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The Aldanas

Text and photos by Wendy Lu
(Follow her @wendyluwrites)

Betsy Aldana is a single mother who lives in the Dempsey Apartments on 128 West 128th Street with her two daughters, Natalia, 14, and Angelina, 12. A 30-year resident of Harlem, Betsy is legally deaf and communicates with her daughters using American Sign Language. She receives Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits, which pay for her $655 monthly rent. Betsy, whose rent increased by 10 percent in 2013, worked in a grocery store until she quit in 2012.

“I felt like there was no one there to watch my two daughters,” Betsy said.

Betsy is not married and she doesn’t have a job. Her grandmother lives 20 minutes away from their apartment. The family relies solely on her’s SSI, which aids senior citizens and people with disabilities who have little to no income. 

The Aldanas moved into the Dempsey Apartments in October 2011, shortly after the affordable housing project was completed. The Dempsey Apartments is managed by Phipps Houses, a nonprofit developer of affordable housing in New York City. 

The six-story apartment building has 80 housing units that are rent stabilized, said a property manager at the Dempsey Apartments. People interested in living at the Dempsey Apartments must enter a New York City housing lottery, and their incomes are vetted before they’re granted housing. Sixty-four of the apartment units are reserved for eligible residents who make 60 percent or less than the area median income (AMI). To qualify for the other 16 units, residents must make 40 percent or less than the AMI. As a result, two people may pay different rents for the same apartment depending on their income.

Subsequent increases are based on rent stabilization, which is regulated by the city. The current maximum rent is $867 for a studio apartment, but most people – including Betsy’s family – pay less than that.

Betsy said she enjoys living in Harlem, though she isn’t sure whether her family will stay in the Dempsey Apartments in the long-term future. Previously, she lived on West 143rd Street and West 104th Street.

Magnum Foundation produced an installation of Matt Black’s The Geography of Poverty on 110th Street as a part of The Value of Food: Sustaining a Green Planet, which is on view until April 3, 2016 at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Inspired by the installation in the neighborhood where they go to school, Nina Berman’s students at the Columbia Journalism School looked locally at economic disparity in upper Manhattan.

Katerina Voegtle