By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
On the Upper West Side, landlords converting an old rooming house into a tourist hotel are doing so much demolition work, the remaining tenants wear hardhats to the bathroom. In another building, on Amsterdam Avenue, tenants in a single-room occupancy (SRO) hotel say their landlord has offered them cash, hoping they will make way for a higher-paying clientele. And on West 94th Street, prosecutors are investigating the April death of a disabled man who succumbed to burns after workers turned off sprinklers while illegally converting the SRO to a tourist-class hotel.
Throughout Manhattan, SRO tenants face an onslaught of pressure from landlords who want them to move and be replaced with more lucrative renters, usually students or tourists happy to pay $100 a night for a room. Along with demolition and co-op and condo conversions, budget hotels are slicing into the already-diminished stock of SROs, the city's most affordable private housing. Fewer than 45,000 rooms remain, down from 53,000 in 1985. That depletion threatens SRO renters, many of whom are elderly or disabled, and most of whom have incomes under $10,000 a year. Astonishingly, nearly a third pay 80 percent of their income for rent.
"These tenants basically have no options because landlords aren't renting at those levels any more," says Betsy Kane of the West Side SRO Law Project. "They can move to the outer boroughs, or with relatives, or become homeless."
Fifteen years ago, the city passed laws to preserve SRO housing. But now, some owners find the lure of a bustling economy and record tourism so irresistible, they break that law. Worse, the city itself often ignores it.
"It's the market that's destroying SRO housing," says Terry Poe, an organizer in Kane's office. "All you have to do to ensure that that happens is to simply not interfere. That's exactly what the city has done."
Under a 1983 city law, SRO owners can-not do major alterations until they win a "certificate of no harassment" from the department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD); with no certificate, landlords cannot get necessary permits from the Department of Buildings (DOB). The law often fails, partly because DOB relies on landlords to report if a building is an SRO--a fact permit applicants sometimes falsify. That provision would be scrapped under a City Council bill introduced last year by Councilwoman Ronnie Eldridge. Her measure would require--rather than allow--DOB to issue stop-work orders when permits are not in place and to revoke improperly granted permits.
For most of last year, Eldridge's bill languished in the council's housing committee. But earlier this month, SRO advocates were encouraged when committee chair Archie Spigner scheduled a hearing on the bill for September 18. But at the last minute, the hearing was canceled.
Spigner's staff says the hearing was "deferred" because their boss was out of town. But sources wonder if two calls to Spigner opposing the bill--one from DOB and one from the city's largest landlord group--influenced the hearing's fate.
"I know Archie heard from DOB and the RSA," the Rent Stabilization Association, a powerful landlord lobby, says one council source. "But we always knew they were op-posed. So I'm confused why we went through this little exercise."
Frank Ricci, the RSA's governmental-affairs director, told the Voice he doubted Spigner canned the hearing--which has not been rescheduled--because of a call from the RSA. Says Ricci, "What they choose to do with our comments is their business." The RSA opposes the bill because it could hurt owners of small buildings with SRO units. "Everything in this bill, the DOB commissioner already had in his power to do," Ricci adds. "I think this is just squashing a fly with a cannonball."
Last October, DOB commissioner Gaston Silva testified that the measure was "draconian" in limiting DOB's discretion, though sources complain that the agency rarely exercises its options. "DOB is very pro-development," says one SRO attorney. "It wants to give away the store."
Indeed, even HPD appears frustrated by DOB. An internal HPD memo says the Eldridge bill would help overcome "DOB's resistance" to enforcing the current law. But the bill does nothing to prevent DOB from granting permits based on wrong information, including false claims by owners that buildings are not SROs. And sometimes DOB records say owners have won a certificate of no harassment when HPD has not granted one.
A five-story building at 340 Amsterdam is such an example. This summer, workers began tearing up the 35-unit SRO, combining rooms and adding new plumbing for private bathrooms, without any DOB permit. On June 5, HPD issued a stop-work order. But 20 days later, DOB granted an alteration permit. DOB spokesman Ted Birkhahn says a preliminary check of agency records indicates that owners had a no-harassment certificate; HPD sources say they have never received an application for the certificate. Birkhahn says DOB is investigating whether the certificate is valid.
Pedro Ruiz, a retired restaurant worker, is one of only seven tenants who remain in the building. Through an interpreter, Ruiz, 77, said he has lived in the same tiny room with no kitchen and a shared bathroom since 1977, and would like to stay since the $119.60 rent is affordable on his pension. In the past few months, however, his landlord has offered him $14,000 to leave.