Ed Poteat at his office in Harlem.
Those who grew up in Harlem’s rougher years may hardly recognize the neighborhood today, now home to an American Eagle, Whole Foods, and a lot more white people. While some criticize gentrification, others see a brighter side – including Ed Poteat, 47, an affordable housing developer who grew up on 110th and is now leaving his own mark on the neighborhood.
“The best program to fix impoverished communities is gentrification,” Poteat told the audience at TedXBroadway in 2018. “It’s horrible when local businesses are dislocated and people have to move because of gentrification. But those residents who get to stay have better public health, better public safety, better retail options – an overall better quality of life.”
Instead, Poteat’s firm, Carthage Advisors, works with the forces of change to carve out spaces for lower-income New Yorkers. Carthage recently broke ground on Marcus Garvey Village, a 330-unit, $200 million project that will fill an entire block on 124th Street. It expects to close on financing with the Department of Housing and Preservation Development in June.
The project will be split 50-50 between market rate and affordable housing, with the affordable units priced for people who earn 80% of the area median income — about $77,000 for a family of three. That matches the preferred affordability breakdown issued by the local community board, on which Poteat previous served, and earned the project a quick green light.
For the first time, Poteat’s firm is partnering with West Harlem Development Corporation, a nonprofit formed by Columbia University as part of a community benefits agreement. WHDC is putting $2 million — its largest-ever investment — into the affordable side of the deal. They will also run a month-long job-training program to prepare locals to work on the construction.
“To preserve the culture Harlem is known for, we also need to preserve the legacy people,” said Kofi Boateng, the executive director of West Harlem Development Corporation.
Boateng, who grew up in Ghana, first crossed paths with Poteat while the latter was teaching a graduate course at Columbia on community benefits agreements. “You sort of notice — there’s not many minorities in the development area,” Boateng said. As it turned out, both men had done their undergraduate work at Yale.
An Ivy-league degree had been hard for Poteat to imagine as he walked the rough-and-tumble streets of Harlem as a kid. He was mugged at gunpoint not once but twice before he reached his teens. One year, he remembers, the local school he attended didn’t have enough pencils.
“I remember feeling like the magical ‘they’ were doing things to us and not knowing why. I was always like, ‘They should fix this — lower the crime, build housing, fix the neighborhood,’” said Poteat. “And it’s like, well, who’s they? We felt very disempowered, trying to figure out who are they, what do they do, can they be incentivized to help us.”
But Poteat got lucky: his academic talents caught the eye of the Prep for Prep program, which helped him test into Horace Mann, one of the top private schools in the city. His first visit to the sprawling Fieldston campus reminded him of a college. From there, Yale didn’t feel so far away. He earned degrees in Economics and Urban Planning, then returned to the city for a Master’s Urban Planning from Hunter College. After a fellowship with the state economic development agency, Poteat worked in real estate investment and mortgage banking at Chase Manhattan.
In 1995 he and partner Robert Horsford started up their own development firm to work on residential projects in “up-and-coming” zones like Harlem, East New York and New Jersey. Poteat struck out on his own in 2007 with the founding of Carthage Advisors. With the city booming, he found people would go anywhere for a decent price: “If you build it, they will come.”
But that wasn’t the case everywhere, as he learned from a short-lived attempt to expand to Baltimore. Though a lifelong New Yorker, Poteat was compelled by the plight of once-great American cities, like Detroit and St. Louis, that missed out on the “miracle” wave of immigration he credits with turning around his own city. In his 2013 book “The Fiscal Cliff,” Poteat urged urban planners in such cities to embrace “planned shrinkage” to improve overall quality of life.
In New York, Poteat watched anxiously as the recession thinned the ranks of local community groups who funded affordable housing and led commercial banks to tighten lending restrictions for smaller firms and projects. Needing capital, he found an unlikely new partner in private equity – an industry more often maligned for tearing communities down than building them up.
“What’s changed post-recession is that affordable housing has become a lot more of a big business. You have hundreds of thousands of people waiting for you to build it, so you never have an issue with the market going down,” said Poteat. “There’s always private equity out there, and if you can direct it in a certain place you can actually do good things.”
Back in Harlem at Marcus Garvey Village, that means giving not just his own tenants a place to call home, but also inviting in the community at large. The building’s ground floor will house several LGBTQ advocacy organizations that have struggled to hold onto affordable space in the neighborhood. An event space on the roof will be available for cultural and community events.
Boateng, Poteat’s partner at WHDC, gives him credit for leading the vision and execution of the project while seeking out feedback from others in the community.
“Ed is carrying the water in this — the burden of making sure all this money is spent well is on him,” said Boateng. “But I appreciate that he actually listens to me and makes changes.”
In Harlem and around the city, the need for affordable housing in the city shows no signs of slowing. To Poteat, it’s no existential threat to the city — it’s just business.
“As long as New York City continues to be a great city, and the Amazons and Facebooks of the world want to come here, there’s no way to stop gentrification,” said Poteat. “Unless you make it a bad city, there’s no way to stop it.”
His focus is on making sure affordable housing remains part of the fabric of the neighborhood so that the kids walking by his office on Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard can remain part of Harlem’s latest renaissance as adults, just as he has.
“That’s what I’ve been up to for the past 20-odd years — becoming ‘they,’” Poteat said. “As a part of they, I’m trying to exercise that power right.”