Martha Washington Goes Coed
Claiming that it is illegal to bar tenants based on gender, the Hotel Martha Washington on East 30th Street is open to men for the first time in its 95-year history. But tenants at the single-roomoccupancy hotel including women who are elderly, disabled, and seeking respite from abuse say the move is simply a real estate ploy designed to frighten them away and enhance profits.
"What they want to do is promote the tourist industry, but by doing that they're denying affordable housing for New York City residents," says Arlene Edwards, who is in her thirties and has lived in the Martha Washington for five years. "They want to do a gut renovation and charge outrageous prices for overnight stays."
In mid September, management sent women residents a memo saying they would be sharing the hotel, where most tenants use common bathrooms, with "suitable males" beginning October 1. The 12-story SRO, wedged between Murray Hill and Gramercy Park, has 469 rooms and about 150 permanent tenants. So far, about a dozen men have stayed at the hotel, in rooms with private baths. Long-term plans would segregate bathrooms by sex.
A real estate firm called Property Markets Group (PMG) reportedly bought the Martha Washington for $18.5 million in 1997. PMG's principals include chairman Kevin Maloney, Steven Held, and Patrick O'Keefe, men in their thirties and forties who cut their teeth in the real estate division of Ensign Bank, a savings and loan that went bust in 1990. Real estate attorney Ziel Feldman is vice president.
In 1991, PMG began buying "rundown" property. Now, The New York Times reports, its portfolio includes 75 Manhattan buildings with 2400 apartments and 60 stores. PMG is something of a darling among real estate watchers; articles in both the Times and Crain's gush about PMG's forays into the distressed property market. In 1996, Crain's fawned over PMG's "thrift" because workers sat at card tables while the firm, which had bought the embattled but historic Belnord apartments, hiked monthly rents from hundreds of dollars to as much as $13,000.
But, at several PMG-owned SROs, tenants say they are feeling distressed. PMG bought the Ben Franklin SRO on West 77th, renamed it the Broadway American, and is currently renovating it to lure tourists; tenants there have endured months of heavy construction. At the Allerton another former all-women's residence on West 57th about 55 original tenants remain. PMG did not return calls for this story.
When the Hotel Martha Washington opened in 1903, its status as a women's residence was a draw. A faded sign on the building's 29th Street wall announces that it is restricted to women, though it once housed a restaurant that welcomed men. Even now, its stationery and bills are emblazoned with the words "Exclusively for Women." Men are not allowed in rooms "not even a doctor, not even a priest," says one elderly tenant.
It is that aspect that worries tenants. In a six-page document, Edwards lists features like fire escapes that lead into bathrooms and unattended stairwells, which were not a problem in the previously all-female culture where women felt safe sleeping with doors unlocked and even ajar to aid ventilation. Adding men, Edwards reasons, changes the equation; bathroom access from the fire escape becomes "a rapist's dream."
Martha Washington tenants expressed their concerns to hotel management in a letter written by Legal Services attorney Amy Mayer. In response, David Bernstein, PMG's hospitality director, called Mayer's letter "confrontational" and "insulting." He stressed that no women would be required to move, and that all rooms would ultimately have private baths. As for single-sex residences, Bernstein reminded Mayer laws must be followed. He said men admitted to the hotel would be "people who we know or who are recommended by people we know, or part of a male-female couple."
Whether an SRO hotel like the Martha Washington is indeed legally bound to admit men is in doubt. Both city and state laws permit single-sex dwellings in some circumstances, including those where bathrooms are shared. Federal law also permits some leeway for single-sex hotels.
Last month, several tenants got notices saying they must pay overdue rent or face eviction; the notices were signed by Jack Avid, who tenants say manages the hotel for PMG. Avid runs other Manhattan SROs; at one on Amsterdam Avenue the city's building department is investigating whether an Avid company was truthful when it claimed that it received a required certificate proving it did not harass tenants before altering the building. Avid did not return calls.
One Martha Washington tenant, who insisted on being identified only as Alice and who described her age as "over 70," has not paid rent since January; she recently received a demand from Avid for $4800. "I haven't paid because my windows don't fit and there's always a tremendous breeze in here," says Alice. "There was no heat yesterday, and it takes 20 minutes to get the water for the tub just to be lukewarm."
Alice moved to the hotel nearly seven years ago, and fears that PMG's plans will replicate her experience at another famous formerly all-female residence, the Barbizon. She lived there for five years before old-time tenants were run out by new owners who turned it into a tourist hotel; for six months, Alice was the sole resident of the 15th floor. With the Barbizon, the Allerton, and now the Martha Washington open to men, Manhattan's only remaining all-women's residences are affiliated with religious institutions or schools.
"Many of the hotel's permanent residents are there because they had been abused by the men in their lives," Edwards wrote in her security analysis. "The Hotel Martha Washington's 'Exclusively for Women' policy proved to be their safe haven."
But, in some ways, claims of safety at the Martha Washington are out of place. Tenants have complained that employees under prior management stole from their rooms, for example, and that exterior stairwells were used for prostitution. Even now, drug dealing and violence are not unheard of. In March, some unstable tenants used knives and screwdrivers to hack away at other tenants' doors. Some residents, like Alice, have turned complaints over to the Manhattan District Attorney's office, and police may begin to patrol inside the hotel.
Some of the most blatant criminal activity took place in the early '90s, when the club Danceteria rented space in the hotel's lobby; drug use was rampant. Danceteria was eventually replaced by the Melting Pot, where in 1994 eight clubgoers were wounded when gunshots prompted a stampede onto 29th Street.
In fact, the clubs are proof that profound transformations are not new to the Martha Washington; accommodating men might be just one more evolution. The space formerly known as the Melting Pot is now occupied by a mosque.
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