Stanley's Last Stand

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Every 28 days, Stanley moves. From the Lincoln Hotel in Brooklyn, to the Davidson in the Bronx, to the Marion on the Upper West Side, the 53-year-old has dragged his clothing, his TV and his medicine (he has AIDS) from one city homeless hotel to another.

For clients in the city's emergency housing system, it's protocol to move as often as every full moon. After 30 days in one place, they are deemed permanent tenants with legal rights, so the city or hotel owner makes sure to get them out before that time is up.

Stanley's been shuffling at that pace for the last 10 years, and after about 130 moves, he's had enough. “The system ain't fair,” Stanley says. “Just as we're about to get settled, find a job or apartment, we got to move. We've become subhuman–and we're taking a stand!”

He and two of his neighbors at the Royal York hotel have signed on to an effort that could buy emergency housing residents a little more time to find a permanent place to live. The campaign also aims to get the city to change its AIDS housing policies by attempting to hamstring the entire emergency housing system.

In short, they've requested leases for their one-room apartments.

In the next few months, Jennifer Flynn, director of the New York AIDS Housing Network, and Alex Shafran, organizer for the West Side SRO Law Project, will go door to door inside many of the single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels that house homeless New Yorkers with AIDS, encouraging clients to sign leases.

The mission–called the Lease Request Action–is a mass attempt to organize homeless clients. “One of our initial goals is to stop all the crazy moving,” says Flynn.

It's also an effort to get the city's HIV/AIDS Services Administration (HASA) to change the way it houses its clients. “We're trying to show the city how foolish it is to spend so much on emergency housing, when permanent housing is much cheaper,” says Flynn.

Under the city's Rent Stabilization Act, those who stay at least one night in an SRO hotel have the right to request leases, which are good for at least six months. They can't be turned down–the request itself serves as a lease, and the landlord must go to court to challenge it. The tenants then receive legal protection from unwarranted evictions and other forms of harassment.

The rent for their room also drops dramatically, which is where Flynn and others say the savings can come in. Up to now, HASA has been paying the owner of the Royal York about $2,400 a month for Stanley's room. However, under the city's rent laws, SRO owners must charge tenants the legal rent for rooms with leases, at a rate determined by the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal. For Stanley's room, that price is $325, he says. His room isn't even worth that, says Flynn.

For $2,400 a month, Stanley could have the keys to a white-glove luxury high-rise just down the street from the Royal York, with cherry oak floors, a full terrace, state-of-the-art kitchen, in-house gym and heated pool, according to one apartment listing.

Instead, for the same price at the Royal York, Stanley must suffer the cost of more than 140 pending code violations the city housing agency has on record for the building, including failure to provide hot water, rat infestation, lack of gas for cooking stoves and a busted elevator.

“It's not only stupid–it's unjust,” says Shafran. “It's one thing for the city to waste money, but to waste money in order to support the suffering of sick people is where we draw the line.”

Shafran and other backers of the lease campaign–including Housing Works, the Coalition for the Homeless and the Partnership for the Homeless–hope their efforts will push the city to use those resources better by creating more permanent housing.

“This puts the pressure on,” says Patrick Markee of the Coalition for the Homeless. “Finally, this will force HASA to wake up.”

Well, maybe. Peter Avitable, head of community affairs at HASA and one of the agency's top administrators, seemed unsure if the activists' lease campaign would bring the intended results. Once a client requests a lease from a landlord, he points out, that client is no longer considered an emergency placement, so HASA would no longer cover that client's rent with emergency housing dollars. Following that logic, the action wouldn't compel the city to change the amount it spends to house clients–it would only spend the money on someone else.

Avitable said another hitch could be a possible “dearth” of emergency housing slots; if all clients signed six-month leases, the system could backlog. Besides, he adds, “Who would want to live in the SROs? That's really not an acceptable or appropriate form of permanent housing.”

Otherwise, the city doesn't seem too concerned. “It's really a matter to be determined between the client and the landlord,” says HASA spokesperson Carl Strange.

Of course, getting a lease isn't easy. Since the rent stabilization codes were written in the early 1960s, landlords have done everything to avoid granting leases while SRO residents have pulled out all the stops to get them.

In January, as one of the action's first participants, Stanley hand-delivered his lease-request (with his wife as witness) to the hotel manager at the Royal York, a seven-story nondescript building on West 97th Street. On the 28th day of his stay, he says, the knock came on his door.

“Time's up, gotta go,” he remembers the manager there saying.

To secure his new digs, Stanley phoned the 24th Precinct. When the officers showed up at the door of his room, he says, he showed them a copy of his lease request. The officers then informed the Royal York manager that Housing Court was the only hope for bidding his tenant farewell.

Zugzwang! Stanley, for the moment, has gotten himself out of the emergency system. “We're trying to show the city we need to be treated seriously,” he says. “We're not animals, you know.”

As of press time, Stanley's been living at the Royal York for the last four months.

Still, landlords could increase their efforts to keep leases out of their residents' hands. After all, if the lease campaign succeeds, SRO owners face the prospect of losing millions of dollars in rent, along with acquiring hundreds of new rent-stabilized tenants, many of whom suffer mental illness and drug addiction. Calls to several SRO owners were not returned.

“This action will strike terror in the hearts of landlords,” says tenant advocate James Muessig. “Imagine you go to bed knowing you've got 100 percent occupancy at $85 a night, then wake up to discover 60 percent of your building is rent stabilized, for $15 a night! This action could destroy a dysfunctional system in weeks.”

Other experts aren't so convinced. “It keeps the system honest, but it won't establish much with policy-makers,” says Martin Krongold, a housing consultant who's been doing business with the city for nearly a decade. “This seems like another situation when the advocates scream in public and lose in court.”

To Flynn, the point of the action isn't to tease a legal battle or verify the validity of the leases. The point is to get better service, at better cost, from the city. “The best-case scenario is that clients get housed quicker,” she says. “The worst case scenario is always the status quo.”

Geoffrey Gray is a Manhattan-based freelance writer.

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