Gov signs illegal hotels bill

By Aline Reynolds

On July 1, a 68-year-old resident of 120 MacDougal Street couldn’t get to bed until 6 a.m. because of her rowdy, drunk neighbors.

Five youths staying in the apartment next door were yelling and cursing loudly in the hallway, saying they needed more to drink. “They kept banging into my door and into my walls,” she recalls.

A new bill that Governor Paterson signed into law on July 23 is intended to enforce an already-existing law that prohibits the rental of residential apartments for less than 30 days. The goal is to ban illegal hotel operators from leasing residential apartments to travelers for a few nights at a time.

Frightened and annoyed, the resident phoned 3-1-1, who connected her to the 6th Precinct. The police arrived at the resident’s neighbor’s door shortly after, telling the tenants to quiet down. The resident has lived in her railroad apartment at 120 MacDougal for 42 years. She requested anonymity for fear of retaliation.

What the police did not know was that they were visitors staying for only a few nights. According to the resident, their landlord was running an illegal hotel operation — Hotel Toshi — in three apartment units at 120 MacDougal.

On July 21 hostel managers and other opponents of the bill protested outside of City Hall and claimed the bill might force them to shut down and, at the least, hurt business. Hotel Toshi did not return calls for comment prior to press time.

The bill clears up vague and subjective terminology in the city’s 1929 multiple dwellings law. “[Law enforcers] ran into ambiguities in the language of the bill that made the law hard to enforce,” said State Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, co-sponsor of the bill.

The hotel operators, in other words, used phrases in the original bill, such as “as a rule” and “primarily,” to justify their short-term leases in the courtroom setting.

The amendment to the bill will help eliminate that loophole in the system. “By removing a legal gray area and replacing it with a clear definition of permanent occupancy, the law will allow enforcement efforts that help New Yorkers who live in [single-room occupancy] units and other types of affordable housing preserve their homes,” Governor Paterson said in a statement.

“The law to begin with wasn’t intended to be permission to run a hotel,” said Lisa Parson, community board liaison for State Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, one of the sponsors of the bill. “But [illegal hotel operators] used the bill’s language as a way to protect themselves.”

So much so that, in January 2009, New York State Supreme Court ruled that landlords could lease out apartment units for transient use so long as permanent dwellers occupied at least 50 percent of the building.

Out of the approximately 300 locations around the city, a handful are situated in Chinatown, SoHo and the Lower East Side, according to the West Side Neighborhood Alliance’s Illegal Hotels Committee.

“[Single-room-occupancy] rooms represent some of the last few truly affordable housing units,” said Ester Wang, Director of the Chinatown Tenants Union at Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence. The conversion to illegal hotel rooms really needs to be stopped.” Wang advises tenants in illegally run units such as those in an apartment building at 81 Bowery in Chinatown.

“The landlord will evict the [permanent residency] tenants and start renting them out on nightly basis,” she explained.

The Alliance has uncovered three other illegal hotels in Chinatown at 49 Division Street, 5 Doyers Street and 15-17 Doyers Street. Hoteliers lease out beds for hours at a time at these locations, according to Tom Cayler, chair of the illegal hotels committee at the Alliance.

“One person gets up, and the other person lies down,” Cayler said. “They could have three different people in a 24-hour period occupy the same mattress.”

The scam is also occurring on the East Side. A resident at 79 Clinton, a Lower East Side tenement building, said that Hotel Toshi leases and sub-lets four apartment units in his building as well.

“It’s a security issue,” the resident said of the transient visitors. He also requested anonymity, given the sensitivity of the issue. “We don’t know who is coming in and out of the building.”

The resident recalls begin awoken at 5 a.m. by a drunk male who rang his doorbell repeatedly in search of his wife, the resident’s neighbor.

“When I confronted, he stopped,” the resident said. “But that’s not something we signed up for.”

The resident, who himself works in the hotel business, said that this illegal behavior will seriously hurt the industry. Eight people at a time are staying in the Hotel Toshi rooms in his apartment building.

“The hotels are losing profits, people are being laid off, and people benefiting are the ones renting illegal hotels,” he said.

The resident reported the scam to the building manager, to no avail.

“They know about it, they just don’t want to hear about it,” he added.