Changing with the Times Square

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Ancient, in ill health and terrified, Mrs. M lived in a nightmare. Huddled in her tiny room at the Times Square Hotel, she was afraid that if she left her room, she might never be allowed to return.

Fourteen years ago, when I first visited Mrs. M and the Times Square Hotel for City Limits, it was a down-at-the-heels single room occupancy (SRO) residence at the corner of Eighth Avenue and 43rd Street where fragile tenants, older and less lucrative than the hotel’s foreign tourist trade, were treated like second-class citizens by a management that even tried to make them come and go by a separate entrance.

“That kind of thing would never happen with today’s management,” says Gloria Senger, a longtime resident of the hotel.

“Today’s management” is Common Ground Community, a nonprofit that has turned the Times Square into a celebrated model of successful supportive housing, earning its founder and executive director, Rosanne Haggerty, a MacArthur genius grant. Here, residents get on-site health care, psychological counseling, social workers who help with everything from government paperwork to personal problems; they can even have pets.

But before the Times Square could become a paragon of supportive housing–a home for the mentally ill, elderly, substance users and others, while also providing decent housing for single adults on limited incomes–the hotel and the people who lived there went through a long and painful journey. In that history, there are glimpses of the road to repeating its success.

When Gloria Senger first arrived at the Times Square 42 years ago, it was one of New York City’s grande dame hotels. “Oh, it was a very elegant hotel in those days,” remembers Senger, a refined, elfin woman. “It wasn’t the Waldorf, but it was first-class.”

But with the growing seediness of Times Square, the hotel began to decline. In 1977, Sister Nancy Chiarello of the Dwelling Place, a nearby program for homeless women, got a call from the hotel’s manager inviting her to place clients at the Times Square. Soon, the hotel became housing stock for the Dwelling Place and similar agencies. It offered a cheap haven to fragile New Yorkers–elderly people like Mrs. M, mentally and physically disabled adults and homeless people placed by social service agencies.

By the mid 1980s, with Manhattan’s real estate market heating up again, the 735-room Art Deco giant began to look very attractive to speculators. So when Father Bruce Ritter and Covenant House stepped forward in 1984 and bought the Times Square for $17 million, tenants breathed a sigh of relief. Surely one of the most prestigious charities in New York City, a charity that advertised the property as “a hotel with a heart,” would be a model landlord.

But Covenant House was blunt about its intentions to resell the hotel and neighboring properties for profit, hoping to create a tidy endowment for the charity. As evictions mounted and permanent tenants decreased by attrition, upset tenants began calling City Limits. Housing advocates and community leaders joined the outcry; Beth Gorrie of the Coalition for the Homeless labeled Father Ritter “the Simon Legree of nonprofit hotel management.”

By 1985, Covenant House was bleeding about $3 million a year. The charity began packing the rooms with often-raucous students from abroad–sometimes up to six to a room–and homeless families.

Control of the hotel eventually went to bankruptcy court, which made the astonishing decision to appoint Tran Dinh Truong–the city’s most notorious SRO hotel landlord–to run the Times Square. Truong wasted no time in raping the hotel, packing more and more homeless families–300 by 1990–into the hotel’s tiny single rooms. Predictably, mayhem ensued.

“It was inhuman,” Gloria Senger remembers of the Truong years. “Gangs of children roamed the hallways. They set fires in the halls, they attacked people and tried to rob them. People were injured and knocked down. The kids would break the light bulbs so the hallways were quite dark. They ripped the phones out. The elderly people really feared them, and they wouldn’t come out of their rooms.”

During those terrible years, many tenants fled, were forced out or died. No one knows what became of Mrs. M.

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In the early 1980s, Rosanne Haggerty was fresh out of college, volunteering with runaway teens at Covenant House. In those days, Father Ritter–lionized by President Reagan as an “unsung American hero”–was widely revered. But Haggerty was troubled by the charity. She left the organization, signed on with Catholic Charities and began working on her first housing project–turning a former Catholic school into supportive SRO housing.

But her thoughts kept returning to the 15-story, 735-room hotel at the corner of 43rd and Eighth. The idea of creating a large-scale SRO intrigued Haggerty, and she began brainstorming with other housing developers and activists, formulating ideas that could work in such a large building. Their solution: a robust mix of incomes, supportive services, good security, commercial development and a high standard of renovation.

When the Times Square went on the auction block in 1988, Haggerty convinced New York Times executives, the Shubert Organization, Times Square Redevelopment leaders and local community boards to give the project their blessings. With community leaders eager to support the redevelopment, she was able to purchase the hotel “in an amazingly quick period.”

The next year was painful, as Haggerty uncovered “Third World conditions” at the Times Square Hotel. Of the remaining 200 or so permanent tenants, a couple were homebound and desperately in need of services. “There were people whose ceilings had collapsed around them,” she recalls. “There were people with active TB, cancer sores, bedsores infested with maggots.”

To build trust, she immediately started providing health care services. But it was a difficult period for many tenants, including the Dwelling Place clients, as Common Ground instituted monitoring practices–such as guards and sign-in procedures–that some residents found reassuring, and others, intrusive.

Gloria Senger admits to being skeptical when Common Ground asked her to vacate her studio so it could be repaired, and surprised to find it freshly redone and ready for her. In the bad old days, tenants often found such promises were merely an excuse to get them out of the room–and never let them back. “Initially, people had trouble with the transition. The trust level was very low,” says Sister Chiarello. “Common Ground had to work hard in proving themselves.”

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In 1994, $32 million later, the hotel was beautifully restored, right down to the piano in the lobby. The Center for Urban Community Services provides health and social services. Rooms are comfortably furnished, with cooking facilities and private baths. A Ben and Jerry’s, a Papaya King and a Starbucks provide both revenue and jobs for tenants. Amenities include a gym, darkroom, art room, and lounges.

“The Times Square has an atmosphere that is just and compassionate; it responds to the need for low-income housing in a humane way,” says Sister Chiarello. She does offer one complaint: Rooms at the Times Square Hotel are in high demand, and “the vacancy rate is never that great. We need more places like the Times Square.”

But more places like the Times Square literally couldn’t be constructed today: Under the city’s building code, constructing new single room occupancy hotels is against the law. Supportive housing must be carved out of existing buildings, or constructed in the form of small apartments, with their own bathrooms, which translates into fewer units.

Of the small stock of large-scale SROs still in existence, “they’re all renting to tourists,” says Terry Poe of the Westside SRO Law Project, “and that’s been the story of the large hotels for the last nine years.”

Only about 90 SROs ended up becoming supportive housing facilities like the Times Square; these now make up about half the total 183 supportive housing buildings in the city, estimates Maureen Friar of the Supportive Housing Network. “What Common Ground did was they combined special needs housing with low-income housing, on a scale that had previously not been thought possible,” says Friar, “and it worked!”

But what has been successful in the past doesn’t meet all of the needs of the future. As homeless shelters fill with record numbers of families, individual rooms with shared bathrooms are not what they need. A better model, say experts, are developments like the just-begun Dorothy Day Apartments on 135th and Riverside, a rehabilitated apartment building that will house both single people and families.

If supportive housing for families is to thrive, its builders will once again have to look to buildings that are no longer suitable for their original purpose–where, as in Times Square, a neighborhood’s desire to rid itself of a physical blight outweighs any aversion to new residents with special needs. Poe, for one, points out that about 200 buildings in Harlem languish in limbo in the wake of the HUD mortgage scandal.

“It could be for-profit affordable housing, or public housing, but we have to go where the available housing stock is,” says Friar. “The great thing about supportive housing is that it’s an evolving model that can change with the times.”

Beverly Cheuvront was editor of City Limits from 1987 to 1988.