LOCAL OFFICIALS RAISE ALARM ABOUT AFFORDABLE APARTMENTS BEING CONVERTED INTO ‘HOTELS’

sign door

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.

NEWS, REAL ESTATE | 23 comments | permalink
    1. Sherman says:

      This is nonsense. Someone earning $11 an hour (the example given in this article) should not be living in one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the country.

      There are plenty of affordable locations in The Bronx. This person can also live with a roommate to lower rent costs if she really wanted to stay on the UWS.

      SROs are an eyesore and should be phased out.

      When lefty politicians try to artificially manipulate housing costs it is inevitable that some people will end up in giant apartments with dirt cheap rents while others will be crammed into SROs and “micro-apartments”.

    2. Jeff Berger says:

      “Criminals” contribute to the cultural life of the city? Really? That explains why the Mayor and the City Council are trying to give amnesty to 70,000 criminals. Do you Progressives realize that you long since jumped the shark?

    3. Cherryl says:

      Artists, musicians, teachers, health care workers, writers and students are all people who have lived and made lives out of SRO’s. The xenophobia people display on here whenever it comes to people who are less well off than them is disgusting. This neighborhood, for years, was not an expensive place to live so I really wish you would all just tone that nonsense down. This is a jewish/socialist neighborhood. Why would you move here if you didn’t want to be around everything the neighborhood comes with? The SRO’s were here before you and if you want them gone YOU should move. This is our neighborhood not yours, shame on you.

    4. Nathan says:

      @Cherryl Oh, so Christians or capitalists need not apply. I guess segregation is the new progressivism? Also, this *is* my neighborhood due to the fact that I live here. Who are you to tell me where I should live?

    5. Paul RL says:

      Cherryl, you bark hysterically about “xenophobia” then call on others to leave your “Jewish/Socialist” neighborhood?

      Oh, the irony!

    6. PedestrianJustice says:

      The point of this piece is that some landlords are breaking the law, reducing the number of apartments for New Yorkers, and the City isn’t stopping them.

    7. Sherman says:

      This is a “Jewish/socialist neighborhood”.

      Huh?

      I’m Jewish and I find this highly offensive on so many levels I don’t even know how to respond.

    8. anonymous says:

      @Cherryl LOL. Your neighborhood? I’m a libertarian, free-market proponent and I’ve lived in this neighborhood for years. Oh, and oddly, I’m not Jewish – I can’t believe someone agreed to rent and then sell to a capitalist Gentile such as myself. How about we change a couple of the words in your comment and see if you still like it… [edited Cherryl’s comment to follow] “this is a white, capitalist neighborhood…the rich apartment owners were here before you and if you want them gone YOU should move…this is OUR neighborhood, not yours, shame on you.”

    9. wcsnyc says:

      Gosh Cherryl, is MY face red! I’m a Gentile and I’ve lived here since 1969. I never got the memo!

    10. Bravo says:

      The city is still part of the USA, so far. Nobody, so far, cancelled property rights in the USA. New York is the only city in the world that has created institutional artificial deficit of housing by not retiring the obsolete rent control in all its forms. Two-bit politicians create a career out of trying to cancel capitalism but enjoying it in their own lives. Why cannot New York have bed and breakfast? The same perverted reason a person making $11/hour has the constitutional right to live in a place s/he cannot afford. New York now is a hypocritical stupid mess overrun by self-important politicians, aka losers.

    11. dannyboy says:

      There ARE people living in those rent-regulated apartments, so I don’t see how that is causing a ‘deficit of housing’.

      I am sorry that you don’t like NYC so much.

    12. 9d8b7988045e4953a882 says:

      There is nothing inherently wrong with SRO’s in my view. They fulfill a market need for single people with moderate income.

      By the way, I live on the UWS and am pro-capitalism.

    13. UWS says:

      Building are turning into a Youth Hostel with illegal Airbnb, a managing agent that should be fired but is a donor to Deblasio. Residents have written to the Mayor’s office Chief of Staff Emma Wolf. We wrote to her when she was working in the Public Advocates office about the same issue. IGNORED!!! Deblasio to seems to keep the most incompetent staff who have no clue to housing issues of residents.The tale of 2 cities will continue if Deblasio doesn’t fire some of his staff who are a disservice to public service.

    14. Pedestrian says:

      The truth of the matter is that the Administration isn’t really interested in stoping them. It isn’t interested in protecting affordable housing tenants at all. The Mayor’s ZQA and MIH are being rammed through under the suspicious of “affordable hosting” but it’s just a smoke screen.

      Micro units are a return to the tenement housing of the last with a shot of high profit for developers to boot…that makes the Mayor and his Develope friends happy.

    15. Upper West Side Wally says:

      Jeff Berger writes (…) to give amnesty to 70,000 criminals. Do you Progressives realize that you long since jumped the shark?

      Yeah, we really need to keep those kids busted with half an ounce of weed in jail for a long, long time. That’ll teach them! Costs millions, but it’s well worth the money.

    16. Steven R. says:

      You make the exact same nasty comments against low income people in response to any story about housing & real estate. You don’t own Manhattan and never will. You are boring us. Either state some new thoughts or STFU already.

    17. Steven R. says:

      My comment was in response to that bitter troll named Sherman.

    18. Steven R. says:

      To Sherman: You make the exact same nasty comments against low income people in response to any story about housing & real estate. You don’t own Manhattan and never will. You are boring us. Either state some new thoughts or STFU already.

    19. Sherman says:

      “STFU”!

      And I’m the “bitter” one?

      You’ve got serious anger management problems dude.

      XO,
      Sherman

    20. Sean says:

      The only drawback is sharing a bathroom with a “criminal”.

    21. SG says:

      What rubbish…you lefties harken back fondly to the good old days of the ’70’s….a broke, dirty & crime ridden city, yeah those were the good old times.

    22. Sean says:

      The 1970s were more festive. Today’s UWS is strictly vanilla. It feels like Westport.

    23. PedestrianJustice says:

      @Sean

      Not that there are any criminals in buildings like 15 Central Park West or anything. 🙂