The McBurney YMCA on 23rd Street has offered plain, cheap single rooms to both low-budget travelers and longtime New Yorkers since 1904. But the ornate eight-story building will be shuttered for good this fall, leaving the Y's approximately 40 long-term tenants with nowhere to go.
James Kirschner, the McBurney Y's executive director, explained that when the Y began interior demolition as part of a $3 million renovation project last year, workers discovered some serious problems. The aging building would need an extra $15 million dollars' worth of work to fix its plumbing and wiring–so YMCA management decided to sell off the building.
“I don't have the slightest idea where I'll go,” said Robert Bryan, a 20-year resident. Bryan, 73 and on a fixed income, said he probably won't be able to afford rent anywhere else in the city-under rent-control laws, he's been paying nearly the same rent since the 1970s.
The McBurney YMCA has contracted Lutheran Social Services, an agency that provides foster care for children as well as supportive housing for adults, to help tenants relocate. Lutheran executive director Dr. Russell Norris said that social workers will find the tenants appropriate housing.
But some of the buildings' longest-term tenants could throw a wrench into the Y's plans. Terry Poe of the West Side SRO Law Project pointed out that tenants who moved into the Y before 1971, when New York's rent control act was passed, cannot be turned out of the building even if it is sold or closed for renovation. They could make the process of selling the building much more difficult if they dug in their heels.
Bryan, for example, certainly doesn't want to go. “I would like to stay,” he said. “Everyone knows me, in the restaurants, in the stores. People say hello, good morning when they pass me on the street.”
Unfortunately for Bryan and his neighbors, they are bucking the neighborhood trend. The McBurney, across the street from the shabby-genteel Chelsea Hotel, sits in the middle of an increasingly fashionable neighborhood where upscale restaurants proliferate. Just down the street, women's clothes boutiques like the Chelsea Atelier rub elbows with spots like a decrepit leather-goods store known only as “Every Item Only $10!” Across 24th Street from the YMCA residence's entrance, a federal office building is being remodeled into luxury condos.
But everywhere, it's getting more difficult to hang out with all the boys. Kirschner explained that over the past 30 years, YMCAs across the country have been getting out of the single-room occupancy business. In New York City, aside from McBurney's 220-unit facility, only the West Side and Vanderbilt YMCAs still run residences.
Single-room occupancy buildings are approaching extinction throughout New York City, said Elizabeth Kane of the West Side SRO Law Project. She estimated that over the past 35 years, New York has gone from 165,000 SRO units to 40,000. “They're disappearing at an alarming rate,” Kane said.