Friday, April 4, 2008


Death of the California Suites

An evening walk down the filthy hallways of the Death of the California Suites, a rough and ready SRO housing AIDS patients on 111th Street on the Upper West Side, shows shattered sheetrock piled in the empty rooms and floors ripped up revealing unstable and dangerous subflooring. The remaining 10 tenants out of the original 100 stay locked inside listening to blaring televisions and ignoring knocks on their doors.
The hotel is being gutted and rehabbed, with the remaining residents being forced out, bought out for tiny sums or mercilessly harassed, charged a tenant still in the hotel.
"Presently, strong-arm tactics are being used to harass the remaining tenants," said David Frank, a five-year resident of the hotel. "The fire exits have been locked. Construction debris blocks the lobby and the regular garbage hasn't been picked up for weeks." Frank has filed a six-page affidavit with the SRO Law Project, an Upper West Side advocacy group, charging a repeated pattern of abuse by management, including assault and destruction of his personal property. He as also accused the managers of barring client advocates from visiting the building.
Through the 1990s, the California housed clients from the Division of AIDS Services and Income Support [DASIS] in brutal circumstances. Two years ago, garbage was piled in the halls, menacing drug dealers roamed the stairways and the rooms were filthy, all with the knowledge of the indifferent owners, who collected up to $1100 per month for each single room.
Last year, however, DASIS stopped referring new clients to the hotel after it was established by the Law Project that the eventual owner of the California was Jay Pedalsky, an infamous SRO slumlord who owns at least five brutal hotels all over the West Side.
In mid-February, the California night manager expelled a City Limits reporter and photographer who were visiting a legal resident in the hotel. Another resident had told the managers that the reporter had visited the hotel previously.
"Refusal to allow guests of legal residents into the building can amount to harassment," said Adrian Di Lollo a community liaison for the SRO Law Project.
California Suites has often run afoul of city government. In 1996, the Hotel got in trouble for illegally subdividing its 84 rooms into 99 units. Last November, the hotel received 52 violations of the building maintenance code for illegal construction from inspectors from the city's Department of Housing, Preservation and Development.
HPD is responsible for monitoring potential harassment in the city's SROs. Any plans for major construction by SRO owners must receive "Certification of No Harassment" by the HPD before Department of Building work permits will be issued. After an investigation, HPD issued the California such a certificate on December 26, 1996. The DOB issued construction permits in November 1997. Major construction in the hotel had begun three months before then.
HPD is now investigating charges of harassment at the California. "The agency is aware of recent allegations of harassment at 610 W. 111th St., "said a staement from HPD. "The SRO unit will closely monitor the situation and take appropriate action, including revocation the Certification of No Harassment, if necessary."
Revocation of the certificate could be disastrous for the California owners. The construction permits would be revoked, and the Dept. of Buildings could stop some or all construction in the hotel.
Di Lollo said that he filed Frank's affidavit with the HPD to encourage them to investigate strong evidence of harassment at the hotel. His view of what could be done was pessimistic. "In 14 or 15 years the law project has existed, we are not aware of a Certificate of No Harassment being rescinded from an SRO."
The two managers, Amir Mohammed and Ali Mohammed, gave conflicting stories on the future of the hotel. "We will probably give the building back to Columbia," aid Ali Mohammed, saying that it would be used as a dorm.
"Our real estate manager has heard this before," said Anne Canty, a Columbia spokeswoman of the California conversion, "but this not something that Columbia is doing."
"There are no residents for you to interview," said Amir Mohammed. "Come back in three months and there will be one hundred residents -- the same ones who lived here before."
Reality has not proved Amir Mohammed's statements true. A non-profit worker familiar with the California said that its residents had wound up in other SRO, apartments or "had gotten lost in the system. The remaining tenants have been offered other places to go, but there leaving is based in their willingness and capability to do so." All the remaining tenants are DASIS clients, the worker added.
Frank, however, is no passive victim. "I called the Fire Department about the locked fire exits and broken sprinklers," he said. "Ali Mohammed then called my cable company, told them I'd died two day before, and they turned off my cable."
"Ali Mohammed has given the keys of empty rooms to several nasty drunks, former tenants who harass the present ones. There is drug dealing and prostitution going on in here."
Ali Mohammed vehemently denies any harassment. "Nobody actually gets harassed," he yelled at City Limits. "Conditions have improved. What people told you this?" he demanded to know.
Recently, Frank faced down the two Mohammeds and brought the same City Limits reporter into the hotel. "I know my rights," he told them flippantly. "You can only bar people who are a danger to me, themselves or to the hotel. I will walk him out myself."
In his affidavit, Frank said that Ali Mohammed offered him $250 to move out. He also told Frank that DASIS had ordered him to move out in 48 hours, which turned out to be untrue."
Two thirds of the hotel had been gutted and renovated. Frank gave a tour of the new room he has been moved to. The bathroom was tiled in cheap fake marble, but there were exposed wires all over the room and construction dust on the floor.
Despite the hardships of the California, Frank plans to stay. "This is A great neighborhood. I've lived here for 15 years and all my friends are here. At this time in my life, I don't want to start over."


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