Suite Surrender

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The hallways of the California Suites are more a dare than a passageway. To get to their rooms, the dozen or so tenants with AIDS who still live there must dodge piles of garbage and shattered sheetrock. The floors themselves have been ripped up to reveal squeaky and unstable sub-flooring.

Up until about a year ago, there were 100 tenants in this gutted SRO hotel on West 111th Street. Most were moved to new placements by the city, others drifted off and some died of their illness. The remaining handful say they’re being given the bum’s rush by notorious SRO slumlord Jay Podolsky, who has been linked to the hotel through a layer of holding corporations. He is apparently converting the building into a tourist hotel.

“They are harassing the remaining tenants,” complains David Frank, a three-year resident of the hotel. “The fire exits have been picked up for weeks.” Frank, who has AIDS, adds that a hotel employee even told the cable company to shut off his service, claiming he had died. Others say the dust, noise and physical danger of living in a carelessly run construction site is undermining their health

The managers of the building deny they harass tenants–but they do harass the press, kicking a City Limits reporter off the premises during an interview with a tenant.

During the 1990s, California Suites housed clients from the Division of AIDS Services and Income Support (DASIS). But those referrals ended in 1996, after the Westside SRO Law Project convinced the city that Podolsky couldn’t be trusted with AIDS clients. The city also cited Podolsky for illegally subdividing the building’s 84 rooms into 99 units. Last November, the hotel received 52 more violations for illegal construction.

Yet, somehow, the day after Christmas in 1996, the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) deemed the work tenant-friendly enough to grant Podolsky a Certificate of No Harassment, allowing workers to proceed with construction. HPD officials are currently investigating new harassment charges.

In the meantime, the hotel’s two managers tell conflicting stories about the SRO’s future Manager Ali Mohammed says Columbia University will lease it as a dorm. “Our real estate manager has heard this before,” responds Anne Canty, a Columbia spokeswoman. “But this not something that Columbia is doing.”

“Come back in three months and there will be one hundred residents–the same ones who lived here before,” says Amir Mohammed. another manager.

That account doesn’t pan out either. In fact, the few remaining tenants have beer offered other placements, but they are too sick, tired or angry to move. “At this time in my life,” Frank says, “I don’t want to start over.”