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Tenants Fear New SRO Law Means Unwelcome Neighbors

By Leslie Albrecht

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

UPPER WEST SIDE — Six years after it happened, Laura Gonzalez is still haunted by the memory of a man brandishing a machete in the hallway of her parents' West 97th Street apartment.

She's terrified that it could happen again.

The horrifying incident occurred after their landlord accepted homeless tenants — some with mental health problems and criminal backgrounds — from a city agency to live in her parents' single-room occupancy (SRO) building, unleashing what Gonzalez and her mother, Ana, remember as a "nightmare" of a time.

Now the Gonzalez family fears that nightmare could become a reality again. A new law that went into effect May 1 changes the rules for SRO landlords and opens up the possibility that their landlord will consider allowing homeless people to live in the building again.

The law makes it illegal for SRO landlords to operate their buildings as makeshift hotels by renting rooms to tourists, an easy source of income many building owners turned to in recent years.

"How do they think the owner will keep the building running if there's no income?" said Ana Gonzalez, who immigrated to the United States from Peru as a young woman. "I was happy the way it was. I don't want homeless people to come back."

Ana Gonzalez, who pays $299 a month for a modest two-bedroom apartment, is among thousands of tenants in SRO buildings across the city who face an uncertain future under the new law.

The Gonzalezes and other Upper West Siders fear the new law will mean an influx of homeless in the neighborhood. Politicians and residents rallied against a Department of Homeless Services plan to bring a 200-bed homeless facility to an SRO building on West 94th Street.

The agency also rents rooms for the homeless in two West 95th Street SRO buildings. DHS says the facilities are needed to meet the growing demand for homeless housing.

Elected officials crafted the new legislation after years of complaints from SRO tenants, who were being forced out of their apartments to make way for tourists.

Politicians also argued that SRO buildings shouldn't be used for tourists, because they are some of the city's last affordable housing, providing cheap apartments to lower and middle income residents.

Housing advocates hailed the new law as a victory, because long-term SRO tenants were often harrassed by landlords eager to push them out so their rooms could be rented to tourists who generated quick profits.

But Ana Gonzalez, 69, isn't celebrating. Of the building's 93 units, about 20 permanent tenants rent rooms in the building, while the remainder of the units were filled until recently by the tourists, she said.

She watched with dismay as dozens of tourists left last week after the rule change. Now she's terrified that her landlord, in need of a new source of income, will again turn to renting rooms to city agencies like the Department of Homeless Services.

Ana and her husband, Hector, who's now hospitalized with dementia, moved into their SRO building in the mid 1960s. Ana got a job at the building's front desk, then worked as a housekeeper. Hector, an immigrant from Cuba with a third-grade education like his wife, worked as a busboy, porter and doorman.

Over the years the building changed hands several times. It once served as a dorm for a music school.

The Gonzalezes raised their children in the SRO building. Laura remembers it as a clean, safe and affordable place for lower-income families like theirs. Working day and night, her parents managed to send her and her brother to private schools, then Ivy League universities.

"My parents did everything they were supposed to do," Laura Gonzalez, who is now a lawyer who lives in New Jersey, said. "They worked hard, they educated their children, and here they are, trying to defend their home."

When the landlord was taking on tenants from the city, Ana Gonzalez remembers regularly stumbling across a host of unpleasant conditions,  from bloody syringes left in the hallway to upstairs neighbors who would toss feces out the windows onto the sidewalk outside Gonzalez's first-floor unit.

There was also prostitution and drug dealing in the building, Gonzalez said.

Eventually the landlord stopped doing business with the city, and instead turned to renting rooms nightly to tourists to make money — a welcome change for the Gonzalezes.

But Yarrow Willman-Cole, a tenant organizer with Goddard Riverside SRO Law Project, said it's unlikely the Gonzalezes' fears will be realized.

Their landlord was notorious for accepting city-referred tenants, but not providing the social services they needed, Willman-Cole said. It's not likely that such a nightmare scenario would happen again, she said.

"We'll do everything we can to fight any sort of inkling of that happening," Willman-Cole said.

It's been rumored that DHS has dropped plans to move homeless clients into SRO buildings on West 94th and 95th streets, but DHS did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

"The city seems to be retreating from their position of using these buildings as (homeless facilities) but we need them to say definitively that they're not going to use these buildings," Willman-Cole said.

She added, "But at this point, these are privately-owned buildings and no one can control what these landlords can do."

That's exactly what keeps Laura Gonzalez up at night.

To her, lawmakers embarked on the effort to crack down on SRO landlords renting rooms to tourists without a clear plan on what would happen when the new law took effect.

"We feel like we're caught between good intentions and practical reality," Laura Gonzalez said. "I get the larger policy goal. In an ideal world these units would all be affordable. But you have to have a plan to make that happen — a plan that works in a capitalist society where private property owners need to make a profit."