By Helen Rosenthal
The Imperial Court at 307 W. 79th St. has been a rent-stabilized Single Room Occupancy (SRO) building for decades. SRO apartments are modest, composed of a single room that shares a bathroom and kitchen with several neighbors, but they are invaluable to low-income residents, who have few other options. For those of us who want to maintain permanent affordable housing on the UWS, the Imperial Court is a gem.
The Imperial Court’s owner appears less interested in preserving permanent affordable housing. By 2006, after dozens of tenants moved out, he began to rent the empty units for fewer than 30 days at a time, as if the apartment building were a hotel. The owner of the Imperial Court “Hotel” increased his income by at least 300% per room. Not surprisingly, today over two-thirds of the units are set aside for hotel use; only one-third are rented legally to rent-stabilized tenants.
Earlier this month the New York State Supreme Court Appellate Division confirmed that Imperial Court is primarily used as a transient hotel (with units rented for less than 30 days), which the court ruled unlawful. To prove its point the court cited “the existence of rooms with three-piece bathrooms with sealed toilet seats, towels placed on towel racks, coffee makers, mini-bars, the provision of housekeeping service, and a notice warning guests that staying past check-out time would cause them to be charged for an extra day.”
Several representatives of the owner have reached out to me since I took office. Each one let me know the economic predicament of the owner—it’s dire. I’ve been told he’s just trying to stay afloat. In his own words, he’s “hemorrhaging money.” I’ve been asked to help him find a way to operate as a hotel (not a legal option).
I believe the owner should sell the building to an affordable housing operator—someone who could financially sustain the building as a rent-stabilized SRO. But, the owner believes the building is too valuable to part with and the affordable housing operator could never afford the “market price.” The question, of course, is this: What does “market price” mean in this context where the building is a rent-stabilized SRO?
If the owner followed the law and rented all 200 plus units at Imperial Court, he would bring in over $1.2 million annually. As of now, however, he rents out only 64 units and brings in about $380,000 a year (not including his illegal hotel guests, of course). In a letter to tenants on January 24, 2014 the owner threatened to seek a contract with the city to become a homeless shelter. The City Department of Homeless Services, on the other hand, denies any interest in Imperial Court.
It’s hard to sympathize when the owner cries poverty but chooses to keep two-thirds of the rooms empty. There is a significant demand for permanent affordable housing. Over the past decade the city has lost over 350,000 affordable units and the City is looking to place tens of thousands of people in permanent affordable housing. I have no doubt that the owner could find legal tenants for his available rooms in a matter of days. All he needs to do is list them.
Councilmember Helen Rosenthal represents the Upper West Side in the City Council
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