Tenants Fall Through the Cracks at Aladdin
Hell’s Kitchen Online, April 25, 1998
by Clarissa Cruz
Just off Broadway, on 45th Street and Eighth Avenue, the newly renovated Aladdin Hotel is trying to shed its notorious image. But a sign hanging from the upper stories announces in bright red letters, “Longacre Hotel,” a reminder of the drug-infested center for prostitution this building used to be.
One step into the sparkling new foyer reveals no trace of the hotel’s seedy past. Royal blue carpeting with a bright gold “A” emblazoned in the center signifies the establishment’s shift in philosophy, and a chic lobby has replaced the worn-down front room of years past. Piped-in dance music, multicolored chairs and sofas, and a funky distressed-metal check-in desk have been installed to lure international travelers to the building’s latest incarnation as a youth hostel.
But the Aladdin’s shiny exterior belies some not-so-pretty problems. A records check at the New York Department of Housing Preservation and Development revealed that the hotel has 275 outstanding violations. Tenant advocates claim that illegal construction and overcrowding from the influx of tourists are resulting in substandard living conditions for the approximately 45 permanent residents still living at the hotel.
Elderly residents walk down stained carpeted halls littered with cigarette butts left by late-night partiers. Chattering international vacationers share bathrooms with women from Senegal washing dishes in the sink. And gnarled, uncovered wires jut out dangerously just above eye level from an open electrical box on the sixth floor.
Current building management defend their actions, saying that the improvements they have made to the hotel justify their sidestepping of building and housing laws.
“I spent a million dollars renovating the place,” said Alan Lapes, who oversees the Aladdin. “The building made a complete turnaround since I took over. Before, there was crime and prostitution, now all of that is gone. If anybody is unhappy, I’m sure it’s because they’re in housing court with me for nonpayment.”
Tenant advocates also charge that the city has been dragging its heels by not enforcing housing and construction codes. Officials at HPD declined to comment.
The transformation of the Longacre to the Aladdin is but one example of the rejuvenation of Times Square, an area flush with ambitious young entrepreneurs hoping to profit from the now-marketable former red-light district. One of these individuals is Tan ja Koch, director of sales and marketing at the Aladdin. Sporting stylish wire frame glasses, a dramatic short haircut, and jeans that flare out perfectly over her chunky black platforms, Koch looks more like a eurokid on holiday than a hotel administrator.
The German-born Koch has large-scale designs for this Single Room Occupancy building in the heart of the theater district. In a clipped accent, she details plans for a recreation room, rooftop bar, and restaurant. Pushing aside a stack of clothes and CDs in her cluttered office decorated with postcards from Paris, she believes a younger clientele will help revitalize the sagging neighborhood.
For local residents, the 160-room Longacre Hotel conjures up a vivid history of disrepair and mismanagement. Originally, the Longacre offered affordable and safe housing for women. But in the early 1980s, the building fell apart.
After the Vietnam War, Tran Dinh Truong, a Vietnamese business man, came to New York with suitcases full of money and bought several hotels throughout the country, including the Longacre and Kenmore Hotels in New York City. Tran soon figured out exactly how much money he could make by spending as little as possible on maintenance. As the condition of his properties grew worse, prostitutes, drug dealers, and vermin moved in. Two years ago, The New York Post rated him among New York’s ten worst landlords and described the Longacre Hotel as “a cesspool of drug-dealing, prostitution and violence.”
In 1994 the Federal Government took control of the Kenmore Hotel, which had no less than 1,500 outstanding HPD violations, according to The New York Times. In September 1995, Tran stopped paying the mortgage he held on the Longacre Hotel. The New York State Supreme Court appointed real estate broker Harry Malakoff as the temporary receiver, to manage the building until a new owner came along. Two years later, Malakoff remains in the receivership position. But he said he does not have much to do with the daily management of the building, which is Lapes’ responsibility. “It’s been suggested to me that it will be ending sometime in the first quarter of 1998,” Malakoff said about the present situation, effective until the current foreclosure proceedings end. Lapes, who now holds the mortgage, will probably become the next owner, Malakoff said. “If you’d been to the building two years ago and saw what it looked like, and you went back now, you’d be shocked,” he said. “It was a horrendous place.
Now it’s totally respectable, far more attractive.” Lapes added, “even the guys at the Building Department can’t believe the improvement. They say it’s the nicest SRO in the city.” The Aladdin currently offers over 100 rooms for youth hostelers, who pay as little as $22 a night. “I feel so lucky getting this room because rooms in Manhattan are so expensive,” said Muriel Monserrate from California, who has stayed in room 710 for the past week and a half. He said he has no complaints about the Aladdin, which he considers a decent and clean youth hostel. He was more concerned about the mess his roommates had left than about the lack of space in the room, into which the management has squeezed two brand-new, white metal bunk beds.
Even while he renovates the Aladdin to attract youth hostelers, Lapes has failed on several counts to respond to the needs of permanent residents. He has not delivered on promised improvements to the building’s kitchens, bedrooms, and phone service. In doing so, he has left HPD violations uncorrected. He has also broken several of the city’s laws by making illegal renovations. Propped up on a stack of pillows in her guard-railed twin bed, longtime tenant Toby Penzick quietly expressed her anger. A 29-year resident, Penzick moved into the building when rents started at $19 a week. Now, as a visiting nurse tended to her needs, her wrinkled hands gestured towards her cramped, bleak living space. “They want youth here, and I’m a sick old lady,” she said softly. “They can’t get rid of us, though. You can’t chase elderly people out on the street.”
Elderly residents are not the only unhappy ones. Tenants from Senegal have accused Lapes of taking aggressive action over the past year to get rid of them. Senegalese make up a majority of the Aladdin’s long-term residents. Some told tenant organizers that Lapes refuses their rent checks, then sends them eviction notices and sues them for back rent. “He offered to find us apartments in Harlem,” said a French-speaking Senegalese woman who wished to remain anonymous. “Sometimes he won’t take my check. Sometimes he tells me to come back later. Sometimes he says I owe him for two weeks, which is not true.” “When we go abroad, we are afraid,” she said about the relationship between the hotel management and her compatriots who live in the Aladdin. “They take advantage of that.” But Lapes said the majority of the long-term tenants are happy. “I have cards and letters from tenants thanking me for making [the building] beautiful again,” he said. “Before, they had crime and prostitution, and all of that is gone. I gave them their lives back.”
Tenant organizers pointed out that direct threats of eviction are only one form of tenant harassment. Not maintaining the building can be just as effective in driving out unwanted residents. The Senegalese woman said she has lived in the building for three years at $60 a week, which she pays every Saturday. She said she has never been late on a rent payment. But Lapes has not been as faithful to uphold his end of the rent agreement, she said. When she complained that her window and door do not close fully because they are the wrong size, she said Lapes did not repair them. She obtained a court order in Nov. 1996 for him to make the necessary repairs. “To this day, he still has not fixed them,” she said.
According to Local Law 19 and provisions of the Special Clinton District law, the owner of the Aladdin Hotel is required to file two Certificates of No Harassment before changing room configurations. Any construction that would alter the number of rooms on the Aladdin’s certificate of occupancy is regulated by these laws. The most current certificate of occupancy found on file at the Department of Buildings expired in 1984 and states that there are 10 rooms on the ninth floor of the Aladdin. A number of these rooms were combined, and one was turned into a private bathroom, so that there are currently only eight rooms on the ninth floor. Lapes has not filed for a new Certificate of Occupancy or the Certificates of No Harassment, though he said he does plan to. “I have to get the building in a calm condition first,” he said.
Lapes offered another explanation in an April 13, 1997 letter addressed to David Caesar, Harassment Section Chief at the New York Division of Housing and Community Renewal. “I cannot evict [tenants] in order to remedy the illegal [room] combinations,” he wrote. “I need a Certificate of Non-Harassment to do this, and I am unable to apply for one because I am the Managing Agent and not the deed holder. At the time of the termination of the foreclosure I will be able to apply for one.” “He’s deliberately not filing,” said Bob Kalin, tenant organizer at Housing Conservation Coordinators in Manhattan. “He knows that the most the Giuliani administration can do is fine you. And what’s a little fine, when you’re spending money anyway? It’s clear he [Lapes] has done illegal work, and we’ve gotten violations placed, but getting the Buildings Department or the Office of Code Enforcement to enforce the law is tough.” Moreover, whoever holds the mortgage owes $250,356.26 in taxes, which have not been paid in over three years. That amounts to 14% of the entire building’s value, which the city set at $1,800,000. Last May the city placed a tax lien on the building.
According to New York’s Multiple Dwelling Law, there must be 80 square feet of living space per person, and one water closet for every six people. At the Aladdin, it is common practice for four or more people to sleep on bunkbeds, dormitory-style, in a room meant for single occupancy. While this is good news for budget travelers, permanent tenants say this results in an unbearable bathroom situation during prime morning hours, with long lines for the two toilets per floor. “You go from floor to floor looking for something that’s safe and not occupied,” said Wren Norwood, a seven-year resident of the Aladdin. “It’s like Grand Central Station.”
Thomas Hanke, who manages the Aladdin under Lapes, said the permanent tenants will receive the same improvements as the tourist rooms. He also said he hopes to put a private bathroom in every room. “I can see that they feel that we are ruining their home, and it might be hard or difficult to deal with change,” Hanke said. “But they will adjust. We’re not looking to throw them out; we’re looking to make a profit. That’s what business is all about.” And the code violations? “Our rooms are filled every night with clean, neat tourists who don’t steal or do drugs,” Hanke said. “And we’ve created 30 new jobs for the city, taking 30 people off unemployment. I really don’t think that the residents have a reason to complain over small details.”
Sparse Kitchens and Sporadic Phone Service
Terry Poe, a lawyer at the Westside SRO who has represented several Aladdin tenants in the past, said that Lapes is under a legal obligation to provide switchboard service to all residents, tourist or otherwise. While many tenants do indeed have phones in their rooms, Kalin said that most of those with phones have been to court to fight for this privilege. “Lapes has to provide service for incoming and outgoing calls,” Kalin said. “It would take him five minutes to hook everyone into the new system, but he’s into making tenants as uncomfortable as possible.”
In the April 13 letter to Caesar, Lapes wrote: “There are a number of rooms which are now being rewired due to some damage done to the wires during the renovation of the halls. By May 1st, we intend to have all remaining service complete.” Francis Ones, a tenant for 30 years, said she did not receive phone service until a couple of months ago.
Tenants have also been complaining about the lack of kitchen equipment in the building. The kitchens on every floor consist of a grimy sink. In the same letter addressed to Caesar, Lapes said that he will not be able to install microwaves, new sinks and countertops until he receives a permit, which he said he is now attempting to get.
In a June 4, 1997 letter addressed to Caesar, Kalin and co-worker Sarah Desmond wrote: “As is typical of Mr. Lapes, he hides behind City permit regulations when it suits his needs — because the truth is, he really does not want to restore kitchen services. When Mr. Lapes wanted to illegally combine rooms and do work in excess of his permits in the bathrooms and showerrooms, he had no compunctions in doing work without permits and flagrantly violating City regulations.”
In his April letter to Caesar, Lapes claimed that he did not make the illegal room configurations himself, but that he inherited the problem when he took over the building. Caesar could not be reached for comment.
When Lapes first took control, all visitors had to leave an identification card at the front desk, and no visitors were permitted after 9 p.m. Through tenant organizers, residents complained about the military atmosphere these strict rules imposed, until Lapes agreed to change them. Lapes did more than just relax the rules. He eradicated them. Now there are no locks on the doors to the main entrance and to each floor.
“Our desk clerks know to look for problem guests, and do not allow prostitution or drug use,” Lapes wrote in the April 13 letter to Caesar. “Also, there is no lock on the front door, because this is a hotel and is open 24 hours a day. We have one desk clerk in the lobby at all times, and a porter an a super walking the hotel to maintain a secure situation for all tenants.” “We still do have every visitor check in at the front desk and fill out the sign in sheet,” Lapes added. But Ones did not mention this sign in sheet. “We have no security,” she said. “We have bums walking through doors.” According to Ones, there is no hallway security patrol. And a strange man roamed through the building at 4 a.m. recently, she said.
The combination of unsolved problems and the apparent sluggishness to correct violations at the Aladdin makes for a troublesome — and potentially dangerous — environment for both longtime residents and hostelers. Despite this danger, New York City has no centralized regulatory agency for youth hostels. “I can’t imagine the city ever having the time and the money to sit around and write a code for five to 10 youth hostels,” said Jim Williams, who manages the Blue Rabbit youth hostel in Harlem. “I don’t know of any municipality in the U.S. that has one.”
Clarissa Cruz is a graduate student at the Columbia University School of Journalism.