This Friday, city attorneys plan to file a court motion that could force landlord Sam Domb to turn his new Upper West Side tourist hotel back into the women’s single room occupancy hotel that it used to be. Domb, a major SRO landlord who has raised thousands in campaign money for Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, could also wind up paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for illegal renovations to the building.
Simmons House once housed 175 tenants, ranging from elderly retirees to young single foreigners. In 1994, Domb and his son Jay started a major renovation to renovate the modest singles into tourist hotel rooms with private baths.
By the time this West 88th Street hotel opened to overnight guests in 1996, less than a third of the original $400-a-month rooms were left. Now, in the newly renamed Riverside Hotel, up to 80 visitors stay in “class A” rooms that go for $100 to $120 a night.
But Domb may be forced to give up these rates. According to the city, he failed to file the necessary paperwork before starting renovations, and never re-registered the building as a tourist hotel. The SRO’s tenants allege that Domb drove them crazy with construction work in a deliberate–and illegal–attempt to force them out. In January 1997, the city’s Corporation Counsel filed suit, charging that Domb’s realty company violated the city’s building codes and zoning laws.
“The construction was done with the wrong permits,” said Frank Brodhead of the West Side SRO Law Project, an advocacy group for SRO tenants. “It was organized in such a way to drive the tenants out.” Witness accounts provided by Brodhead’s group describe ripped-up bathrooms, dangerous living conditions, construction workers who drew lewd drawings, and hotel staff who asked female tenants for sex in exchange for their mail.
If the judge accepts the city’s petition for summary judgement this week, the Dombs could get stung with fines of $5,000 per bathroom destroyed and $5,000 for each bathroom created, adding up to as much as $225,000.
The law project has been negotiating with Jay Domb on behalf of the tenants, asking for 18 months of free rent and rent-stabilized rooms for the remaining women in exchange for helping the landlord get a “certificate of no harassment” from the housing department that would legalize the work he’s already done. Without that certificate, the housing department could bar Domb from making repairs on his hotel–and even from renting out the hotel rooms he’s already built.
“There are some snags, but I’ve worked hard on it for two years,” said Domb lawyer Todd Nahins. “We are trying to settle it.” But law project staff were skeptical of the Dombs’ offers. “They’ve been jerking us around for two years,” said the law project’s Terry Poe. “They have no credibility at this point.”
A tenant who has lived in Simmons House for more than 10 years said that the women have no intention of moving. “We are entitled to compensation for what we’ve been through,” the tenant said. “We will not give up.”