Times Square Owner Tries to Oust Tenants for Tourists

SRO Wars:
Times Square Owner Tries to Oust Tenants for Tourists

By Margo Nash
Met Council “Tenant/Inquilino”
October 1996

Editor’s comments: As we post this article from the Met Council newspaper “Tenant/Inquilino”, it’s been reported to us that Longacre manager Ray Cline (mentioned below) recently spent some time in jail for allegedly performing an illegal lockout of a Longacre tenant. The Illegal Eviction Law (NYC Admin. Code section 26-521) makes it a crime for any person to evict or attempt to evict an occupant of a dwelling unit in New York City without a court order. Illegal lockouts at the Longacre apparently are not new. In early summer 1996, Cline and Longacre owner/mortgagee Alan Lapes (see below) allegedly performed other illegal lockouts (and, as it was reported to us, were even aided by Midtown North police officers in violation of the Police Guide Procedure No. 117-11). This issue was raised at the June meeting of the Community Board No. 4 Housing Committee where Lapes stated that “now that he knew” such lockouts were illegal, they would not happen again. Apparently they have. Ray Cline is a member of Community Board No. 5 although he lives and works in Community Board No. 4, and he was appointed to his post by New York City Councilman Antonio Pagan who represents the Lower East Side, and who is considered by many to be an enemy to his community and tenants.

The cultured audiences who come to see plays such as “A Delicate Balance” or “Skylight” on West 45th Street have no idea that raw sewage sometimes floats in the hallways in an SRO hotel just across Eighth Avenue. It is hard to tell from the sedate pink brick Georgian facade of the Longacre Hotel at 317 West 45th St. that it is a war zone where residents are struggling to keep their homes and health.

Once the Longacre was like the Barbizon, a place where young women from out of town found safe haven in the big city. Some of those women are still there. But they are no longer young, and the Longacre is no longer safe.

“It’s a terrible situation. The landlords are trying to intimidate us,” said a resident. “Everything comes out of the toilets on certain floors. The phone system in the hotel doesn’t work. We have many elderly women, and if they get sick we cannot phone. It’s like a jungle.”

The 163-unit single-room-occupancy hotel fell on hard times about 15 years ago, after its ownership wound up in the hands of Tran Dinh Truong, who also operated the drug-infested Kenmore Hotel on East 23rd Street. Drug addicts and prostitutes moved into the Longacre, too. When Truong defaulted on the mortgage in June 1995, the courts took over. The court appointed a receiver, Harry S. Malakoff, who hired a manager, Ray Cline, a former member of the McManus Midtown Democratic Club and a member of Community Board 5 appointed by Lower East Side City Councilmember Antonio Pagan.

Though Cline stopped the drugging and prostitution, he did little else, according to tenant activist John Fisher, co-chair of the West 45th Street Block Association. “Throughout last winter the place was falling apart. There were many days without heat. The situation was only corrected when we called Channel Seven,” Fisher recalls.

In April 1996, Alan Jay Lapes took control of the hotel. Located smack in the middle of the state-sponsored redevelopment area where Disney and other entertainment businesses have set their sites, the Longacre was a promising investment. Lapes, the first mortgagee in possession, has been spending money fixing up the top floors of the building with new carpets and modern bathrooms and renting the rooms to European tourists. Downstairs, he has been trying to force out the tenants including 80 or 90 Senegalese immigrants who call the Longacre home.

By spending money upstairs, Lapes will help jack up the price of the property when it is auctioned, making it harder for the second mortgagee, Truong, to get it back, according to Fisher. Lapes has also been trying to buy the permanent residents out. When they don’t accept, he does not accept their rent and gives them eviction notices. Bob Kalin of Housing Conservation Coordinators, a tenant organizer who has been representing the hotel’s residents in court, says there are 25 new nonpayment cases. He is representing 15 of them.

Similar conversions for several hotels

“Lapes’ goal is clearly to empty out as many people as he can,” said Kalin. “Several hotels have gone through similar conversions. You come and sort of pretty up the lobby, clean up the front of the building, force out the permanent tenants, and rent mostly to low and middle-income tourists.”

Alan Lapes was not available for comment. However, in September he told the Chelsea Clinton News that there was nothing wrong with buying out long-term tenants and renting rooms to tourists. “We took a building that was the worst in the neighborhood and improved it,” he told the weekly. “We’re getting nothing but resistance from Kalin.”

Normally, the receiver in a building calls the shots till the building is sold at a foreclosure sale. But in this instance, says Kalin, “Malakoff is a receiver in name only, with little to do. In essence, the mortgage holder is acting like an owner and hiding behind the receiver, and when we start screaming ‘You’re doing repairs and not finishing them,’ they scream ‘There’s a receiver in here and no money.’ In essence, they have a lot of money, but the mortgage holder is only doing work for his own benefit.” Kalin also alleges that Lapes is illegally renovating bathrooms by changing their layouts and commingling them — changing them from common bathrooms to semi-private, which is not allowed under the permits that he has.

Tenants’ living conditions decline

In the meantime, the living conditions of the tenants decline. Lapes begins repairs on their floors, does not complete them, and then complains that he does not have enough funds, at the same time that he renovates upstairs. Common kitchens have been taken out and not replaced. Bathrooms have been demolished but not replaced. The fifth-floor common toilet is broken and overflowing. The house phones no longer work. Upstairs, the tourists enjoy relative luxury, innocents in the New York City landlord-tenant wars.

There are only 83 units left at the Longacre with permanent tenants. Several tenants were illegally evicted, according to Kalin. They were locked out. In some cases police were called to get them out. After Kalin came in, a few were restored to possession and the illegal evictions stopped.

“The bottom line is he is trying to make this into a bed and breakfast,” said John Fisher. “After Giuliani and Pataki put together legislation to change Times Square, these people came in and are destroying SROs. The hotels carry a had connotation, but they are a necessary fragment of the housing equation. We want to preserve the Longacre as affordable housing, and what this guy is doing is forcing people out through one means or another. We are in grave danger of losing another building of affordable housing in this neighborhood to speculation and Mickey Mouse”

Unfortunately, drugs and prostitution seem to be returning to the Longacre, according to Kalin. “It’s yet another form of harassment. If it causes grief to others and still makes a little money in the short run, it meets both goals on a landlord’s agenda”

Al Amateau contributed to this article.