Bob Grossman likes Riverside Park, he just doesn’t want to live in it. He prefers his tiny warren of a room crammed with stacks of books in the Riverside Towers Hotel, where the retired teacher has lived for 10 years. But if the state legislature allows rent protection laws to expire in June, he may be evicted from his SRO room and be spending more time than usual in the park.
While apartment renters make up the majority of the people who would be hurt if the city’s rent control and rent stabilization laws aren’t renewed in Albany this June, some 40,000 SRO tenants like Grossman probably have the most to lose. Many are only one step away from homelessness, and rent protections keep them off the Street by keeping rents rising at a slow pace and preventing arbitrary evictions. Over the last two decades several Upper West Side SROs have been destroyed, many to make way for more lucrative hotels and apartments. “This is a very desirable neighborhood,” says Grossman. “They want to get rid of the poor people.”
Amid these fears, a new organization, SRO Tenants United (SROTU), is build-ing the first major citywide SRO rights group founded on the principle of orga-nizing tenants. “The rent law is the issue people are responding to the most, but there are a lot of particular SRO circum-stances not addressed by the rest of the tenant movement,” says Terry Poe of the Westside SRO Law Project, one of the organizers of SROTU. More than 100 people were present at its third meeting on February 6. Poe says his actual member-ship is twice that number.
SROTU is starting simple, organizing members to help save rent regulations by writing letters and coordinating visits to elected officials. “We are overcoming the idea among many SRO tenants that things are so bad nothing can be done,” he says.
There is good reason for SRO tenants to be demoralized. Over 100,000 single-room units, among the lowest priced affordable housing the city has to offer, have been lost since 1960. Gentrification in neighborhoods like Harlem and Hell’s Kitchen has resulted in the conversion of many SROs and rooming houses by landlords looking to make a greater profit.
Don Lewis, the owner of Grossman’s building, was fined $25,000 by the state in 1989 for filing improper rent registrations and overcharging his tenants. According to Leon Bell, the attorney at the Westside SRO Law Project who handled the case, rents that should have been legally set at $200 to $300 a month had been illegally pushed up to nearly $1,000 a month.
For his part, Lewis denies doing anything wrong. “This is a very luxurious neighborhood and the residents are living here for pennies,” he told City Limits. “The average rent here is $300 a month. In sur-rounding buildings, it’s $2,000.”
If the tenants won a technical victory at Riverside Towers, the case also illustrated the difficulty of organizing SRO residents. Although about 50 tenants were involved in the case, Grossman says many tenants fled the building and only three of Riverside’s 19 remaining residents, including Grossman, have joined the coalition.
There are other more basic problems with putting together a coalition of poor, mostly solitary tenants scattered throughout the city. “They are mostly single people who tend to keep to themselves,” says Poe “Some of them are eccentric or fragile due to mental illness or substance abuse.”
To bring together such tenants, Poe plans to fortify the coalition’s structure. “When we have a moment to breathe, the first thing we want to do is start organizing a network of building councils and devising a more formal structure for the organization,” says Poe.
Currently, the organization is funded by the East Side and West Side SRO law projects, the Goddard-Riverside Community Center and member donations from tenants, but SROTU is also applying for foundation grants.
When the rent regulation fight ends, they plan to study the housing codes that affect SROs and push for legislation to make it harder for landlords to harass or evict tenants.
To Grossman, those larger goals and his own hopes are intertwined. Participation in SROTU is a matter of survival, he says. “This guy [the landlord] never stops, so I will continue in the organization,” he says.
Mary Blatch is a City Limits intern.