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SRO Building Owners Who Rented to Tourists Must Pay City $600K

By Leslie Albrecht | November 30, 2011 6:41pm

UPPER WEST SIDE — The owners of three single-room occupancy buildings have agreed to pay the city $600,000, fix dozens of dangerous building code violations, and stop renting rooms to tourists for overnight stays.

The agreement settles a lengthy legal battle between the city and the owners of the single-room occupancy, or SRO, buildings at 315 W. 94th St., 316 W. 95th Street and 330 W. 95th Street. The buildings are home to roughly 600 people.

The city sued the SRO owners in 2007 after hundreds of tenants complained that their landlords were renting out rooms to travelers for short-term stays. Tenants said landlords harassed them or refused to make repairs so permanent residents would leave and landlords could rent their rooms to higher-paying tourists.

"It's a terrific settlement," said Deborah Rand, assistant commissioner for housing litigation at the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. "It says to people that when they violate the law and they use buildings intended for permanent residents for the more lucrative tourist trade, the city will enforce the law and there will be a consequence."

SRO buildings, where residents live in simple studios, share bathrooms down the hall and cook using hotplates, have long been a source of cheap housing. But renting the SRO rooms to tourists ate into the city's scarce supply of affordable housing units, advocates said.

The city's lawsuit against the SRO owners prompted wider action on the issue, and on May 1, a new state law went into effect prohibiting SRO building owners from renting rooms to tourists, or anyone else who stays for less than 30 days.

Advocates for SRO tenants say some building owners aren't following the new law — they still get complaints from tenants about landlords renting rooms to overnight guests, said Marti Weithman, director of the Goddard Riverside Community Center's SRO Law Project.

The agreement and an accompanying court order force the SRO building owners to comply with the new law, and penalizes them if they don't.

The owners must send monthly reports to the city about who rents their rooms, how long they stay and how much rent they pay. If they rent to someone other than a permanent tenant, they'll be fined $750 per unit per day, according to the court order. If they don't provide a monthly occupancy report to the city, they'll be fined $5,000.

Attorneys for the SRO building owners could not be reached immediately for comment.

"We're hopeful this will be a deterrent for other [SRO] owners who are renting to transients," Weithman said.

The court order should also improve the quality of life for the building's permanent tenants, because they'll have permanent neighbors instead of tourists who come and go at all hours, Weithman said. She added that the agreement also protects New York's dwindling supply of affordable housing.

But some say the May 1 law and the court order will create more problems than they've solved.

Now that renting rooms to tourists is illegal, some SRO building owners have been paid by the city to fill rooms with homeless people placed in their buildings by the Department of Homeless Services. That's prompted an outcry from some tenants and local residents, who say they'd rather have tourists than homeless people living next door.

"The buildings are supposed to be for permanents residents," said Aaron Biller, president of neighborhood group Neighborhood in the Nineties. "If the city is for preserving SRO housing stock, why are they working so hard to destroy it? How much more transient can you get than a homeless shelter?"

DHS spokeswoman Barbara Brancaccio told the New York Times that the agency has never had any contracts with any of the SRO buildings involved in the lawsuit. However, starting in 2009, DHS placed roughly 200 homeless people in the SRO buildings the city sued, then removed them earlier this year, DHS spokeswoman Heather Janik told DNAinfo.

The buildings where DHS placed homeless people had been fined for serious safety violations.

None of the three SRO buildings in the lawsuit currently have contracts with the agency's supportive housing program, or any other DHS program, according to Janik.

Biller said he believes the loss of tourists in SRO buildings has taken an economic toll on nearby restaurants and businesses. He'd like to see he city use the buildings for a combination of income-generating tourist rentals and permanent affordable housing for New Yorkers.

Rand, the city's attorney, pointed out that it's legal to rent SRO rooms to anyone, including homeless people, as long as they stay for at least 30 days.

"With all due respect to the people in the community, [the homeless] are citizens of New York too, and they're entitled to live in the building for 30 days or longer," Rand said. "The concern was people coming in and out on a daily basis, and that is no longer permitted. We don't get into who rents them. That's outside government's role. Everybody has a right to rent."