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As Upper West Side Hotels Close, the Homeless Could Check In, Residents Warn

By Leslie Albrecht | January 5, 2011 7:10am | Updated on January 5, 2011 8:10am
Aaron Biller, a West 94th Street resident, says the Upper West Side has more than its fair share of homeless shelters.
Aaron Biller, a West 94th Street resident, says the Upper West Side has more than its fair share of homeless shelters.
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DNAinfo/Leslie Albrecht

By Leslie Albrecht

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

UPPER WEST SIDE — Upper West Siders who say their neighborhood has become a dumping ground for the homeless lined up at Community Board 7 on Tuesday night to protest a planned homeless facility on West 94th Street.

Nonprofit Samaritan Village wants to open the homeless facility in a building that currently houses the Hotel Alexander, one of dozens of Upper West Side hotels forced out of business by a new law that outlaws using single-room occupancy buildings, known as SROs, as hotels.

But some neighbors say there are already too many facilities serving homeless, drug addicts and mentally ill people in their neighborhood, and fear another shelter will attract even more people.

The Hotel Alexander on West 94th Street is one of many hotels that will go out of business when a new law takes effect in May.
The Hotel Alexander on West 94th Street is one of many hotels that will go out of business when a new law takes effect in May.
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DNAinfo/Leslie Albrecht

"Everybody is in favor of affordable housing," said West 94th Street resident Aaron Biller. "(But) we have compassion fatigue. We shouldn't be the only place the city comes to."

Biller, president of neighborhood group Neighborhood in the Nineties, was part of the group of opponents who gave Community Board 7 an earful Tuesday night. Biller said the district is currently home to 21 percent of such facilities in Manhattan.

Amanda Larrick, a 45-year resident of West 93rd Street, said allowing the homeless facility would reverse the improvements the Upper West Side has seen since the 1970s, when she was mugged twice.

"It feels like a recurring nightmare to many of us," Larrick said. "You're trying to convert it back to the 1970s."

Biller and others blamed lawmakers for pushing through a new hotel law that bans any building designated as an SRO from being used as a hotel. The law, which goes into effect in May, was intended to preserve SROs as cheap rental housing for low-income people.

But critics say lawmakers failed to consider the consequences of the law, which has prompted existing SRO hotel owners to accept anyone to take over their buildings, said Community Board 7 member Shelly Fine.

"I just need a tenant who can lease the building from me so I can pay my bills," said Hotel Alexander owner Alexander Scharf. "I don't really care what they do with it, as long they pay their rent."

If a Department of Homeless Services plan goes forward, the Alexander will be rented out to Samaritan Village and turned into a 200-bed transitional housing facility for single men.

The Department of Homeless Services disputed the idea that the city puts more homeless shelters on the Upper West Side than in other neighborhoods.

"The Department of Homeless Services has a legal mandate to provide temporary, emergency shelter to homeless individuals in need," spokewoman Heather Janik said in an e-mailed statement. "This responsibility is carried out in neighborhoods throughout New York City, including all areas of Manhattan."

DHS says it's met with local officials "on several occasions" since late November about the proposed facility and "will continue to be responsive to community concerns as the project moves forward."

Scharf says the SRO buildings should go back to being tourist hotels.

"It was a mistake to change the use and say it's illegal to run a hotel," Scharf said. "It's not just the owners of the buildings who are hurt, it's the local economy. Thousands of tourists were coming into the Upper West Side spending money, eating at restaurants, and now that's going to be gone."

Community Board 7 passed a resolution Tuesday night calling on the city to prohibit using the SRO buildings for transitional housing programs like Samaritan Village's. Samaritan Village could not be reached for comment.

Community Board 7 chair Mel Wymore said his goal is to preserve SRO buildings like the Alexander as cheap rental housing for low-income people.

"Yes, we need to make sure that people that end up on the streets have a place to go, but the way that happens in the first place is that they're placed out of their homes," Wymore said. "The only way to address that is to have a permanent stock of affordable housing for people."