Rooms for Improvement

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Landlords all over the city are putting single-room occupancy hotel tenants on the street to make way for luxury apartments, tourist hotels and student dorms. But in the heart of Manhattan’s expensive Madison Square neighborhood, one SRO with a crime-ridden past–the Prince George Hotel–is bucking the trend.

When it opened in 1905, the Prince George was a vision of Old World elegance for the discriminating traveler. Sixty years later, it had become a nightmarish welfare hotel crammed with more than 1,600 indigent residents–the frequent star of shocking headlines and police investigations.

Now, after years of abandonment, the derelict hulk is undergoing a $45 million facelift to become an SRO again–this time, with a decor and atmosphere more like the Waldorf-Astoria’s than Bellevue’s.

This December, nonprofit housing developer Common Ground plans to reopen the 13-floor Prince George as permanent housing for low-income working adults and formerly homeless individuals, many of whom are struggling with mental illness, AIDS or both.

With 416 efficiency apartments and a full slate of social services, it will be the second largest supportive housing project in the nation. Only another Common Ground SRO project, the 652-unit Times Square on West 43rd Street, is bigger.

Inside, artisans are carefully restoring its ornamental ceilings and mosaic tiled floors, as contractors install new elevators, plumbing and windows.

“There will never be the sense that you’re living in an SRO hotel,” says housing activist Jennifer Flynn of the New York City AIDS Housing Network. “They want people to feel like they are living on 28th Street and that they belong there–despite their income levels, despite their history, and despite what they might have thought of themselves in the past.”

Historic preservation is rarely a major concern among nonprofit SRO operators, who must house a very needy population with scarce resources. But for Common Ground, preservation paid off.

By committing to restore the Prince George’s massive lobby, foyer and “Ladies’ Tea Room,” which will serve as a cafeteria, Common Ground secured $3.3 million from the Historic Preservation Tax Credit program run by the U.S. Department of the Interior. The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company and federal low income tax credits provided additional funding.

Even with funding in place, the Prince George was still a risky project after years of neglect and abandonment. In the ballroom, once the largest hotel lounge in the city, hardwood floors had eroded to sawdust. The original SRO tenants had created a basketball court in one corner, the repeated impacts from the ball knocking out chunks of the ornate plaster ceiling. Above the ballroom were 12 more floors of trashed bathrooms and broken windows, all of it topped with a leaky roof.

Once the work is done, the Prince George’s $500-a-month studios will be rented to formerly homeless tenants and low-income single adults. It fills a desperate need in New York City for cheap digs: MFY Legal Services attorney Mark Rivlin estimates that Manhattan has lost well over 20,000 SRO units since 1985, a drop of about 45 percent.