Koch’s Latest Sleight-of-Hand on SRO Hotels

By Sydney H. Schanberg

New York Newsday, December 12, 1986

It’s snowing outside my window, which reminds me of two seasonal truths in New York, city of wealth: The stores are filled with people buying Christmas gifts, and the streets are filled with others who are cold and seek no other gift than a clean, warm room.

There used to be a lot of single-room-occupancy hotels in this city where the infirm and the elderly and the working poor could find haven and manage to subsist on their small incomes. Some lived on Social Security payments or meager retirement pensions. Others lived on public assistance or disability benefits.

But since 1970, 100,000 of these SRO rooms — a form of housing crucial for the non-affluent single adults of this city — have fallen to the wrecker’s ball. The pace of the destruction quickened dramatically in recent years as real-estate developers rushed to cash in on the tax abatements that were being offered so generously by the Koch administration to those who would destroy these modest dwellings and replace them with luxury apartments for the well-heeled.

Where did these 100,000 people go? No one knows. No one even tried to find out. No alarm was sounded about their disappearance, none of the crisis rhetoric that was spouted about such population shifts as “white flight” or “brain drain.”

Mayor Koch and his minions denied until their throats grew hoarse that any appreciable number of the SRO people had become members of the swelling homeless population, for to admit this would be to confess that the city’s real-estate policies had cruelly forced nomads onto our streets.

But that’s exactly what had happened. The city had offered incentives to empty these buildings in the name of the new religion: gentrification. And it was done. Now, all the studies show that perhaps a quarter or more of the 50,000-60,000 homeless who wander this city once lived in an SRO hotel. 

The mayor, faced with this disgrace and with the public pressure that arose from it, temporarily modified his policy of selling the city to the highest bidders and campaign contributors. With only 50,000 or so SRO rooms left in the city, nearly all of them in Manhattan, he agreed to a brief moratorium on the destruction of these hotels — while he prepared a program to deal with the problem.

That moratorium expires in 19 days, on Dec. 31. The mayor’s program is now before the City Council in the form of a bill titled Intro 646. It has a high-sounding preamble and some high-sounding provisions that purport to preserve or replace the existing SRO units.

But read closely and you will find a very different reality.

The preamble calls the SRO situation “a serious public emergency.” It acknowledges that many of those who have been displaced “are elderly and infirm persons of low income who are incapable of finding alternative accommodations.” It even admits that “a considerable number of such persons have become a part of a growing homeless population.”

But the core provision of the bill would not, as it contends, “stem the tide” of displacement. It would simply require developers to pay the city $45,000 for every SRO unit they demolished.

As long as they paid the city this fee, which represents but a small dent in their anticipated profits, developers could push existing tenants out, raze the building and put up a luxury high-rise in its stead.

The city, on its part, would put the money in a special fund for the creation of low- and moderate-income housing. It sounds good, but what would happen in the meantime — while the city is supposedly building this housing — to the SRO tenants who would be displaced right now. Where would they go? They’d go where they’ve always gone every time a rapacious developer threw them out — onto the street.

Does the bill even say that the future units would be earmarked for the particular people who were displaced? It does not. Does it guarantee that the fees paid by the developer will cover the construction costs of the same number of units he demolished? It does not.

This is only the tip of the deception. For example, the bill exempts developers from the fees if their SRO building has 24 or fewer units. It also exempts them if the building is already empty. And it reduces or forgives the fees if the developers can show hardship — a clause that must have been inserted to add a dash of humor.

Finally, the Koch administration has made it clear that whatever replacement housing is built, it will not be in Manhattan, but instead in Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens or Staten Island. Manhattan is for the people of fizz and bubble and sparkle and shine. The poor better get out of town.

Bur how will the elderly and infirm make it? The same way they always made it, I suppose, when they were hounded out of their SROs by the developers’ hired hands — with thugs and baseball bats and dogs chasing them down the stairs.

A few months ago, when an enterprising reporter discovered that another of the mayor’s much ballyhooed plans to build subsidized apartments had evaporated into the graveyard of press releases, His Honor explained: “Listen, I want to make something clear. The hardest thing to get built is housing.”

Perhaps. Especially when it’s so much easier to throw people out, in this borough of the high-rollers. The snow outside has turned into a cold rain. You can look for an increase in the huddled masses on our sidewalks this winter.

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