Motel Sucks

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

"I'm very sensitive to the energy of the place," Wilking says, noting that he looked for months before finally deciding to move in three years ago. "The energy here was very, very up." As he explains his reasons for loving the neighborhood and the building—the beautiful flowering trees outside, the residents who always remember his son's name inside—a neighbor's nine-year-old cat with brown and black stripes squeezes through the front door, which is propped open with a shoe.

In fact, doors are often ajar throughout the six floors to allow the building's cats to wander in and out as they please. The felines slip through open apartment doors for a scratch under the chin or a saucer of milk. They scamper up and down the wide stairwells, wander the wide halls, and twist around fire escapes into open windows to visit neighbors. "He comes home smelling like different perfumes every night," jokes one cat owner, a 30-year resident.

But that is all beginning to change. The doors at One Bank Street are starting to be clamped shut, bolted tight. Hallway conversation has shifted from family, work, and world events to the newest lease termination and the next tenants' meeting.

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.


Renters around town are getting ousted from illegal hotels.

It began last fall with the renovations. The airy, marble-floored lobby had been empty for decades, acting only as a place for the regular holiday parties. But workers began changing the light fixtures, installing mirrors on the walls, and hanging wall paper. Then the anonymous abstract art went up and the lounge chairs were brought in. It looked like a hotel lobby—and soon enough, it was one.

By summertime, word that the landlord had terminated several residents' leases spread through the building, and a computer search yielded the reason: Some of the newly vacant units were being advertised on the website of Signature Properties ( as furnished "suites." The units can be booked online from $3,950 a month for a studio up to $5,950 for a two-bedroom, which is about twice the rate that permanent market-rate residents currently pay. Despite the website's all-caps notification that "WE ARE NOT A HOTEL" and its insistence on a 30-day minimum stay, the units are charged hotel taxes.

"This is a common theme in many buildings around the city," says John Raskin, organizing director of Housing Conservation Coordinators. "It's surprisingly widespread, and it's growing." HCC has compiled a list of more than 200 buildings that residents say are being rented out in this manner. The vast majority are in Manhattan.

Raskin believes the sharp rise in complaints over the last year and a half is due to the popularity of online hotel booking and the lack of meaningful enforcement of city zoning and building codes that require hotels to operate only in commercial buildings. The current penalty for a landlord who operates a residential apartment building as a nightly hotel is a one-time fine of $800, regardless of how many actual apartments have been converted into hotel rooms.

Councilwoman Gale Brewer, who has seen several buildings in her district push out residents to make way for tourists, says the conversions are having a clear and immediate effect on the city's housing stock. "The illegal hotel units, as I call them, are replacing permanent stabilized housing," she says.

Because of overlapping zoning and housing-code issues, reaction to the illegal hotels has been slow. In 2005, Brewer joined several other city and state legislators, along with a group of housing advocates, to form an illegal-hotels working group. They have so far been stymied about how to stop the apartment-to-hotel conversions.

Some landlords claimed no responsibility for the tourists traipsing in and out of their buildings because they were actually providing yearly leases—but those leases are to travel companies like, which would then rent out the rooms nightly. "I'd never seen anything like this, and I've been doing this kind of thing for 30 years," Brewer says.

Albert Wilking lives with his son, Felix, in a one-bedroom apartment colorfully decorated with his own paintings.
photo: Kate Lacey
Other landlords say they are following the letter of the law by renting out units for a minimum of a month at a time. In fact, the 30-day stay is a major point of contention for those accused of operating a hotel improperly. Because the law allows residential apartment buildings to operate month to month, landlords argue that advertising as corporate housing or even an extended-stay hotel is within the law, as long as they rent out a unit for at least 30 days at a time. However, many One Bank Street residents, along with residents at several other buildings advertised as "corporate apartments" and "extended-stay" hotels, insist that the newcomers have cycled in and out after only staying a week or two.

In 2006, the Mayor's Office of Special Enforcement began investigating individual buildings, sometimes confiscating doormen's reports to see if guests were actually planning on staying a month or longer. The Office of Special Enforcement has investigated 41 locations and issued hundreds of violations, but director Shari Hyman says that the $800 fine—issued when they are able to prove that the rentals are for less than 30 days—remains insufficient to actually stop the illegal conversions.

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