Spotlight on Washington Heights

A summer afternoon on St. Nicholas Avenue. Image: CHPC
A summer afternoon on St. Nicholas Avenue. Image: CHPC

CHPC’s Making Neighborhoods study of demographic change in New York City offers a unique way to look at the city’s neighborhoods. Rather than identifying neighborhoods by a single trait—race, income, education level, and so on—the Making Neighborhoods data model uses a cluster analysis method to perform an intersectional study comparing the 2010 decennial census to the 2000 data.

In this series of Spotlights, we take a deeper dive into specific neighborhoods where noteworthy changes took place. Our first Spotlight neighborhood is Washington Heights, located at the northern end of Manhattan, a neighborhood most people think of as being mostly Hispanic—a stereotype that masks some of the fascinating changes happening there.

Washington Heights stretches roughly 50 blocks north from 155th Street. Because Manhattan Island is so narrow at that point, Washington Heights typically gets split up into “north” and “south” halves. The Making Neighborhoods map, on the other hand, shows an east-west divide that, for the most part, begins at Broadway (or in some places, Fort Washington Avenue, one block west). To the west of this divide, our map shows the growth of majority-white, middle- and upper-income population clusters.

Washington Heights in context with its neighbors
Washington Heights in context with its neighbors. Image: CHPC

What did Making Neighborhoods say about Washington Heights?

There were four main population types present in the neighborhood in the year 2000, the beginning of our study period:
• Low-middle income Hispanic families
• Low-income Hispanic families & singles
• Low-income black families & singles
• Middle- and upper-income white families & singles

At the southern end of the neighborhood, bordering Hamilton Heights, the low-income cluster of black singles and families disappeared entirely, making way for a middle-income, majority-white cluster that brought a large increase in couples living without children, as well as the low-income, majority-Hispanic cluster.

Along the western side of the neighborhood, there was a large expansion of a very-high income, majority white cluster. That cluster was present in one census tract along the riverfront north of 181st Street in 2000, but expanded to the south and east by 2010. The middle-income majority white cluster also expanded, just to the south of 181st Street. Whereas the high-income white cluster moved into blocks that were previously identified with the middle-income white cluster, the latter primarily moved into areas that were identified with the low-middle-income Hispanic cluster. The image below clearly shows that transition.

The transition of population clusters representing majority white households (blue and teal) and majority Hispanic households (light and dark green) in western Washington Heights. Image: CHPC

In two census tracts at the northeastern end of the neighborhood, between 187th/188th Streets and Fort George Avenue, the low-middle income Hispanic cluster gave way to the low-income Hispanic cluster. A widespread decrease in household income would be a bad sign for the neighborhood, especially as rents continue to rise.

The transition between the low-income Hispanic cluster (dark green) and low-middle-income Hispanic cluster (light green).
The transition between the low-income Hispanic cluster (dark green) and low-middle-income Hispanic cluster (light green). Image: CHPC

Digging deeper

What was behind this downward shift in income? Because the changes in race, household income, and age were not very significant—both clusters are majority-Hispanic, have an even mix of age groups—it was most likely the result of a subtler change. For example, the low-income cluster has a significant black population, whereas the low-middle cluster instead has a notable (but not as large) white population. Alternatively, the low-income cluster has significantly more single-person households, fewer couples with children, and more childless couples than the low-middle income cluster. Data from the NYC Department of City Planning shows that these two tracts had significant decreases in children and large increases in those older than 55. Similarly, the DCP data also shows an increase in one- and two-person households, and a decrease in every other household size, across the neighborhood. So a change along any of these lines would also help trigger the cluster shift that our map displays.

From a housing perspective, the demographic changes are extremely interesting. Washington Heights is a fairly dense neighborhood, with the vast majority zoned R8 or R7-2, which allow for density similar to what one sees in Harlem or along the Grand Concourse. The predominant building heights are six floors or less—the vast majority of which are five or six stories tall—though there are several towers of more than 20 floors.

Adding indicators of distress to the Making Neighborhoods map—HPD code violations (Class B or C, which are generally more severe) to indicate physical distress and lis pendens filings (which signal the start of the foreclosure process) and foreclosure auctions for financial distress—add another layer of complexity to Washington Heights. Financial distress was relatively low, which is understandable given the low homeownership rate in the neighborhood.

A snapshot of the financial distress of Washington Heights's housing stock. Bubbles represent the filing of lis pendens notices, which start the foreclosure process. Image: CHPC
A snapshot showing the relative lack of financial distress in Washington Heights’s housing stock. Bubbles represent the filing of lis pendens notices, which start the foreclosure process. Image: CHPC

The area suffers from a large number of violations, however—specifically in the majority-Hispanic census tracts. Whereas some of the majority-white tracts saw violations total between 200 and 600 in the year 2015, violations were far more numerous east of Broadway: some tracts counted over 2,000 violations and one tract that straddles Broadway from 158th to 165th Streets with over 4,200.

A snapshot of the physical distress of Washington Heights's housing stock. Each bubble represents housing code violations.
A snapshot showing the relatively severe physical distress of Washington Heights’s housing stock. Each bubble represents housing code violations. Image: CHPC

We found that the rate of renter occupancy tended to correlate directly with violations. However, even though the low- and low-middle income Hispanic clusters have very high renter occupancy, the rates of violations were higher than other clusters with similar or even greater rates of renters. In this part of Washington Heights, these particular population clusters appeared to have from one to three violations per unit, on average, compared with less than one violation per ten units in the majority white population clusters. This is a clear signal to city government that the physical conditions of buildings is insufficient.

Moving forward in Washington Heights
One of the lessons of the Making Neighborhoods analysis model is that it is foolish, if not impossible, to predict future demographic change. In our study, the population cluster that shrank at the fastest rate was the only one with no race majority. In a previous iteration that studied the same changes from 1990 and 2000, that same heterogeneous cluster was the fastest-growing. Because our model takes a point-A-to-point-B snapshot, one must be careful not to extrapolate or make false causal claims about the dynamics of neighborhood change.

Still, our analysis does show that change was happening in Washington Heights in the previous decade. This fact raises important questions that the housing community—government, industry, and analysts—must follow in the coming years.

Most of the neighborhood has over a quarter of its households living in poverty. That is not entirely a housing story, of course, but if there is a shortage of healthy and safe housing options, any upwardly aspirational household will look to move elsewhere.

What neighborhoods elsewhere in the city have seen similar demographic changes in recent years? Drawing comparisons leads one to the city’s well-known Hispanic enclaves in other boroughs—Elmhurst, the South Bronx, or Sunset Park. Of those, Washington Heights has perhaps the best transit access to jobs in Midtown and Lower Manhattan, making it an attractive option for workers and job-seekers.

What government agencies should focus their work here? The government should work to make Washington Heights a neighborhood with resources to improve housing conditions without a de facto slum clearance program. Clearly, the parallel problems of poverty and poor housing conditions deserve attention from city agencies and the local service organizations they partner with.

What role will Washington Heights play in future housing development? The neighborhood’s neighbor to the north, Inwood, was the center of attention in 2016 as a proposal to bring a 15-story building to an existing low-rise block just north of Washington Heights failed due to a lack of support from their shared New York City Council Member, Ydanis Rodriguez. Whether the strong community opposition was at root a desire for more public subsidy for income-targeted housing or simply NIMBYism, it will be interesting to watch the evolution of the government’s highly politicized efforts to build as many subsidized apartments as possible.

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