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Here are all the obstacles to turning hotels into permanent accommodation

In New York, where the related affordable housing and homelessness crises are a constant battle, there has been a flurry of headlines about new steps that could speed the conversion of failing hotels into permanent affordable housing. In Albany last month, lawmakers doubled funding for the effort to $200 million. Additionally, Governor Kathy Hochul drafted red tape-cutting legislation to make it easier and faster for nonprofit developers to turn hotels into affordable housing, not just in the city but across the state.

“As New York’s housing crisis continues to impact families, we’re taking bold action, embracing innovative ideas, and thinking outside the box to help ensure New Yorkers can access affordable housing. safe, livable and of high quality,” Hochul said during the signing of the hotel transformation legislation. “This new law allows us to tackle the affordability crisis head-on and convert empty and underused space into housing.”

The cash infusion and paperwork cuts – primarily those that allow hotels to avoid the onerous process of obtaining a new certificate of occupancy before beginning a conversion – were intended to address the fact that since the state allocated $100 million for the effort a year ago, under a bill called the Housing Our Neighbors with Dignity Act, no conversions have taken place. But new funds and adjustments may not be enough to move the effort forward, as there are many other hurdles.

One of the issues with last year’s bill was that hotels could be converted into permanent accommodation, the hotel workers’ union – usually the Hotel Trades Council – must approve the conversion. “And the union won’t allow the conversion of unionized hotels because they want to keep those hotels open to keep jobs for their union members,” said Charles King, CEO of the nonprofit Housing Works, which develops both affordable permanent and temporary housing. shelter accommodation.

The majority of hotels in Manhattan are unionized, which likely lowers their chances of becoming conversions, King said — especially now, when tourism is starting to rebound and visitors generally prefer to stay in Manhattan.

On the other hand, only about 15% of hotels in the outer boroughs are unionized, according to Vijay Dandapani, president and CEO of the New York Hotel Association. “Housing advocates believe there are at least 170 hotels … that this bill will now convert,” said State Senator Brian Kavanagh, who sponsored this year’s bill. That high number, he said, was partly due to another adjustment that hotels no longer needed to be in a residential area as long as they were within 400 feet of a for that there is access to amenities such as grocery stores and pharmacies.

But Dandapani noted other roadblocks. For one thing, he told City & State, conversions to affordable housing require the installation of a kitchenette, which is often not easy or cheap to do in units with walls and pre-existing plumbing. There would also be a minimum square footage requirement per unit, which could mean having to combine two hotel rooms into one unit and then reconfigure both bathrooms – also a major undertaking.

Kavanagh recognized him. “They’re not free,” he said of these conversions, “and we’re going to have to invest real money, but it’s still cheaper and faster than creating brand new affordable housing permanent”.

And yet another hurdle, according to Dandapani, was a new city rule passed late last year that any new hotel construction in the city had to go through a long, complex and expensive community review process. This will likely mean that fewer new hotels will be built. “A lot of these hotels in the other boroughs will become more valuable as business picks up again, so the incentive to sell (for a conversion) will be diminished,” he said.

Kavanagh agreed, saying the bill targeted hotels in serious financial difficulty. “We don’t want to create more affordable housing at the expense of the tourism industry or the hotel jobs it creates,” he said. “But the perception is that there are still many hotels that will be underutilized for the foreseeable future.”

Then, of course, there is almost always some community opposition to any deeply affordable housing or shelter. Recently in Manhattan’s Chinatown, where a homeless man was accused of fatally attacking an Asian American woman in February, fierce community opposition played a role in the denial of two proposed shelters.

But the King of Housing Works in May said According to the New York Times, the real reason for the Chinatown conversion that Housing Works was going to oversee was that the mayor was bowing to the wishes of the Hospitality Trades Council – even though, with shelter conversions, the need union approval was not enshrined in law as was the case for permanent housing conversions. King said Gary Jenkins, the city’s commissioner of social services, told him that.

“It’s really clear to me that the mayor is more concerned with pleasing this one union than addressing the needs of homeless people,” King told The Times.

A spokesman for the mayor did not respond to a question asking if that was true. When asked if the mayor – who received his first major union endorsement from the Hospitality Trades Council during his campaign last year – would regularly respond to union wishes over hotel conversion proposals in shelter, another spokesperson for the mayor replied via email: “All shelters- Siting decisions have been and will continue to be guided by the mayor’s commitment to work with communities to understand their needs and equitably implement high-quality shelters in the five boroughs.

With all those hurdles, Dandapani said he “wouldn’t be shocked” if the city saw as few as five hotel-to-housing conversions over the next five years. Of about 130,000 hotel rooms across the city, he said, 20,000 of them remain closed. “But that doesn’t mean they will be closed (to tourists) forever.”

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said, his association worked with the city to convert up to 20,000 unused hotel rooms into temporary shelters for homeless New Yorkers. He said the experience gave him insight into the special housing needs of homeless people, such as improved safety and mental health services.

But Kavanagh insisted his bill, featuring both more money and logistical relaxation, will pay off. “This bill has had a very wide range of support among people who know how to develop affordable housing,” he said, “because they believe there are many sites that can be redeveloped within a fast and cost-effective process”. He declined to cite examples of talks already underway at some city sites.

Outside of the five boroughs, however, he pointed to Kingston, about 100 miles upstate in Ulster County, where a Quality Inn is being converted, with funding from Housing Our Neighbors with Dignity Act, into 81 affordable housing units by non-profit affordable housing developer RUPCO. Inc.

“It’s not simple,” Kavanagh said of the overall effort, “but neither is developing affordable housing on vacant land.”

For individuals and families at the site, health care, career counseling and job training will also be provided. / MASS DESIGN

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