If you tried to find an affordable hotel in Manhattan for friends or family during the holidays, you know rooms are about as easy to find (and as large) as parking spots. Hotel occupancy in 1998 hovered at 83 percent— up nearly 2 percent from 1997— and prices hit an all-time high, averaging $192 a night.
Those rates make rooms for under $150 a night sound like a deal. And that’s what the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau wants to offer would-be tourists who log on to its Web site looking for affordable accommodations. But the “deals” the CVB offers come with a hefty price tag, paid not by tourists but by tenants. The rooms are in single-occupancy hotels where, increasingly, landlords are pushing out long-term, low-rent tenants to make way for budget-minded tourists. Often, the landlords act illegally to transform the buildings.
The problem is compounded by the fact that most SRO tenants are elderly, disabled, or poor, with annual incomes under $10,000. Nearly a third pay up to 80 percent of their incomes for rent. When it comes to finding housing, their options are few.
With that in mind, officials at the city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau have promised to stop advertising SROs if they find that landlords have illegally transformed residential hotels to tourist spots. “Any hotels that are accused of or at any level involved in illegal conversions” will be booted from the Web site and dropped from the bureau, CVB president Fran Reiter told the Voice.
While SRO landlords are free to rent rooms to tourists, they run amok when they harass long-term residents into leaving. Sometimes, SRO owners or managers simply offer these tenants cash to leave. But other times, they harass them or perform such heavy demolition work that tenants live in virtual construction zones, sometimes without essential services. Common “renovations” include demolishing community bathrooms and kitchens that SRO tenants shared, so that empty rooms can be reconstructed with private bathrooms for tourists.
Tracking illegal conversions is bureaucratically burdensome. Before SRO owners can get permits to alter their buildings, they must prove to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) that they have not harassed tenants. But in many instances, landlords circumvent HPD and go directly to the Department of Buildings (DOB), where they falsely claim that their buildings are not SROs. DOB permits are issued and “renovations” ensue. By the time tenants challenge the work, SRO rooms have often been lost.
The CVB’s Web site may have exacerbated the loss of SRO rooms by listing at least 20 SROs among its Manhattan hotels below 96th Street with rates under $150 a night. Of those, 14 are in buildings that advocates or city officials say are rife with problems. Especially hard hit are SROs on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and in the Theater District, though residential hotels on the East Side and Downtown have also been converted.
For example, the CVB site lists the Carlton Hotel at 29th Street and Madison Avenue as a “delightful, light, mid-sized European boutique hotel” offering rooms from $119 a night. But in April 1997, DOB revoked several permits at the Carlton, saying they had been issued in error because permit applicants failed to inform DOB that the building is an SRO. In the meantime, tenants lived in the midst of demolition; many left and those who remain say they continue to live through tremendous upheaval.
“They tore down the walls between the rooms and ripped all the plumbing fixtures out,” Joseph Sharp, who has lived at the Carlton for 27 years, testified at a City Council hearing on illegal conversions last month. “The community bathroom on the second floor was demolished, and I had to go to the first floor to use the bathroom.”
At another CVB-listed hotel, Malibu Studios on Broadway at 102nd Street, DOB says that owners owe $5000 in penalties for combining structures, adding bathrooms throughout the building, and failing to provide adequate egress. The CVB site calls Malibu Studios “chic” and “one of the city’s best-kept secrets for price-savvy travellers.”
Reiter says she is “very aware” of the troubles presented by illegal conversion because of her past work in government. She served as deputy mayor to Rudy Giuliani for three-and-a-half years and was heavily involved in his 1997 campaign; she was appointed CVB chair in December 1997 with what The New York Times called “a little arm-twisting” on the mayor’s part. “I spent three-and-a-half years in government doing a lot of work with SROs,” says Reiter. “I know what the issues are.”
CVB’s advertisements for SRO hotels were first reported in the Voice last October. Reiter says the problem was brought to her attention in an October 4 letter from Tom Duane, the state senator from Chelsea who at the time was a city councilmember. But it was not until late December that Duane provided Reiter with a list of hotels considered troublesome by tenants, housing attorneys, or city agencies.
While Reiter is investigating the hotels on the CVB Web site, the City Council is considering a bill to stop illegal conversions. But last week, the mayor’s office threw the bill off track by forbidding DOB Commissioner Gaston Silva, who opposes the measure, to meet with councilmembers to work out a resolution.
“We have to go through the mayor’s intergovernmental relations people to set up a meeting, and they said absolutely not,” said Mary Barber, an aide to Upper West Side councilmember Ronnie Eldridge, who sponsored the bill. The mayor’s press office did not return calls.
At a December 11 hearing before the council’s Committee on Housing and Buildings, Silva offered to meet with Eldridge and committee chair Archie Spigner. But when council staffers tried to set up such a meeting after the holidays, the mayor’s office derailed it, sources say.
Eldridge’s bill would require, among other things, that DOB issue stop-work orders when SROs are illegally altered and investigate SRO owners’ permit applications— measures that are now optional for the department. Silva says such a law would be too costly and diminish DOB’s discretion. The city’s largest landlord lobby, the Rent Stabilization Association, has used similar arguments in opposing the bill. The heavyweight opposition has made for a bumpy history: A 1997 version never made it out of committee, and September 1998 hearings on the rewritten bill were canceled.
As the bill languishes, SRO rooms are lost.
“It’s too late for my building; there’s piles of tourists there now,” testified Charles Becker, a long-term tenant of the Amsterdam Court Hotel at 226 West 50th Street, where owners are under a court order to restore the alterations they made without proper permits. “They worked night and day, turned the water and electricity off, and didn’t let us use the elevator. But even though it’s too late for my hotel, maybe you can help someone else. Please pass this bill.”