Motel Sucks

Exploiting a Depression-era loophole, more landlords are booting renters for short-term hotel guests

Albert Wilking is a 44-year-old man who sometimes runs around Greenwich Village in boxer briefs worn over blue tights and a cape made from an American flag. As head of the aptly named Crazy Studios, he stars in his own short web series called "Super Cape," as the superhero who fights the evils of American policy and greed while prancing around in his underwear. In real life, Wilking is fighting an equally slippery foe: his landlord, a guy named Lucky, who wants to kick Super Cape out on his ass.

Wilking lives in the kind of New York City apartment building, more common in the past, where people not only know their neighbors but leave their doors open, baby-sit each others' children, and even cook for one another. The Greenwich Village building, One Bank Street, has long been a haven for artists of all eccentricities, and has become the cozy home for Wilking and his six-year-old son, Felix. Residents host an annual holiday pot luck in the large lobby, throw dance parties and summer barbecues in the narrow courtyard, and hang paintings and snapshots throughout the basement, transforming the laundry room into a make-shift art gallery. "It's a magical place," Wilking says.

But that magic is quickly draining from the place, Wilking and others say, thanks to one man. He is Amarjit "Lucky" Bhalla – the landlord who is terminating Wilking's lease, along with at least 10 of Wilking's neighbors. Bhalla was already the subject of various tenant complaints about his treatment of particular renters and his slow pace making necessary building repairs. But Bhalla's most recent move—the one that has prompted rumors and angry letters and secret meetings—is his attempt to change the very composition of the building. He has been systematically terminating residents' leases and converting the newly vacant apartments into extended-stay hotel rooms, replacing cherished neighbors with oblivious short-timers.

A handmade replica of One Bank Street, created by a six-year resident, adorns the Christmas tree each year.
photo: Kate Lacey
A handmade replica of One Bank Street, created by a six-year resident, adorns the Christmas tree each year.

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One Bank Street is among 200 residential buildings in New York City gradually being converted—illegally, officials say—into hotels. Bhalla has joined the ranks of landlords in the Upper West Side, midtown, Greenwich Village, and Soho who are exploiting a Depression-era loophole that allows "short-term rentals" of 30 days or more. Housing advocates say the scheme is a new trend among strategy-minded landlords looking to increase profits. Studios that may have rented for $1,800 a month to long-term tenants are now bringing $3,900 a month as bargain-priced "corporate housing" or short-term rentals for out-of-towners. As Bhalla picks off tenants one by one, he advertises their newly vacant apartments online as "fully furnished suites" for "your corporate or personal needs."

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photo: Kate Lacey
Local politicians say the strategy is illegal, but weak penalties for the residence-to-hotel conversions have done little to stop the practice. As legislation to increase the fines and enforcement works its way through City Hall, hundreds of tenants are left to fight the battle on their own. At One Bank Street, Wilking is one of the first to challenge the plan to convert the building. He is supposed to be out by December 31, but there are no boxes waiting to be filled in his one-bedroom apartment. He says he is not going anywhere.

"I'm not going to live in fear. I am committed to fighting this."


It's not the medieval architectural flourishes of One Bank Street or the wide, checkered hallways that inspire such loyalty, although they are lovely. It's not even the rent—most tenants being kicked out are paying market rate and could probably find similarly priced apartments nearby. It's something much less tangible that has inspired Wilking and a handful of others to organize against their landlord: that some residents can rattle off each other's phone numbers from memory; that they count on one another to cat-sit and water plants; that younger residents check in on their elderly neighbors. It's a building with a romantic history that has been passed down through a community of people formed almost by accident, an urban family conveniently living under the same roof. And even that roof has a history—the first residents used to have cocktail parties there, lounging under umbrellas and enjoying the view.

The 76-unit building was constructed in 1928 on the site of novelist Willa Cather's home, a distinction that got it landmarked as part of the Greenwich Village Historic District. From the beginning, it was a quirky place that welcomed a creative community. It has been home to actors famous and not so famous, including television actress Talia Balsam, her husband John Slatterly (The Station Agent, Desperate Housewives), Ben Shankman (Angels in America), and, briefly, Amanda Peet. Today, a group of set designers, painters, photographers, and make-up artists reside there and share everything from art supplies and techniques to career advice. They reminisce about the building's past, pointing out the scars that tell the story of its long life.

In one sixth-floor apartment, a plastered wall in the foyer hints at its poetic history: When a previous tenant and his next-door neighbor began a love affair decades ago, the two built a door between their apartments. After the relationship soured, the jilted lover plastered over his side, leaving the other with a door that only opens to a gray wall. It's these things, residents say, that make it worth fighting for.


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