“This weekend I noticed someone had urinated in the elevator,” said an exasperated Hortense Bermudez. “There was no attempt to clean it up. You can still smell it. There are strangers coming in all the time. This is a very, very disturbing situation that’s going on.”
Bermudez, a resident of 455 West 34th St., is a victim of the illegal hotel epidemic. Unfortunately, her story is only one of many that has emerged as the city confronts the reality that many tenants are facing—that of landlords forcing tenants out in favor of short-term renters and tourists.
Following an injunction from New York State Supreme Court Justice Michael Stallman in September—which ordered that landlords stop permitting and facilitating the use of single-room-occupancy buildings as an illegal hotel for tourists in buildings on West 94th and 95th Streets—there has been much noise but little action surrounding the illegal hotel issue.
The cause of this inaction is the appeal of the injunction by some of the accused landlords. According to Yarrow Willman-Cole, a member of the Goddard Riverside SRO Law Project, the appeal has placed illegal hotel legislation “in a state of limbo.” Willman-Cole said that despite pressure from city politicians, the appeal by the defendants is taking some time.
According to Jason Post, a City Hall spokesman, the appeal currently “is in the hands of the court and is beyond the control of the city.” But, Post said, “Throughout the appeals process, our work to find a legislative solution to the illegal hotels problem have continued, so have our enforcement efforts.”
While the illegal hotel case awaits a conclusive ruling, which is tentatively expected this spring, other laws are being pushed through both city and state legislative bodies.
In particular, concerned tenants, advocates, and politicians have lodged their support behind Intro 534 and Intro 627-A, two legislative proposals that would increase tenants’ rights and penalties against corrupt landlords. The two pieces of legislation are part of what Lucas Shapiro, community organizer for Housing Conservation Coordinators, called “a two-pronged strategy for the illegal hotels campaign,” which hopes to strengthen enforcement and a increase deterrents.
Intro 534, a bill introduced by Council member Gale Brewer (D-Upper West Side), would increase fines against property owners who carry out illegal conversions of tenant rooms and operate illegal hotels in residential buildings. The bill received mass support from Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office, housing advocates, elected officials, and tenants, who testified in favor of the legislation to City Council’s Housing and Buildings Committee in December.
Intro 627-A, which was passed by City Council last Wednesday, protects tenants from landlord harassment. The legislation allow tenants to take landlords who are harassing them to housing court, and allows the courts to fine the landlord up to $5,000 for each unit in which a tenant was harassed. Vivian Riffelmacher, a founding member of the West Side Neighborhood Alliance and resident of the Dexter House on West 86th Street, where an illegal hotel is located, said the bill could make a big difference in the fight against illegal hotels.
“If we can crack down on tenant harassment, it may be harder for landlords to empty their buildings, and it will be easier for tenants to keep their homes,” Riffelmacher said.
Riffelmacher and Bermudez highlighted another issue that has arisen around illegal hotels—the rampant problem of corporate rentals. Many landlords citywide, like Bermudez’s, have begun forcing tenants out in favor of high-paying, short-term rentals to businesses.
Willman-Cole saw an “indirect connection” between the tenants harassment legislation and illegal hotels. “Harassment takes many forms,” he said. “Renting rooms to tourists in residential buildings is a form of harassment.”
Shapiro agreed, saying Housing Conservation Coordinators’ “ultimate goal is to close down hotels and get tenants back into their units at the rent stabilized rate they were initially paying.”
“We need stronger laws and different fines,” Bermudez said. “These landlords should be going to jail for doing this. We’re losing good housing, and once those units are lost, it’s going to be hard to get them back.”
“We hope that when all of the court action is concluded, the illegally converted hotel units will become permanent rent-stabilized housing units for regular working New Yorkers,” Brewer said.