By Joy Bergmann
Hundreds of apartments on the Upper West Side meant for affordable housing are being openly advertised as hotel rooms on online travel sites, according to city and state officials tracking the issue.
These are not clandestine Airbnb apartments. They are mostly large, Class A Multiple Dwelling residential buildings that are supposed to house tenants for no fewer than 30 days.
Lawmakers have attempted to strengthen and clarify laws about the appropriate use of these buildings. In 2010, the state amended the housing laws, and in 2012 the city passed Local Law 45. Nonetheless, some apartment buildings freely advertise rooms for short-term rental and are staffed with desk clerks offering airport transit advice, officials said. “They are flagrant violators of the law operating with impunity,” says Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal, a long-time foe of illegal hotels. “It is illegal to rent hotel rooms for stays of fewer than 30 days in Class A multiple dwellings.”
Meanwhile, long-time tenants of these buildings, created for Single Room Occupancy [SRO] use, say they feel like they are under constant threat of being pushed out, losing their last hand-hold on private, affordable housing. SROs, inexpensive bare-bones rooms that tend to share a common bathroom, have been a vital source of affordable housing for decades. (For a history of the rise and fall of SROs – from 200,000 units equaling 10 percent of NYC’s housing stock in the 1950s, to perhaps fewer than 15,000 units today – read this CUNY Law Review article.) Tenants interviewed for this article asked that their names not be used.
Housing advocates and local officials have been raising the alarm about this issue for several years. A 2010 report estimated over 2,800 units with “alleged hotel use” by at least 22 different Class A buildings in Community Board 7 (the Upper West Side board), many of which continue to face scrutiny for alleged hotel use today.
WSR reported about one such property, Park 79 Hotel on 79th street last month. The city has investigated several other properties after citizens logged “4A” complaints with 311.
A few SRO buildings have been cited for converting to uses “other than permanent residential purposes.” The Morningside Inn on 107th street was recently fined $9,030, and Astor On the Park at 465 Central Park West (106th-107th) was fined $61,000 in 2015. The Royal Park Hotel on 97th street has a hearing scheduled for next year. WSR attempted to contact the owners of the properties, but did not hear back.
Some landlords have fought back, claiming the city can’t place these restrictions on the use of their property. Charles Chehebar, an attorney for Imperial Court Hotel, referred us to a lawsuit in which he says, “Our clients are entitled to book stays of seven days.” A judge ruled in favor of the Imperial, but the city has appealed the decision.
Although many New Yorkers, especially younger adults, have never heard of permanent SRO housing, they might welcome its restoration. For example, a single person employed full-time in the retail industry earning $11 an hour cannot afford a $939 rent on a new micro unit or $1,300 for a starter apartment – today’s rebranded SROs. She could afford $500 a month for a clean, warm, private place with shared bath and kitchen facilities – a dorm room for adults – if she could find such a home.
Vivian Riffelmacher, who lived in an SRO in the West 80’s from 1996 until 2009, spoke fondly of the experience. “I graduated art school and it was like heaven to have my own place. I didn’t mind the communal atmosphere,” she says, recalling the microcosmic universe created within the building. “We had a professional class, a laboring class, criminals, school teachers, restaurant workers, actors and dancers who fed the cultural life of the city. Anthony Quinn and Phyllis Diller roomed there in their day.”
Making sure older buildings remain accessible to New Yorkers and not tourists could help the mayor achieve his goal of expanding affordable housing, tenant advocates say. The de Blasio administration has announced a goal of creating or maintaining 200,000 units of affordable housing by 2024. But as older units like SROs go away, it becomes more expensive to replace them.
As State Senator Liz Krueger testified at a City Council hearing on illegal hotels last January, “When you take an affordable apartment off the market in New York City, it costs the city to replace that unit, at minimum, $500,000.”
“It is far easier and far more economical to capture units that have been illegally taken off the market for New Yorkers and return them to the rent regulation system,” says Linda Rosenthal. “These should be easy pickings.”
The enforcement reality is a different story.
Once a complaint is filed with 311 regarding illegal use for short-term rentals, the multi-agency team at the Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement [OSE] is responsible for investigating not only the Certificate of Occupancy allegations but also associated building and fire code violations. Members of the NYPD, NY Fire Department, Department of Finance and Department of Buildings [DOB] as well as staff attorneys and investigators comprise OSE. The agency has received additional funding allowing it to grow from 12 to 29 staff, according to testimony given by OSE Executive Director Christian Klossner.
If violations are found, OSE serves the violation to the building owner. Responsibility for adjudicating the violation falls to the Environmental Control Board [ECB] with the DOB’s administrative enforcement unit prosecuting the violations at hearings at OATH, the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings. If ECB determines the violation occurred, the owner must correct the situation and pay any associated fines. The Department of Finance and Department of Law oversee collection of unpaid fines. If an owner persists in violating the law, OSE can bring affirmative litigation for nuisance abatement.
Given that several UWS buildings continue to advertise online, the threatened penalties do not seem to deter owners from pursuing $100 a night tourist stays over modest rents from permanent tenants.
Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal has introduced a measure that would increase penalties for illegal usage conversions. Civil penalties would range from $10,000 to $65,000 for each violation with an additional $2,000 per day fine for each day the violation goes uncorrected. Current penalties issued by the ECB range up to $25,000 per violation with $1,000 per day additional fines.
OSE officials would not sit for an interview about their efforts, but provided a written statement from Klossner. “The Office of Special Enforcement remains concentrated on finding and addressing the activity of the worst offenders – individuals who are operating many short-term rental units in violation of building and fire codes. OSE considers owners who are allegedly converting SRO buildings to illegal transient use to be part of that focus. As we move into 2016, OSE is in the process of expanding its proactive enforcement and legal strategies to best seek out, enforce, and litigate any unlawful transient use at properties in New York City.”
Such action cannot come soon enough for advocates like Marti Weithman, supervising attorney at MFY Legal Services. “SROs are a critical part of New York City’s affordable housing,” she says. “Illegal hotels destabilize our communities and exacerbate our housing crisis by removing SRO units from our already depleted housing stock, thereby restricting the supply and driving up rents.”
“There are no consequences for this behavior,” says Tom Cayler, who’s been fighting illegal hotels since 2004 as part of the Westside Neighborhood Alliance. “This administration has no interest in cleaning this up.”
Photo via ebay.