Three tenants, three tales of ordinary horror, three roads to Rockaway Park. Six years ago, Milton Torres lost the apartment he shared with his mother in a housing project. Now, relying on a $230 welfare rent allowance and some money he earns reselling loose cigarettes, he lives in a down-at-the-heels rooming house at 154 Beach 114th Street. Madaline Aggerup lost her Brooklyn apartment four years ago when a new landlord purchased the building. Today, she lives with her 15-year-old and 3-year-old daughters in a decaying rooming house at 149 Beach 118th Street. In 1998, Ernest Joiner and his daughter Juanita lost the home they owned for almost 30 years. Today, they share one narrow room just down the hall from Torres.
Here at the southern edge of Queens, scores of desperate tenants have found homes in single room occupancy hotels (SROs) on well-tended beachfront blocks. The tenants don’t pretend their rooms are perfect, but they’re not looking for luxury; they simply want an affordable, stable place to live. “I can’t go out working full-time because of my kids,” says Aggerup. “I’ve looked at real apartments, but I couldn’t afford them.”
Now their security is being threatened–by their own neighbors. Homeowners in this close-knit, old-fashioned neighborhood, just 10 miles from midtown Manhattan, have spent years trying to shut down the decaying hotels, arguing that they are unsafe and unsavory. In the last two years, they have been getting results. More than a dozen SROs have been fully or partially vacated, pushing dozens of tenants out of their homes. Four of the buildings have been demolished. In one case, tenants were given less than an hour to collect their belongings before the city Buildings Department ordered tenants out of their rooms, and a tenant who barricaded himself in his room was hauled off to jail.
City inspectors have already hit the hotel where Torres and the Joiners live, and the word on the street is that Aggerup’s SRO will be the next target. “Rumors are flying and it’s really nerve-racking,” says Aggerup. “Supposedly, this house is up for sale. I’m sitting here just scratching my head about what I’m going to do.”
But as homeowners and city inspectors zero in on the remaining SROs, one landlord has decided that Rockaway Park’s decaying hotels are a growth industry, one that doesn’t have to be synonymous with squalor. In 1998, Matthew Safos bought an SRO on Beach 115th Street. Now he has expanded his holdings in Rockaway Park with two other old hotels. He says that run right, these old hotels can be good for everyone–for tenants, the community, and, to be sure, for himself. “More and more and more, people need rooms,” says Safos. “Even here, a studio is $650. How are poor people going to pay?”
A year ago, when city inspectors swooped down and vacated one of his buildings, Safos was taken by surprise. So this September, when he got wind that inspectors were preparing to invade 147 Beach 113th Street, a cavernous 26-room SRO that he bought in August and is now renovating, Safos got organized. At his request, about two dozen tenants from his hotel at 187 Beach 115th Street did something almost unheard of in the annals of housing activism: They rallied to support their landlord. They formed a ragged picket line and confronted a group of Rockaway residents and city officials.
Ronnie Kaye, who lives in the 44-unit Beach 115th Street building, urges officials to consider the human cost of vacating the SROs. “We’re not crazy or junkies or alcoholics,” he says. “We’re just people trying to live. This is our home.”
For as long as anyone can remember, the rooming houses and their residents have been part of the beachy landscape in Rockaway Park. Seventy or so years ago or so, these were resorts for the working class. Vacationers shared hallway bathrooms and showers, a small price to pay for an affordable refuge on the shore. But as the vacation trade moved outside city lines, the hotels–bulky wood frame buildings that are too big to be private homes, too small to be apartment houses–became year-round residences.
Here, single adults and small families can rent rooms for between $300 and $550 a month. That money buys a small room–some barely wide enough for a single bed–and includes heat, hot water and electricity. Most of the rooms have a sink and a stove. A few of the more expensive rooms have private bathrooms.
Many SRO tenants complain about their landlords. “I should be able to find something better than this rathole,” says Eddie Gonzalez, a garrulous ex-con whose $500 a month rent for one of the larger rooms in 154 Beach 114th Street is paid by the city’s Division of AIDS Services. He complains that he has to spend his own money to clean the hallway toilet and shower, and that the building lacks fire extinguishers.
“The landlord don’t do nothing,” adds Milton Torres, who points out that with 21 rooms, his building provides his landlord earnings of $8,000 every month. Still, Torres is a realist. Asked why he stays in the SRO, he shrugs. “You have to survive in this world here,” he says.
Jonathan Gaska knows the recent history of every old hotel in the Rockaways, including the building where Torres and Gonzalez live. Riding around the neighborhood with him is like taking a course in urban pathology. Gaska is district manager of Community Board 14, which covers the Rockaways, and he is a one-man storehouse of SRO horror stories–tales of buildings controlled by prison gangs or drug dealers or deranged outpatients from psychiatric hospitals. “We were on the verge of losing Rockaway Park,” he declares as he slides his sport utility vehicle to a stop in front of two boarded-up buildings on Beach 115th Street. “Here, we had people shitting in buckets, kids playing in shit, rooms with thousands of roaches.”
Through the 1980s and early 1990s, Gaska asserts, speculators acquired dozens of SROs, lured by the promise of guaranteed rents from people on public assistance, people with AIDS and outpatients from mental hospitals. This agitated the local homeowners, who have long argued that the Rockaways are the secret dumping ground for the entire borough.
It is true that this narrow spit of land–a peninsula connected to the rest of the city only by a train trestle and a bridge–shoulders many of the burdens the rest of Queens won’t take. The Rockaways have half the subsidized housing in the borough, including the Edgemere and Hammel housing projects. A generation back, the city leveled 300 acres–almost the entire Arverne neighborhood–for an urban renewal plan that failed.
Today, miles of crumbling asphalt, rubble-strewn sidewalks and weed-filled lots are all that remain where pleasant bungalows and private homes once stood near Rockaway Park. To the homeowners, the SROs and their often troubled residents were just another part of that encroaching blight.
Before the SRO shutdowns, Gaska says, they were filled with “people with problems, people who won’t work or can’t work, who spend their time hanging out on the porch all day.” The homeowners’ biggest beefs: drug dealing, drinking and loud living.
“It was like a scene out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, says Palmer Doyle, a community board member and civic leader who lives with his wife and two kids in a cheerful and bright house on Beach 122nd Street. Life at the SROs was especially threatening to neighboring families with young kids, he says, and he blames absentee landlords for the problems. “You can’t just stick people in a place and say ‘Que Sera.'”
Doyle, a city firefighter, adds that the problems were compounded by overcrowding. With a few exceptions, most of the SROs in Rockaway Park are wood-frame buildings. They would be illegal under current building codes but are allowed to remain occupied because they were built many decades ago, before strict building codes outlawed wood-frame rooming houses. “These houses were not set up for 40 people,” Doyle says. “They were accidents waiting to happen.”
But, Gaska and Doyle charge, the city was profoundly uninterested in the problems at the SROs. Gaska recalls almost coming to blows with one city inspector who refused to write a violation on a building where the back porch was propped up by a broomstick and a cinder block. Through the community board and several civic associations, the homeowners agitated for action. They demonstrated and petitioned and, ultimately, brought two lawsuits against the city to force inspectors to issue violations. Community leaders also got a meeting with Peter Powers, who at the time was Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s top deputy. After that, Gaska says, the board got total cooperation from city inspectors.
Now, once a month, the board gets to bring a building inspector to examine the most troubled properties. Under this system, officials have shut down eight SROs and partially vacated many others. Though they still retain title to their properties, several slumlords were essentially put out of business. About 100 tenants lost their homes.
Gaska and local homeowners also took a legislative tack. Last summer, Governor George Pataki signed into law a bill proposed by Rockaway Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer that will allow the city to foreclose on landlords of wood-frame SROs or small rental buildings who don’t pay fines for building code violations. “It’s taken a good six years and a lot of work by the board and by community groups, but the SRO victory is in sight,” Gaska declares.
Though local homeowners would like to see young families buy the vacant SROs, Gaska acknowledges that these buildings are a tough sell because they’re often too big and too deteriorated for a family to take on. He points at the two buildings just beyond his car window–170 and 172 Beach 115th Street–and vows he will not let them reopen as rooming houses. “The last thing we need in Rockaway is another vacant lot,” Gaska says. “But we’d rather have a vacant lot than these hotels.”
SRO residents are not all outsiders. Some longtime Rockaway residents call rooming houses their permanent homes. Charles Peyton’s lilting brogue makes him sound like he just stepped off the boat from Ireland, but he has actually lived in the Rockaways for 41 years, many of them in SROs. A carpenter who is recovering from a hip operation, Peyton still keeps on his dresser a series of neatly written ledgers dating back to 1973, showing all the homes he helped build or renovate in the neighborhood.
Still, most of the residents come from outside the neighborhood, looking for any alternative to homelessness. Two years ago, Ernest and Frances Joiner and their daughter Juanita owned their own home. Today, Frances is in a nursing home in Rockaway Park, while Ernest and Juanita share a single room in a shabby hotel across the street at 154 Beach 114th Street.
In 1969, after 19 years in a Brooklyn housing project, the Joiner family was able to buy a house in Laurelton, Queens. Ernest was a shipping clerk, Frances a nurse’s aide; Juanita worked as a typist. In 1993, the Joiners finally paid off the mortgage and owned the house free and clear.
But over the next couple of years, Juanita ran up a mountain of credit card debt. As the card companies became more threatening, Ernest got a call that seemed to offer salvation. A mortgage broker from Delta Funding Corporation offered them a home equity loan of $95,000 that would allow them to stave off financial meltdown. As Ernest Joiner recalls it, the broker’s message also contained a clear threat: If they allowed the bills to remain unpaid, Juanita would go to jail.
So the Joiners took Delta’s money and paid off the credit card companies. But buried in the fine print was a detail that would cost them dearly: If they didn’t make their loan payments on time, the interest rate would jump to almost 25 percent. (Delta has since been sued by state and federal regulators for its excessive interest rates and other practices targeting low-income borrowers; without admitting fault, the company settled for $12 million.)
When one of their tenants moved and another was late on the rent, the Joiners fell behind in their payments. Just 20 months after they secured the loan, the Joiners faced foreclosure. They decided to sell, figuring they might come out with a few dollars and the hope of starting over. But after all the creditors and fees were paid, the Joiners didn’t make a penny on the house they had lived in for 31 years. They spent the next few months living in a dank, windowless basement in Jamaica before an aide at the nursing home where Frances now resides told them about the $550-a-month room in the old hotel across the street.
The Joiners prefer to accentuate the positive in their situation. They say they are better off than they were in Jamaica, where their apartment didn’t have any windows. And they’re happy to be able to visit Frances every day.
Still, having to share a toilet and shower with other residents of the SRO makes it very different from the home they used to own. “It’s very noisy and the people are very uncouth,” Juanita says. She adds that they have to kick the refrigerator to get the door to close and sometimes have to turn on the oven to keep the room warm when the nights get cold. Still, she says with a shrug, “You just have to adjust.”
She and her father hold onto the hope that they will get back into the housing projects they fled. “We moved from the projects 31 years ago,” Juanita Joiner says. “Now we want to go back–and we’ll be glad to get in.”
The man homeowners fear is becoming the Rockaways’ new rooming house mogul usually shows up to work in rumpled track suits and worn-out sneakers, a chameleon among his own tenants. A Greek immigrant who ran the Towers Diner in Flushing for 29 years, Matthew Safos went into real estate when his legs got bad and he couldn’t take the long hours behind the grill.
Safos now owns and operates three Rockaway Park SROs, in partnership with his son Jack and daughter Dia. He used to own another rooming house in Elmhurst, and acknowledges that he had to sell it after several run-ins with the city Buildings Department. He also freely admits that what attracted him to the Rockaways was that the SROs were a good deal. “The prices are cheap,” he says matter-of-factly.
Still, Safos didn’t quite know what he was in for. In 1998, he made his first purchase in the Rockaways–a 28-room SRO at 175 Beach 115th Street. He made repairs, painted and put in new windows. But the city wasn’t satisfied with his renovations. In February 1999, at the urging of neighborhood residents, city inspectors ordered tenants out of the SRO. They cited two violations. One was a lopsided porch. The other was the lack of a certificate of occupancy. Officials gave the tenants just 45 minutes to gather their belongings before being hauled off to $100-a-night emergency housing at a Manhattan hotel.
Later, Jack Safos researched the building. He discovered that the hotel was erected before certificates of occupancy were required and therefore didn’t need one–and he found several decades-old registration forms declaring that the hotel had 28 rooms. The city then produced a new form–undated and unsigned–purporting to show that the building was allowed to have only 14 tenants.
Safos insisted on clarification from the city. Three weeks later, he received a letter from William Pagano, chief Queens Code Enforcement inspector for the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, acknowledging that “Department records of this building are incomplete and sketchy” and noting that “the records that do exist show indications of having been tampered with.” A spokesperson now says HPD has no record of this letter in its files. The city has since allowed 14 tenants back into the building, and Safos has gone to court to get the hotel back to full occupancy.
While these troubles were playing out, Safos bought another SRO two doors away. This new building–187 Beach 115th Street–contained 44 rooms and had a legal certificate of occupancy. Local officials admit that Safos made a welcome change in the building. He pushed out two dozen problem tenants, including several drug dealers, began renovations and installed his family’s office on the ground floor. The results were dramatic. In the three years before the Safos family took over, police made 48 arrests at the hotel. In the past year, the cops have been by only once. “This was a pretty bad SRO,” Jack Safos says. “The landlady was in her eighties, and her manager was selling drugs. The only thing that benefited us is we got it for half price.”
All three members of the Safos family are on good terms with the residents. “If it weren’t for Matthew,” says resident Ronnie Kaye, “I don’t know where the hell I’d be.” As Matthew stands in the bustling office at 187, tenants shuttle in and out to ask questions, gossip or use the phone. He clowns around with some of the residents. Dia, who staffs a computer, answers phones and coordinates operations, has a crib next to her desk where her 5-month-old baby-little Matthew–is sleeping.
The Safos family clearly feels at home with the tenants; it’s the community leaders they fear. Matthew and Jack Safos complain that Gaska and the others on the Community Board’s task force are harassing them. As evidence, they cite their latest purchase, 147 Beach 113th Street, which they bought last August. As with Beach 115th Street, they quickly moved to repair the building, installing new windows and putting stucco on the exterior.
Again, instead of being happy that they were improving the building, neighbors called the cops. The police ordered Jack to cease his repairs, arguing that he was doing the work without a permit. Work is proceeding again–the Buildings Department eventually confirmed that owners do not need permits to install new windows or apply a new stucco facade–but Safos expects another dispute because he is attempting to change the building’s certificate of occupancy to allow year-round use, rather than the summer-only occupancy that it now permits.
Even with the inspection nightmares, Safos admits that owning an SRO can be a profitable business. In Rockaway Park, several SROs have recently changed hands for between $100,000 and $200,000–far below the price of a comparable two- or three-family house. And, though rents are low, the income from all the rooms quickly adds up. Take the 44-unit SRO at 187 Beach 115th Street: At an average rate of $300 per month per room, the building brings in as much as $158,400 in rent every year. Even allowing a 15 percent vacancy rate, that’s still almost $135,000 in annual revenue.
Matthew Safos is quick to point out that costs can be great. He estimates he spends $45,000 annually on his mortgage, $13,000 in insurance, $9,500 in real estate taxes, $18,000 for electricity, $6,000 for heat and hot water. Factoring in miscellaneous expenses, Safos says it’s safe to estimate that the building produces income of $21,000 a year. Hardly a fortune–but a decent amount. “I make a couple of dollars,” he acknowledges.
Safos isn’t the only one who thinks his SROs can be a win-win proposition.. Though she won’t comment on the Safoses as landlords, April Newbauer, who heads the Rockaway neighborhood office of the Queens Legal Aid Society, believes the city was wrong to pull residents out of the Safos’ building at 175 Beach 115th Street. Though her office represents tenants against negligent landlords, Newbauer believes that tenants need the rooming houses. “There is a place for SRO housing in this city,” she says. “It provides a home for people who can’t afford anything else.”
Yet SRO housing is disappearing at an alarming rate. In 1960, a census survey found that New York City had at least 129,000 SRO units. In 1986, more than 63,000 units remained, according to reports prepared for the city Department of Housing Preservation. By 1996, the most recent year for which figures were available, there were only about 47,000 SRO units remaining.
In a city where rents have gone haywire, each affordable SRO building is a precious resource. Tenants understand that reality all too well. “They close down a rooming house and they act like they’ve done something,” says Joe Thrower, a disabled Vietnam vet and former long-haul truck driver who has lived at 187 Beach 115th Street for five years. “But they put 15 or 20 people in the street. Where are they supposed to go?”
A block away, on Beach 114th Street, a man who asked to be identified as Kenny K. has his own thoughts about the building where he has lived for the last 18 months, paying $370 a month for a tiny room. “It’s true that all these old buildings are ugly and a nuisance,” he says. “But if you don’t have places like this, where are the homeless going to stay? Where are the people on Social Security going to stay? Basically, this is a dump. But it sure beats sleeping on the boardwalk.”
Robert Neuwirth is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer. Additional reporting by Kevin Fleming.