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Hellish Conditions at Single-Room Occupancy Hotels

August 1998

This is part one of a two-part article concerning commercial single-room occupancy (SROs) housing for people who are HIV-positive. This part will focus on the horrible conditions I observed in them, focusing primarily on the California Suites, and the inhumane tactics tenants are subjected to by management at these hotels.

hole in bathroom ceiling  
The owners of the California Suites, a single-room occupancy hotel in Manhattan, started a gut rehabilitation of their building in the fall of 1997. Unfortunately for the 100 clients of the city's Department of AIDS Services and Income Support [DASIS] that lived there, along with dust and dangerous construction, the hotel management started an aggressive campaign of harassment and intimidation to force them out.

The California is an extreme example, but it tells the story of the often unsanitary and brutal conditions in the commercial SROs where 1,100 of New York's most vulnerable people living with AIDS are housed. Some of these people are present or former drug users. Others are impoverished or mentally incapacitated people cut off from their families and support networks, who do not have the ability to obtain safer, better housing.

In March 1998, the non-profit organization, Housing Works released a devastating report on the atrocious conditions in five of the worst commercial SROs in Manhattan and the Bronx. The report detailed drug dealing and loansharking carried out by hotel staff, physical and sexual abuse of DASIS clients living in the hotels, and even murder.

The report had been prepared for the Mayor's Office of AIDS Policy Coordination by the National Development Research Institute (NDRI), an independent research group, and was submitted to the city government in May 1997. The Mayor's Office did not make the findings public, and the conditions of the five hotels remained the same.

Aren Merjian, senior staff attorney for Housing Works (left) and Derrick Hanna, DASIS client filing lawsuit.  
Aren Merjian, senior staff attorney for Housing Works (left) and Derrick Hanna, DASIS client filing lawsuit.
When the report was released to the press, referrals to the hotels in the report were terminated. The unwanted publicity resulted in an emergency housing team from DASIS being sent to the California and offering alternative housing to the remaining residents.

Two years ago, I went to half a dozen commercial SROs to write another story. The conditions of the hotels were uniformly depressing and some were outright dangerous, though the California Suites in particular stood out. The hallways had a persistent smell similar to old kitty litter, and the garbage was stacked up near the elevator on each floor. A duo of non-resident drug dealers ran up and down the stairs, sometimes threatening the residents.

Despite the poor conditions, some residents formed small groups of friends that looked out for each other. When one tenant's infected abscess on her hand resulted in a dangerous fever, her neighbors made sure that she sought medical attention.

Indio Fights Management Harassment

When I visited the California last December, construction debris was all over the halls. One manager there told me that the building was going to be converted into a dormitory. Another manager said that all the residents were being moved out and would be moved back in when the hotel was rehabilitated.

I met up with Indio, a resident who had lived in the hotel for two years. A Vietnam vet and a mechanic from Brooklyn who tested HIV positive in 1992, Indio was trying to organize residents to resist management attempts to harass them. "[The manager] is offering people buyouts to leave for as little as $100 cash," he said. "That's not a responsible thing to do to people who might have drug problems." I'd been warned that the environment in the hotel could be poisonous, with some residents acting as spies for management.

According to the city's Department of Housing, Preservation and Development, the California had at least 50 building violations last winter. The owner of the hotel is a notorious SRO landlord who served jail time for harassing clients in his other buildings. Despite his horrible record, DASIS was unaware that he owned the hotel and sent clients there for years. DASIS stopped referrals to it when the West Side SRO Law Project, a legal aid group for SRO residents, informed DASIS about who owned the hotel.

Though city agencies inspect the hotels and issue fines for violations, the city often doesn't collect them. "The landlords of the SROs are not paying attention to the laws," said Elizabeth Kane, the head of the West Side SRO Law Project. "Two-hundred-and-fifty-dollar fines are the price of doing business. Stop work orders? So what, they keep working. The construction creates terrible problems for tenants. Sometimes the landlords pretend to do construction just to harass the residents."

Indio said that the manager and the staff of the hotel would pester the clients every day about moving out. Broken sheetrock was everywhere, the elevator was shut off on weekends and sometimes construction cut off the hot water.

Indio had turned his small room into a comfortable haven, crammed with all of his possessions. On the wall was a Viet Cong machete. "I keep it sharp in case anyone comes in," he said. "I'm strong ... I can lift refrigerators by myself." On top of his TV were his plaster Santeria statues. "They watch over me and tell me when there is danger."

Indio was often visited by his friend Robert, a Philadelphia native who kept being shuttled between several SROs. Though he'd only tested positive one year before, he kept coming down with PCP. When he was first hospitalized, he was staying at an SRO in the Bronx. The management closed his room and put all his possessions in the unlocked basement. His possessions were stolen, including crucial paperwork for navigating the AIDS bureaucracy. Robert left the hospital and was put in another hotel. When he was hospitalized again, all his clothes were stolen.

Indio spoke of the communal feeling some residents had at the California. "For Thanksgiving, we had a big feast," said Indio. "I cooked a meal in the hall kitchen for a big group of us. We are the only family we've got."

Most resistance to the hostile management fell apart when Indio was arrested by police in January 1998. The systematic destruction of the rooms continued.

I went back to Indio's room two days after he left the hotel. His possessions had been left in place and the walls, sheetrock and plaster, had been pulled down on top of them, destroying everything, including the religious statues that kept him safe.

The construction condition of the hotel kept on getting worse. The open rooms with kicked in doors and bashed walls presented a potential hazard to the residents. Ralph, a former window dresser and resident of the California for 18 months, said that the dust was giving him a mysterious rash. He was stressed out because the hotel manager bothered him so much about moving out. Ralph had to sneak in and out of the hotel to avoid him.

garbage in room  

Atrocious Hotel Conditions

The other hotels mentioned in the NDRI report contained horrors as well. The report raised allegations that the hotel staff at an SRO on the west side of Manhattan were involved in the manufacture and distribution of crack cocaine. At this particular SRO, the middle-aged woman manager allegedly ran a loansharking ring. At the beginning and middle of the month, she and her enforcers would drive the residents who owed her money to a nearby bank to cash their checks.

At another one in the vicinity, indifferent management let a 6'4", 300-lb. non-resident thug roam the hallways, stealing food, money and drugs from the residents. The bully would routinely beat and shakedown people, including a 69-year-old man who'd lost his legs to diabetes. After one brutal night when the bully stole his groceries and slapped him around, the elderly man shot him to death.

Debra Sproles, a spokeswoman for the city's Human Resources Administration (HRA), the parent agency of DASIS, said there has been no improvement in the hotels cited in the NDRI report. "When DASIS is notified of poor conditions in the hotels, the landlords are placed on a non-referral list until the conditions are corrected. The HRA has not referred any new clients to these hotels. "There are clients currently remaining at these hotels. The clients remaining are monitored on a regular basis," she stated.

Sproles said that there are occasions where clients refuse to move from hotels with poor conditions, even when offered alternative housing.

Even with the horrible and dreary conditions in the hotels, some AIDS advocates would argue that a bad hotel room is better than no hotel room. At present, a housing crisis has developed at DASIS, with DASIS being unable to place many of its clients in temporary or permanent housing. The factors that contribute to this situation are: an SRO owner boycott and the sky-high rates that DASIS is expected to pay for commercial SRO rooms.

According to the political magazine City Limits, the 33 commercial SRO owners who are housing DASIS clients organized a boycott of new referrals in January 1998, claiming that they are owed $3 million in back rents by DASIS. It appears that the hotel owners are also trying to undo a 1995 order by the city to cap prices in SROs for clients with AIDS.

The market-value room for a rent-stabilized SRO room is supposed to be about $450 a month. DASIS routinely pays rents as high as $1200 a month for rooms that do not have bathrooms and are less than 100 square feet. The high rates DASIS pays goes back to the perceived stigma of AIDS as a disease in the late 1980s and the difficulty in housing DASIS clients. It is also believed that the exorbitant amount of rent charged helps to allow the landlords to covert SRO hotels into tourist hotels and dormitories.

Two DASIS clients have filed a lawsuit against DASIS and the HRA in response to the housing shortage. Housing Works is pursuing this lawsuit on behalf of Derrick Hanna and John Simmons, DASIS clients who have been repeatedly denied "medically appropriate" housing by the agency.

"As a result of the battle with SRO owners, there is a housing shortage," said Armen Merjian, the senior staff attorney for Housing Works. "DASIS is literally turning people out on the street. This is a gross violation of human rights, as well as a violation of the [city's] DASIS law passed last year requiring DASIS to house it clients in medically appropriate transitional or permanent housing."

According to a DASIS worker cited in the lawsuit, for the roughly 20 DASIS clients who go to the Emergency Placement Unit of Waverly Place every day, only four or five receive housing.

Sproles of the HRA could not comment on the housing shortage, but said, "The HRA is committed to providing housing support for individual people with AIDS. We are pursuing multiple strategies to ensure that AIDS patients who need housing get housing."


Hampered Caseworkers

Federal funds support caseworker placement in many of the commercial SROs that house DASIS patients. Casework is often inconsistent and leans toward being poor. Some caseworkers are diligent and compassionate. Others hide in their rooms and lock the door behind them. According to the NDRI report, one caseworker would play favorites. When given free meals to distribute, she would give food to the clients she liked and would tell those she didn't like that there was no food.

Conscientious caseworkers are hampered from advocating for their clients in two ways. As federal employees, they have very little power in the city's social service bureaucracy. The caseworker's independence is also hindered by the fact the hotel owners give the caseworker office space or sometimes take this office space away. According to a source familiar with a situation at one particular SRO, a caseworker who complained about staff involvement in drug dealing was moved out of the hotel.

DASIS clients make perfect targets for hotel management abuse. It is a floating population where residents of the hotels come and go. Residents can be reluctant to file complaints against hotel management for fear of making their own situation much worse.

Hotel managers can control or abuse troublesome tenants by closing their room if they are hospitalized or leave the hotels for any length of time. A record of hotel abuses is hard to develop if clients making complaints are moved before the complaints can be investigated.

An organized and tough tenant, though, can fight back, as in the case of David Frank, a tenant in the California.

A small, intense man with large glasses, David was a two-year resident at the California, where he lived with his lover. The harassment he had experienced from the manager of the hotel was both petty and grand. "The manager called my cable company and told them I'd died, so they turned off my service," said David. When his lover died, a hotel manager offered to loan him money at 100 percent interest.

David, however, was alive and willing to fight. "During the construction, they locked the fire exit. I called the fire department and they levied fines."

In a complaint filed with the SRO Law Project, David charged that in one confrontation, the manager grabbed him by the throat and threatened him. He also charged that the manager allowed thugs who are not residents of the California Hotel to sleep in the few abandoned rooms that are not filled with garbage so that they could menace the remaining tenants to intimidate them.

"One man always menaces me and threatens to beat me up," said David. The bully turned out to be Robert, the HIV-positive man from Philadelphia. In the commercial SRO hotels, people are often turned against each other.

David was also vehement when it came to defending his own rights. After the management at the hotel found out I was a journalist, they threw me out of it. When I went back in with David and the manager tried to throw me out again, David confronted him. "I know my rights. He is my guest, and unless he is a danger to me, to himself or to hotel property, you can't throw him out." The manager, though fearsome and manipulative with other people, was restrained by David.

In March 1998, David gave me a tour of the ongoing rehabilitation of the hotel. He showed me open fuse boxes that showered sparks, his collapsed bathroom ceiling, and haphazard piles of debris.

To appease David, the manager had moved him to one of the almost completed new rooms. Wires were still hanging out of the electrical sockets and the floor was unfinished. "They have offered to find me an apartment, but I don't want to leave the Upper West Side. I've lived here for 15 years already."

David took a certain glee in his own stridency. He routinely called the Department of Buildings and the H.P.D. to report construction violations. He recorded the dates of violations and harassment incidents in his date book for future reference.

In David's case, there was a happy ending. He managed to find his own apartment and left the California. Ralph found an apartment, as well. I met Indio again in early July and he is shuttling back and forth between other SROs.

The California has undergone big changes. Its name has been changed and it reopened on July 1 as a boutique hotel, charging tourists $80 to $120 a night.

"I hear it was a lot different before," said the stylish woman employee who showed me a room. "The bathroom is all marble," she noted with pride. I realized that this is marble DASIS and the city paid for over the years.

As of mid-July, this hotel still has four DASIS clients. Management has put them in unfinished rooms to put pressure on them to leave. Old habits die hard.

* * *

NEXT MONTH: Body Positive will examine possible solutions to improving the commercial SROs. We will talk with former and present residents of the hotels, as well as AIDS and housing specialists. We will get their impressions on what needs to be done to create safe and humane housing for PWAs.

Back to the August 1998 Issue of Body Positive Magazine.

This article was provided by Body Positive. It is a part of the publication Body Positive.
See Also
More on U.S. Gov't Housing Assistance in Eastern States


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