By Sydney H. Schanberg
New York Newsday, July 18, 1986
Four small children died in a fire last Friday in a welfare hotel in Brooklyn. Their parents have been charged with endangering them by leaving them for hours locked in the family’s single room, where they apparently started the fire in a mattress by playing with matches.
In the aftermath, as the press focused not only on the parents’ behavior but also on conditions in the hotel, Koch administration officials seemed defensive and nervous — afraid that once again the scandal of the welfare hotels would be laid on City Hall’s limestone steps.
These officials agitatedly pointed out that while the Brooklyn Arms Hotel, like all welfare palaces, has loads of building and safety violations, none of these offenses contributed to the fire and the deaths of the little children. One can understand officialdom’s anxiousness, for the disgrace of the welfare hotels is indeed enormous. And though the city does not merit all of the ignominy for the situation, it has earned its share.
Until quite recently, the city used the 55 welfare hotels as an excuse for a housing policy, a convenient dumping ground for families priced out of New York City’s insane housing market. Years of pressure by housing activists and advocated for the homeless have now, finally, let the administration to pursue alternatives to these hovels — permanent low-income housing that will cost far less than the exorbitant hotel rents.
Yet such housing is still mostly a promise and 3,400 families continue to live in the hotels. This translates into 12,300 people, 8,200 of them children. Another 327 families live in dormitory shelters and 388 are staying in family centers.
Still another 8,000 homeless — single individuals — are warehoused in barracks-style shelters.
The city, in short, is housing 23,000 homeless people these days, which of course does not count the thousands of others who make the doorways and sidewalks their address.
Statistics tend to numb and to relieve the individual of particular responsibility for the human beings who have been reduced to such surroundings.
Yet it is difficult to personalize surroundings so bleak. The four Alvarez children who died in the fire, ages 1 1/2 to 7, lived with their parents in a room that measured 12 feet by 12 feet. That’s it. That was the totality of their home. About the size of two prison cells. And as everyone knows, even when New York’s prisons are overcrowded, no more than two inmates are ever stuffed into one cell. There were six Alvarezes in the equivalent of two cells. Durance vile.
For this mean cage, the city pays the landlord $49 a night — or $1,500 a month. Which is $18,000 a year.
Actually, this is on the low end of welfare hotel rents. Some of the owners of these dives charge $100 a room — over $36,000 a year.
Not to single him out, but just for the record, the owner of the Brooklyn Arms Hotel is Bertram Fields, the husband of the opera singer, Roberta Peters. He said his family had purchased the hotel in 1950 but has been leasing it since 1960 to the present managers, Merco Properties. “As a landlord,” Field said, “I cannot tell them [the managers] what to do.”
Fields has, however, hired former Mayor Robert Wagner Sr. as his lawyer to oppose the city’s plans to have the hotel condemned. The condemnation would be part of the preparation for a major development project designated to upgrade the Fort Greene area.
Wagner’s fee will presumable come out of the more than $5 million in rents that the city pays annually for Fields’ 12×12 accommodations for the poor. Welfare hotels may be slightly cramped, but they are profitable.
Critics of the present system, such as Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, a Democrat from Manhattan, have advocated drastic measures to end the gouging and improve the hotel living conditions. Gottfried proposed that in extreme cases, the city should use the violations in the hotels as a legal basis for taking the operation away from the owners and turning it over to nonprofit organizations.
Last week, two local congressmen, Charles Schumer (D-Brooklyn) and Theodore Weiss (D-Manhattan), introduced federal legislation that would allow the city to use Washington’s emergency assistance funds to build permanent housing for the homeless. This could reduce or end the city’s dependence on the welfare hotels. Under present law, the federal funds — which pay for half the city’s annual $250-million bill for the homeless – can be used only for temporary house, such as shelters and hotels.
One result of the death of the children at the Brooklyn Arms was that it brought Jesse Jackson and his publicity machine to town. He led a rally outside the hotel and then secured a photo-opportunity meeting with his old adversary on racial issues, Mayor Edward Koch. Together, they called for a national summit conference to develop ideas to create housing for the poor. It’s housing that’s needed, not summits.
In the meantime, children will continue to die in these hotels. Fire is dramatic, but it is not the familiar killer. The living conditions are.
The infant mortality rate in the welfare hotels is 25 deaths per 1,000 births — which is double the citywide rate, higher than the rate in the city’s poorest neighborhoods and higher even than the rate in some of the world’s so-called developing countries.
There has to be a better way to provide roofs for our children.