I confess to being very surprised when the conversion of an infamous community building around the corner from where I live was the lead story of the New York Times National section one day at the end of last month. The headline captured the historic significance of the Royal Park Hotel on West 97th Street — “From Tenement to Illegal Hotel to Housing for the Homeless.” It’s an issue I am very familiar with having spent a good portion of my work career fighting the community battles surrounding the housing of homeless people on the Upper West Side.
(Disclosure: I am the former Executive Director of Goddard Riverside Community Center. Goddard Riverside has been instrumental in preserving several neighborhood single-room occupancy (SRO) buildings that now house hundreds of formerly homeless people.)
I wear some of the scars from the opposition groups we dealt with in converting older run-down SROs to permanent housing with support services. These residences have helped those on the margins to find a permanent home and be a vital part of our community. However, there were also sympathetic block associations that supported our efforts. My work on these projects, and steadfast belief that everyone has a right to a decent, safe place to sleep at night, has reaffirmed for me that there is a simple, obvious solution to homelessness and it’s housing.
The Royal Park Hotel, operated for many years as an illegal tourist hotel, was recently acquired by the Fortune Society, a highly respected community organization that helps formerly incarcerated people re-enter society and move on with their lives. Once renovated, the building will consist of 82 permanent units with on-site support services to help residents address issues of employment, public benefits and mental health concerns.
Programs like this – combining safe affordable housing with services – have proven to be very effective in overcoming the significant barriers facing homeless individuals. Since the late 1980s, the city has spearheaded the development of nearly 32,000 units of supportive housing, the most in any one city in the country. Every New York City administration, regardless of political bent, has recognized the importance of this type of housing in crafting a solution to what sometimes feels like an insolvable community problem.
Given the dearth of affordable housing, and the growing need for those who cannot afford the sky-high rents, the transfer of these properties to responsible and competent nonprofit housing organizations has been an important development even if it seems like no more than a drop in the bucket.
Just to provide some perspective, a little history is in order. The news of the Royal Park reflects the broader struggle to preserve some semblance of affordable housing in our neighborhood. It is not so revolutionary. The advent of SRO housing, generally described as single rooms with shared bathrooms that are often down the hall, is as old as New York City itself. By the mid-1950s these types of units had become very much a housing resource of last resort for poor individuals.
Even back then, the city forbid the building of new SROs by for-profit developers since they were seen as substandard housing. (Nonprofit organizations have been permitted to build new units for the purpose of providing housing for low-income or formerly homeless residents.)
At one point there were over 200,000 SRO type units citywide – sometimes pejoratively called “welfare hotels” – which housed the elderly, infirmed or those who were estranged from their families. SROs were an important affordable housing resource for many people. In fact, by the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the homeless population exploded, those on the street often cited having lived in an SRO as their last permanent housing address.
The ensuing years saw the decimation of SROS as these buildings were bought up by real estate developers and converted to high-end housing. It was a period when gentrification ran rampant in the neighborhood. Before the moratorium of SRO conversion was eventually implemented in 1985, nearly two-thirds of this housing stock was either demolished or converted to luxury housing. Today, by some estimates, just a little over 25,000 private SRO units are in existence, many in the hands of landlords who have reaped enormous profits on the backs of poor tenants.
The more recent use of these rooms has been their unlawful use as short term, tourist hotels. As the tourist industry in the city grew, it was common to see a plethora of young people from afar with rolling suitcases entering these buildings that once provided permanent shelter for poor people. Enter the pandemic, and the absence of New York City as a popular destination place, we find many of these buildings now on the market. This is particularly true on the Upper West Side where there still exists a considerable stock of SRO housing ripe for conversion.
Ted Hougton, who heads an organization called Gateway that assists nonprofits in developing low-income and supportive housing, has tracked these buildings. “There are over 100 hotels citywide with no viable use for them. Depending on their building code designation, many can be quickly converted to permanent housing,” he shared. “If we don’t figure out a way to build more housing for homeless people we will never solve the problem.”
The new mayor has committed to developing additional units of supportive housing to address the homeless crisis, and there is legislation pending at the State level that would provide funding to convert underused hotels to permanent housing. There are already several other SRO-type properties being considered by local community groups.
Larry Wood, Goddard Riverside’s director of advocacy and organizing, has worked on the issue of SROs for decades. “There used to be hundreds of these types of buildings and thousands of SRO units on the Upper West Side,” Woods emphasized when we spoke. “Today, there remain less than 13,000 units in Community Board #7 and only a small number of buildings have been turned over to community organizations,” he added. “These are not new units. They have always existed on the Upper West Side. Even preserving a fraction of them is consistent with maintaining the neighborhood’s diversity.”
Yes, we can expect some opposition to these buildings although the arguments may be specious. Sheldon Fine, a member of CB7 since 1986, is optimistic that the “Not In My Backyard” (NIMBY) syndrome can be overcome. “I believe that if the right provider is involved and the right process is in place, the community’s legitimate concerns can be addressed. This was true of the Fortune Society, which has committed to having an active community advisory group. The organization taking on the project also needs to understand the community. Most people don’t understand that these two things are linked – the provision of good, safe housing and responsiveness to the community.”
Still, the timing seems right to take advantage of this window to upgrade this historic community housing resource so those who face economic and personal challenges can live in our community with dignity and respect.
Even in today’s real estate market, while there may be the financing to make this a reality, it remains to be seen if there is the political and community will.
Stephan Russo is a West Side Spirit contributor.