May We Suggest: The Longacre House

May We Suggest: The Longacre House
A Women’s Residence Fights to Stay that Way
City Limits, December 1984
by Annette Fuentes

“We take pride in The Longacre House. This is a gracious residence, of intimate warmth and friendliness — established and maintained in good residential hotel tradition. Here one may enjoy the quiet, comfort and security of a family neighborhood community, yet be just steps away from the shops, theatres and offices of Midtown Manhattan, handy to buses and subways. Our accommodations are excellent: a building, well-appointed and cleanly maintained. Our pleasant rooms include furnished singles with kitchen privileges. Our security services are exceptional: a round-the-clock, attendant, 24-hour switchboard and elevator service.

We take pride in The Longacre House. Our residents do too. The Longacre House is a nice place to live.”

(This brochure for the Longacre has been discontinued by the new owners.)

The Longacre Ladies grapevine was buzzing with news of the latest infamy Friday night, October 12. Riding up the elevator, P. and M. stopped at the fourth floor where the doors opened and a gray-haired woman peered in to tell them, “It was 10 o’clock.” The women inside nodded and told her they’d be back down shortly. Caucusing with other residents on the sixth floor, P. and M. described how a male guest had been taken away in handcuffs at 10 p.m. the night before. A stolen credit card and six policemen cut short his sojourn at the Longacre Hotel.

Things certainly have changed at the Longacre, a single-room occupancy hotel on 45th Street that is home to some 100 women. It was built in 1920 by financier Vincent Astor as a residence for nurses when, as the story goes, his wife’s nurse couldn’t find a place to live.

In the 1940’s it became a residence for all kinds of women: students, career girls and weekend visitors who wanted secure and convenient lodgings with all the amenities. The rich, dark wood paneling and beveled mirrors in a spacious first-floor lounge are elegant reminders of its glory days. Today, the plaster is falling in several bathrooms; shower stalls are rusted and dangerously corroded and some rooms, walls dingy and peeling, haven’t seen new paint in seven years. But these problems pale by comparison to a change which has ruptured the women’s peace and calm. After 64 years as a women’s residence, the Longacre now admits men.

It started with a rumor in September 1983. The hotel’s owner was going to sell and the women residents might have to leave. Several residents sought help from Project Find which put them in touch with attorney Deborah Rand and organizers Nancy Colon and Joanne Micelli of the West Side SRO Law Project. “We held a meeting to discuss tenants’ rights and discuss conditions at the Longacre,” says Rand. “About 40 women showed up.” The rumor became reality when Fleck-Croasmun Partners bought the Longacre one month later for $1,669,000. At the time, there were 20 vacancies in the 167-room hotel for a rate of about 12 percent.

Charles Fleck and Thomas Croasmun, the new owners, are no strangers to the hotel business. They own the Hotel Flex in Atlanta, Georgia; for a while after purchasing the Longacre they called it the Flex, too. They also have major interests in a building on 15th Street which housed a male bathhouse called Man’s Country until the latter closed last winter. A further tie to the gay male community was evidenced by an ad for both the Atlanta and New York hotels in a booklet passed out at the Gay Rodeo held during October in Manhattan. It describes the Longacre as having a coed gym, which it hasn’t. When attorney Rand had a male friend call the Longacre on the basis of the ad, he was told it was premature, that in six months he could rent a room.

The first man moved onto the second floor on February 1, 1984 and the sign on the bathroom was changed to “Men.” Women residents were less than pleased. “We used to sleep with our doors unlocked. You didn’t have to worry about going to another floor or walking in the hallway at night,” says P. “Now they want to change our whole lifestyle around.” That lifestyle is in large part determined by the Longacre’s physical layout which is more like a women’s dormitory than a hotel. There is no plumbing in the rooms. Each floor has a communal bath and shower room and a separate room with toilets in stalls, neither, of which has locks. There is also a warming pantry — a sort of large closet with a sink and a four-burner gas stove — where many residents do all their cooking. An elevator and two stairways at either end of the floors make for free and easy passage from floor to floor. Looking around, one senses that community, not security or privacy, was foremost in the mind of the architect who designed the Longacre.

In May, several more men moved onto the second floor for limited stays and in June women there received notices from hotel manager Steve Cockman advising them they had to move to another floor or face eviction. The owners had obtained a permit to “alter existing warming pantry and bathrooms into new toilet” and plans to paint rooms and sand floors and insisted that the women could not stay in their rooms. In July, women on the ninth floor got the same notice and the Law Project staff sent leaflets telling the women they did not have to move. The same month management ended another tradition: rooms would be rented out on a nightly basis only at a rate of $30 for a single.

The women on the second floor were moved to other rooms but on the ninth, management met resistance. J. is a retired nurse and a 17-year resident of the Longacre. She and four others have remained on the ninth floor. Since Fleck-Croasmun took over, many women have left the hotel and there are now over 40 vacancies. There used to be lots of theatrical people, students who wanted a safe place. Twenty-five or more have left,” says P.

Services residents had been receiving for years were cut back. “Maid service decreased, a 24 hour porter was let go; a 24-hour uniformed guard was also let go which really worries the women. Now there’s no one to watch who is going in and out of the hotel or up to the floors,” says Rand. “We filed a complaint with the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal about cut in required services.”

At the same time, Rand and her colleagues prepared a suit against the owners claiming something no one else ever has: that maintaining the Longacre as a women’s residence was a required service and central to why women moved there. Before management can eliminate that service and rent to men, she insists, they should have to go to DHCR for approval. “We also asked the city’s Housing Preservation and Development to rescind the certificate of non-harassment which had been issued in April so they could do renovations. At first they thought it was silly to insist on an all-women’s residence in 1984. But we asked them to come to a tenants’ meeting in September and they changed their minds, says Rand.

“Visiting the building and spending time with the women there has certainly changed things admits Carol Felstein, Deputy Commissioner at HPD. She has taken a personal interest in the Longacre case and believes maintaining the hotel as a women’s residence is definitely a service. “In order for them to change service they must go to the state. However, the owner hasn’t gone through the process,” she says. She also warns that if any women are thrown out, “we won’t let them do a drop of work.”

On September 10, Judge Louis Grossman made a decision on Rand’s first petition asking that management stop sending notices to residents telling them to move and cease accepting male guests. He converted it into a motion for summary judgement and put the burden of convincing the court on the plaintiffs. Additional legal documents were submitted by both sides for Grossman to make a decision on whether maintaining the hotel as a women’s residence is a required service.

Meanwhile, men continue to stay at the Longacre, especially on weekends. The second floor is completely renovated with sparkling white paint in halls and new platform beds in the rooms. Women were not permitted back on the second floor. It is for men only. At the end of November, manager Steve Cockman made another attempt to move women off the ninth floor and approached several women on the eighth floor about moving so similar renovations could be done. “We don’t know if they have a permit to work on those floors but if they do, it doesn’t justify moving people out of their rooms to paint. And if they work on the bathrooms, the women can just walk to another floor,” claims Rand.

Rand’s class action on behalf of 19 hotel stabilized residents, contends that the all-women status of the hotel was a feature promoted by management in brochures, by plaque on the front of the building (which was removed) and orally at the time of registration. She refers to other cases in which definition of “required services” as set down in the Metropolitan Hotel Industry Association (METHISA) code have included not only physical things but those elements “central to the ambience and quality life at the hotel.” She compares the Longacre situation to that at Tudor City, where management was forced to maintain a park when the courts ruled that “recreational access and light and air access” to the nearby parks were required services. Certainly the security of an all-woman building is as critical to tenants, many of whom are elderly, as incidental services the courts have ordered to be maintained in other cases, she argues.

Arthur Shaw, attorney with HPD submitted an amicus brief which reiterates Rand. “The theme of the brief is that maintenance of the hotel for women only is a required service,” Shaw states. “I also look at Tudor City case to establish that the nature and ambience of the hotel is based on being a women’s hotel. Further, that ambience functions as security and was intend to do so.”

Neither partner in the Longacre could be reached for comment; in fact, several attempts to reach Croasmun were ignored. Manager Cockman, the appointed spokesman, defended his employers’ policies and denied that any harassment of the women or plan to evict them was taking place. “It is economically unfeasible to rent just to women. We were limiting our market and running an unsuitable vacancy rate,” he claims although he could not state what it was or how the rate has changed now that they accept men.

“Many of the women here pay $50 a week under rent stabilization. You can’t function in the city on that,” Cockman says. Asked why they didn’t file for a hardship increase from the Rent Guidelines Board, he responded, “That can take two years. Our strategy is to bring in transient guests and still offer affordable rates for mid- to low-income residents. It allows us to subsidize the residents.”

While Cockman asserts that management wants women residents to stay and has no plans to kick anyone out, it’s plain that their needs have taken a backseat in the effort to renovate for a transient clientele. Rooms on all floors but the second are badly in need of work; leaks in bathroom plumbing, rusty showers, decrease in linen, maid and garbage removal service and the removal of knobs on all radiators have changed quality of life at the Longacre. But the greatest loss is the sense of comfort and safety women enjoyed.

Cockman dismisses the women’s fear of having men in the building as coming from 12 out of 100 residents. “This smacks of a Snidely Whiplash thing. None of this exists. We’re simply trying to make a living. I don’t understand why there’s concern of something happening.” He says male guests are advised it is a women’s residence and that panels are being made for the elevators indicating which floors are for men. No safety measures are planned, nor will the 24-hour guard be reinstated.

Many people doubt that management’s decision to rent to men was reached based on making the hotel financially sound. In the first place, Fleck-Croasmun have been soliciting a male clientele steadily since purchasing the Longacre. in August, 1984, ads were placed in The Advocate, a newspaper read primarily by gay men. Cockman admitted that they have made little progress in attracting female transient guests. “We’re pursuing women but they just don’t have the networks. It’s easier to attract men; they have their old boys’ network set up.”

Some, including Commissioner Felstein believe, “There’s no question that they could fill the hotel up with women. From the size of the building, I think appropriate management could turn a profit. With the number of SRO’s dwindling, there are so few places people can go. There are definitely people who would stay at the Longacre.”

The loss of affordable SRO housing is a serious concern and one which weighs on the minds of Longacre residents. From 1978 to 1982, 32,000 SRO units were lost to renters in the city. “There are a lot of elderly women here,” says P. “They’ll have no place to go if they push us out.”

A few women’s residences still exist in Manhattan, including four run by the Salvation Army. The YWCA no longer rents rooms and several non-profit residences like the Baptist Residence on Third Ave. and 53rd St. have fallen prey to co-op conversion fever. Anne Teicher of the East Side SRO Project is now working with women at St. Mary’s Residence on 72nd St. who have received notices limiting residency to four years. “A lot of women have been there 10-12 years and have made it their home. They’re being told they have to leave at the end of December. Where are they going to go?” Her strategy is to gain protection for women under rent stabilization codes; because St. Mary’s is a non-profit organization, rent codes may not apply.

At the Allerton Hotel for Women, manager Peter Cullen says demand for their rooms is great. “We’re running an 80-90 percent occupancy rate. Right now there are no rooms. We have women of all ages, lots of seniors who have been living here for years.” Times have changed since the 1930’s when the Allerton was a residence for weekend shoppers and club members. Young women now share apartments with other women or with men, he points out, but they still come to the Allerton as a jumping off point. Prices there are $110 a week.

Located in the heart of the Clinton community, the Longacre Hotel will likely become a boom operation when the Times Square redevelopment and Convention Center projects are completed, not a minor consideration for the owners. The displacement of residents in favor of higher paying transient guests can be viewed as the first ripple of a process that many Clinton residents fear will sweep the area like a tidal wave. But before Fleck-Croasmun can have their way, they’re going to have to contend with the Longacre ladies — something they probably didn’t count on. “Why did they come and upset a house of women?” P. asks rhetorically. “If the man doesn’t want us here, he’s gonna pay a heavy price for it.” Laughing, she emphasizes, “He’s gonna pay a hell of a price to get us out of here.”

A Bright Star in Jamaica

The women’s residence as place for young career women, students and weekend shoppers may be a dying breed, but the need for SRO housing for women, especially those in transition, has never been more crucial. Star of the Sea was born out of that need. A unique non-profit residence, Star of the Sea offers both permanent housing for women and temporary shelter for women in crisis in its rambling two-house complex. “We want to get to women before they reach homelessness. That should not be a choice,” asserts Winnie McCarthy, co-director with Sheila Desert of the Star of the Sea.

Four years ago, a Catholic nun, Sister Angeline, began taking homeless women into her Astoria home. When the building was declared unsafe, she moved to a former convent on South Road in Jamaica, donated by members of the Pius V Church. McCarthy and Desert, lay missionaries, joined the project in 1981 and assumed directorship after the founder left. In 1982, the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development put pressure on them to comply with housing codes. “We applied for and got a state Demonstration Grant for $52,500, put in sprinklers and modernized the kitchen,” says Desert. “The city was surprised we were operating for so long without funding. It was all on donations. We had to do a lot of leg work, but ultimately, the city was willing to bend the rules with us. We were no longer a convent, and we’re not strictly an SRO, so they called us a multiple dwelling.”

Residents of the west wing pay from $l-$150 a month, depending on income for one of six small but homey rooms. A kitchen and dining area for their use is well supplied and spotless. “They can use this kitchen to cook meals but they prefer to eat together in the big kitchen with the other women. We’re like a family,” McCarthy says. There are five permanents at present, as McCarthy calls their residents. Some have come and gone. All are elderly. One became homeless when her house burned down and reached desperation when, soon after, her son was badly beaten up. Another, Abraham, came to the Star of the Sea after getting a one-day eviction notice from her apartment. Although she paid her rent like clockwork, the landlord decided he needed the space and ousted the 80 year old tenant.

On the other side of the Sea is a generally younger group of women whose reasons for needing temporary housing are as varied as their walks of life. A Long Island woman who was battered by her husband came to them for three months. From an affluent background, the woman seemed never to have worked a day in her life, according to Desert, and certainly hadn’t spent time with people so different from herself. “I love to see them come here and mix with others. It’s an awakening. People realize they have to drop stereotypes about who is homeless,” she explains.

There have been rocky times at Star of the Sea as well as joyous ones, especially in the first couple of years. Through trial and error, Desert and McCarthy have adopted a “tough love” approach to dealing with the women. Drugs, alcohol and disruptive behavior are forbidden. Independence is encouraged by requiring all guests and residents to be out of the house from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. looking for work or, for seniors, doing volunteer work. Weekly chores are posted on Saturday. No time limit is imposed; the average stay is six months to one year. “We feel love demands commitment on both sides. You have to demand change from people,” says McCarthy.

The religious context of the Star of the Sea is obvious, from the statue of Mary by the front door to the large crosses hanging around Desert’s and McCarthy’s necks. But if their religious commitment is deeply felt, it is not translated into the need to convert those they meet. Just a profound humanism. “Religion has nothing to do with it,” claims McCarthy. “Other human beings have to accept their responsibility to everyone of us.” In their monthly newsletter she writes, “…there will be other Star of the Sea homes where our aging, gentle women will live without fear of eviction or harassment. Where the working poor will be able to live safely in decent, affordable housing.”

If the co directors have their way, a second shelter-residence will be established very soon. “We’re looking for a two-family house in this area because we just don’t have enough rooms,” says Desert. “My dream is a house for younger, low income people.”

“We have two different dreams but they go together,” says McCarthy. “My idea is along the same principle, for seniors. People say seniors have Section 8 and subsidized housing but the truth of the matter is that there’s a three year waiting list. Besides, you can’t just take human beings who have gone through a crisis, fire or eviction and put them in Section 8 housing. They need to do community type things and at the same time have a room to be alone and heal.”

Both women see a dramatic increase in homelessness among women of all ages. “Landlords are much quicker to evict women and it’s going to get worse,” Desert insists. She attributes a greater number of homeless women to the feminization of poverty — that is the overwhelmingly female component of those living below the poverty line. Older women are especially vulnerable, they believe, because they lack knowledge of their legal rights and often have a stubborn pride which keeps them from seeking help.

How do they plan to realize their dream when funding is so scarce? “We’re not asking the city to support us. Give us buildings and we’ll put people in them,” says McCarthy. “We’d be the ones to get grants for repairs and maintenance. Government agencies should smarten up and give structures and financing to rehabilitate them.”