In the city’s search for hotel rooms to house an overflow of homeless families in the city’s shelter system, the Department of Homeless Services has begun placing families in a hotel whose owner has a record of building code violations and criminal convictions for harassment.
A few weeks ago, the city began placing homeless parents and children at the Ellington Hotel at 610 West 111th Street. Once called California Suites, the building once housed clients of the Division of AIDS Services and Income Support. After a string of complaints of harassment from the tenants, the city cited then-manager Jay Podolsky for illegally subdividing already-tiny studios, and withdrew its contract in 1996.
This was just one in a series of legal transgressions on Podolsky’s record. Several years earlier, he, his brother Stuart and their father, Zenek, were all charged and ultimately convicted of hiring men to use any means–including larceny–to force residents out of one of their buildings.
Since then, Stuart’s company, Amsterdam Hospitality Group, has fixed up and run the Ellington, as it was renamed, as a tourist hotel. And Jay seems to have stayed in the picture: California Suites, the company listed as owner of the building, is owned by Sharon Olson, Jay’s wife.
In the last several months, however, business has been slow, the company’s chief operating officer, George Dfouni, told City Limits last week. So Amsterdam wanted out of the business.
Enter Alan Lapes. A few months ago, he says, he began leasing the building from California Suites. With business down at the Aladdin, a hotel he owns in Times Square, Lapes said he figured he would supplement his income by housing homeless families at both hotels.
“It was a good business opportunity, and a good way to help people in need,” he said. At the Ellington and at the Aladdin, where some long-term permanent tenants remain from the hotels’ days as single-room occupancy hotels, he hopes to fill 89 and 120 rooms a night respectively with families referred to him by the city. The city’s rate: about $85 a night for each family placed.
While he fights off some neighbors’ concerns about homeless families moving to the block, Lapes hopes people won’t dwell on the past. In fact, he hopes it disappears entirely, insisting that the Podolskys have nothing to do with the buildings.
Database records say otherwise, however, showing Sharon Olson, also known as Sharon Podolsky, as residing at the same address as Jay.
The city says whatever may have happened at the building in the past is irrelevant now. Noting that the Ellington was recently renovated, DHS said in a written statement, “All hotel providers are held to high standards, and their performance is monitored. The Department of Homeless Services will have staff on site providing social services to families.” As of January, DHS was housing 1,900 homeless families in similar hotel rooms.
All the Ellington’s neighbors can do is hope the city’s statement is true. “The community will not tolerate a building on 111th Street devolving into what it was like in 1998,” said Daniel O’Donnell, a member of Community Board 9 who lives directly across the street from the hotel. “We want to make sure that social services are provided, that there is communal space.” City Councilmember Bill Perkins and staff in Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields’ office say they plan to keep a close watch on how the families there are treated.
As for affordable housing activists, they lament that the city didn’t spend its money more wisely. “For the amount that the city is paying Alan Lapes to house homeless families, they could buy the building and turn it into permanent affordable housing for homeless people,” said Alex Schafran, an organizer for the West Side SRO Law Project.