Hostel Takeover: Violations, Landlord Questions on W. 107th St.

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Mark Hersh is notorious among tenant and affordable housing activists. In 1990, the Village Voice called him one of the city’s worst landlords for wielding a baseball bat to scare his tenants, an incident that earned him the nickname “West Side Batman.”

In 2002, a representative from the Goddard Riverside SRO Law Project told Community Board 7 that Hersh forced out undocumented workers staying at his Colonial House Hotel, at 611 W. 112th St. He allegedly told them that inspectors from the city’s Housing and Preservation Department were actually federal Immigration and Naturalization Services agents, according to board minutes.

But as the city struggles to help the ever-increasing homeless population, the Department of Homeless Services is looking to give Hersh a lucrative deal to use his West Side Inn Hostel, at 237 W. 107th St. between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue, as emergency homeless housing.

Photo by Andrew Schwartz

The hostel is an SRO, or “single room occupancy” housing—a low-cost, dorm-like accommodation—though its website describes it as a “hip and trendy” place to stay while visiting New York. The department did not answer questions about how much Hersh would receive for use of his facilities, but housing advocates say that landlords can get several thousand dollars a month from the city, per room, for housing homeless populations. That amount is far more than the typical SRO rate of several hundred dollars a month, and rates starting at $17 a night, as advertised on the hostel’s reservations website, which works out to roughly $500 a month.

For housing advocates, this is a new wrinkle in the fight for affordable housing. Where they once complained that SROs, meant to house low-income permanent residents, were being illegally converted to more lucrative hotels, they are now seeing these SROs being used for the homeless. The shift is most likely due to a combination of factors, including a city crackdown on illegal hotels, decreased demand for hotel space and an increase in the homeless population.

“The city is lining the pockets of these landlords who harass tenants and go through whatever means to get permanent tenants out of the building in order to put in placements from [Department of Homeless Services],” said Marti Weithman, project director for Goddard Riverside SRO Law Project. “It’s happening all over the West Side.”

According to people involved with the situation, the West Side Inn Hostel is already housing approximately 40 homeless women along with some long-term tenants, though the department did respond to an inquiry to confirm that homeless women are currently residing there. Services for the clients are being provided by Help USA, a nonprofit founded in 1986 by now-Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and chaired by his sister, Maria Cuomo Cole.

The nonprofit identified Hersh’s property as a potential space for Department of Homeless Services’ clients, as part of an open-ended request for proposal process. The department then filed an “Emergency Declaration” request at an unknown date with the city comptroller’s office to allow the contract with the West Side Inn Hostel to move forward more quickly. Eventually, Help USA plans to administer services to a total of 135 women at the hostel.

Alexandra Sirota, director of external communications at Help USA, said the group had no comment about Hersh’s reputation as a landlord. But the department is currently investigating community allegations of landlord harassment. Kristy Buller, deputy press secretary for the Department of Homeless Services, said in a statement, “We value the input of the community, and we strive to be a good neighbor as we assist New Yorkers who are unfortunately experiencing homelessness.”

Help USA was to present its plan to Board 7’s health and human services committee Feb. 23. However, the group canceled, as did representatives from the Department of Homeless Services, only hours before the start of the meeting.

Some officials, including Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Robert Hess, met with local civic groups Feb. 17 to discuss the temporary homeless housing, according to Rev. John Duffell, pastor at the neighboring Church of the Ascension, at 221 W. 107th St. The reverend said he convened the meeting because he was worried that the community was unaware of the emergency housing and long term plans for the homeless women. Duffell, along with other opponents, stressed that their views are not a “not in my backyard” response; Help USA and the city should have consulted with the neighborhood before creating emergency housing, they argue.

“It’s assuming people would say ‘no’ to any kind of homeless shelter. I don’t think that’s the case,” Duffell said. “The city is steamrolling, rather than going places and working it out.”

An added concern is the fact that the West Side Inn Hostel has open violations from the Department of Buildings and the Housing and Preservation Department, the most recent of which, dated January 2009, stems from an elevator problem. In 2006, the Environmental Control Board hit Hersh with a $2,500 fine for operating an illegal hotel in an SRO building, a violation that is still active. The Buildings Department looked into 14 complaints between 1991 and 2009, including questions about parties on the roof, dilapidated rooms and elevators that remained broken.

“It’s been a detriment to the neighborhood,” Ruffell said of the hostel.

“It’s not kept in good condition.”

Hersh could not be reached for a comment. A woman who answered the phone at the hostel claimed to not know anything about the homeless population and declined to answer questions or give her full name before hanging up.

The city’s Finance Department lists G. M. Canmar Residence Corporation as the building’s owner. A phone line at the corporation’s mailing address was not operational. Adam Leitman Bailey, named as Hersh’s attorney in a 2006 Village Voice article, did not return calls and messages at his law office. In the phonebook, Hersh’s number was listed at the Hotel Saint James, another SRO. The man who answered the phone there said that Hersh could only be reached at that number Feb. 24 and declined to provide additional information.

However, in an interview with the Village Voice and in a transcript of a Housing and Preservation Department hearing, Hersch denied allegations of tenant intimidation.

Far from a West Side issue, the conversion of affordable housing into emergency homeless lodging seems to be happening across the city. In the Bronx, civic leaders are protesting the use of a building at 1564 Saint Peters Ave. that was originally planned for middle-income housing and is now being used as temporary homeless housing. In Harlem, a block association is mobilizing against a plan to house 76 homeless men at Spot Hostel’s Fifth Avenue Spot, at 35 W. 126th St.

But the transitions may be self-defeating. Weithman, of Goddard Riverside SRO Law Project, said that tenants forced out of SRO units are low-income New Yorkers who may find themselves in the homeless system after all.

“They can very well end up in another SRO because they’ve been placed there,” Weithman said. “The rent that was $400 a month turns into the landlord getting four or five times that.”

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