors to sell Yeshiva debt.”
Hannah Dreyfus, editor of The Observer, Yeshiva’s student newspaper at its Stern College for Women, and a married resident of one of the buildings put up for sale, told The Jewish Week that tenants were notified by e-mail “about a month ago,” with information still to come about how the sale would be affecting the tenants. If the rents are raised significantly, she said, 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 also fear the loss of community, as there is a greater feeling of fellowship in the YU 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.”
Asked to explain, she said, “Have you been to Washington Heights? It is just a completely different demographic. You shouldn’t walk there alone at night.”
She suggested that young couples “might end up moving to the other side,” west of Broadway. “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 has access to parks.
Moody’s had cut YU’s credit rating to Baa2, the second lowest rung. Bloomberg News quoted Margaret Soltan, an associate professor of literature at George Washington University, who said “What’s very heartbreaking about Yeshiva is that it attracts these very sincere, spiritual people yet it is revealing itself to be such a catastrophe. … It’s a catastrophe for the community that the leadership there has managed to screw it up.”
In October, Moody’s reported that “an upgrade or return to a stable outlook is unlikely in the medium term.” The revenues from the building sales will help, but more cuts are expected, closer to the bone.