NEW YORK—Elected officials and residents of Manhattan’s Upper West Side gathered outside Hotel Alexander on West 94th Street Sunday to send a message to the Department of Homeless Services (DHS).
The DHS is proceeding with plans to turn the building into a transitional shelter for 200 homeless men without seeking feedback from residents or community boards, say locals. The agency has signed a contract with the Samaritan Village Inc. to operate the shelter for nine years for $7.9 million a year.
Area residents and officials claim that the decision is ill-conceived, and they are demanding a dialogue between those who live in the neighborhood and the DHS.
The Alexander is an illegal hotel—a building designated for permanent residences that also rents out rooms on a nightly basis.
Marti Weithman, project director of Goddard Riverside SRO Law Project, said that using Single Room Occupancy (SRO) housing as transient shelter is a short-sighted attempt that opposes permanent affordable housing.
“The city provides enormous incentives to SRO owners to force tenants out of their homes by offering lucrative contracts for these placements,” she said. “The irony is that if a tenant who pays $400 a month for an SRO room is forced out of their home, they could enter the homeless system and be placed in another SRO, with the city paying upward of $3,000 a month at the expense of tax payers.”
The law passed to crack down on illegal hotels was an effort to protect permanent housing, and the DHS plan for the Hotel Alexander does not support this cause, said Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer.
“We don’t think the local community is benefiting,” Stringer said of the DHS initiative, receiving an enthusiastically affirmative response from the crowd of local residents at Sunday’s rally. “We don’t think people who are homeless benefit from this, we don’t think that the city of New York benefits from this process, so maybe it’s a bunch of slum lords who are benefiting from this process,” he continued.
Stringer added that DHS Commissioner Seth Diamond has not responded to his multiple contact attempts and that Tino Hernandez, president of Samaritan Village, indicated to him that they have only been doing what they were told to do by the DHS.
Mel Wymore, chair of Community Board No. 7 on the Upper West Side, said that people who need shelter now will need affordable housing six months later.
“It makes no sense to cannibalize precious long-term affordable units for short-term transitional care. It’s like robbing from Peter to pay Paul. We need to think holistically to address the whole continuum of need,” Wymore said.
City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito said that this plan is not the sort of message the city should be sending, and that it would be rewarding bad behavior.
“When you have bad neighbors, such as the SROs—who at one point illegally converted to a hotel, who have been bad neighbors, who have defied the laws—and now they’re coming to the city to benefit from a lucrative contract, that sends a really bad message,” Viverito said. “We want transparency, we want accountability, and we want collaborative decision making—that’s what this is about.”
Councilwoman Gale Brewer said she was shocked to discover, upon speaking to the agency, that the DHS wasn't aware of 8–10 residents currently living in the Alexander. Some of these residents grew up in the hotel. She added that the DHS cannot turn the building into a shelter if there are permanent residents still living there.
“This building has people in it, they cannot vacate these people. They have attorneys, and it’s just not going to happen,” said Aaron Biller, president of Neighborhood in The Nineties Inc. “As long as the tenants stay together, this isn’t going to happen.”
Wymore said that Sunday's protest is a first step addressing the issue, as they were notified of the DHS's plan to convert the building to a shelter only last week. He has been contacting other groups and hopes to work out long-term solutions with the DHS, he added.