Illegal Hotels Could be Fined Up to $25K Under New Legislation

By Jill Colvin on December 13, 2011 8:26pm 

Cramped conditions at 38 W. 88 St., on the Upper West Side, an illegal hotel that was shuttered by the city.
Cramped conditions at 38 W. 88 St., on the Upper West Side, an illegal hotel that was shuttered by the city.
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Mayor's Office

CITY HALL — The City Council is hoping to turn up the heat on building owners who convert residential apartments into illegal hotel rooms, proposing new fines for repeat violations that could soar as high as $25,000.

Upper West Side City Councilwoman Gale Brewer has introduced legislation that would reclassify illegal hotels as “immediately hazardous” conditions if the city finds more than one violation in a building or a subsequent violation in the same place.

The change would boost fines from today's rate of roughly $800 to anywhere from $1,000 to $25,000 for repeat offenses. It also would slap operators with an added $1,000 fine for each day an illegal hotel continues to operate.

"We cannot have tourists living on a temporary basis next to permanent residents," said Brewer, who described the plight of long-time residents who live in buildings overrun by tourists who party loudly in rooms and hallways.

Ann Cunningham, 76, who has lived in the Tempo Hotel on West 73rd Street since 1979, said transients began to move in about eight years ago, creating a miserable situation for tenants, who’ve had to deal with fires, loud fighting, domestic violence, drugs, prostitution and elevators damaged by constant suitcase traffic, among other problems, she said.

"I feel unsafe," she said in testimony submitted to the council. "The presence of transients in the Tempo Hotel has lead to hazardous conditions."

This summer, new state legislation came into effect that made it illegal to rent out apartments in residential buildings for less than 30 days. But many have complained that the legislation lacks teeth and said that fines are so low that they're factored in as part of the cost of doing business for operators charging upwards of $100 a night.

Kathleen McGee, director of the Mayor's Office of Special Enforcement, which has staged undercover stings to catch illegal hotels in operation, said the conversions are a "significant concern for the administration," which "create serious problems for permanent residents."

Illegal hotel activist Tom Cayler blamed the death of a police officer in the line of duty early Monday morning Dec. 12 on an illegal conversion.
Illegal hotel activist Tom Cayler blamed the death of a police officer in the line of duty early Monday morning Dec. 12 on an illegal conversion.
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DNAinfo/Jill Colvin

Testifying on behalf of the administration, she said that while the state law is a good starting point, the fines are so low they "may not even amount to a slap on the wrist."

She said that during the past five years, the city has seen a large rise in complaints from concerned residents.

As of Oct. 31, the city's 311 call center had 885 complaints about illegal conversions this year, including 597 in Manhattan, compared to just 91 back in 2006, she said.

The complaints have prompted 487 separate investigations and 1,596 Department of Buildings violations, including 49 partial or full vacate orders, McGee said.

But some, including Brooklyn City Councilman Lew Fidler, questioned whether the legislation was necessary since illegality might not be quite so clear-cut.

“The stick that you’re asking to wield here is enormous," he told fellow members, arguing that he was worried "about whacking someone for $25,000" when they may simply be subletting their homes.

Committee chair Erik Martin Dillan agreed. While the council should be going after “the really egregious offenders," he worried the legislation might have "unintended consequences" for people who want to do things such as run B&Bs.

Airbnb, a service which allowed people to rent and swap accommodations online, had also submitted testimony in opposition to the new fines, committee members said.

But Upper Manhattan City Councilman Robert Jackson, said he felt the law should actually go further, arguing that illegally converted apartments have been implicated in numerous deadly fires. Reports claimed that veteran police officer, Peter Figoski, was killed early Monday Dec. 12 in such an illegally converted building where he was on the job responding to a robbery.

"Illegal conversions are death traps," Jackson said.

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