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July 8, 1989
S.R.O. Tenants to Get Free Legal Service

by Dennis Hevesi
New York City will provide free legal services to any tenant of single-room-occupancy housing who is facing improper eviction or is being harassed by a landlord, Mayor Edward I. Koch said yesterday.

His statement followed a ruling by the State Court of Appeals on Thursday overturning a city law that prohibited the conversion or demolition of single-room-occupancy dwellings. The court, the state's highest, said the law was unconstitutional because it deprived owners of the right to determine how their property could be used.

"We will provide you with free lawyers if your landlord tries to evict or harass you," the Mayor said. "We will provide whatever is required to defend your rights."

When the ruling was announced, Mr. Koch called it a "devastating blow" to the city's efforts to stem the tide of homelessness, and said he had asked the city's Corporation Counsel, Peter L. Zimroth, to appeal the decision to the United States Supreme Court.

Praise for the Mayor
Yesterday, the Mayor said the city is preparing a flier for distribution at all single-room-occupancy hotels. "It will contain," he said, "all of the information with respect to the rights of every S.R.O. tenant."

The flier, Mr. Koch said, "will say you may be subjected to harassment, and if you are, call Alberta Fuentes," the director of the Mayor's Office for Homeless and Single Room Occupancy Housing Services.

Advocates for the homeless and for single-room-occupancy tenants praised the Mayor's pledge. "God bless him," said Robert Hayes, counsel to the Coalition for the Homeless. "It's a kind and intelligent step."

George McDonald, director of The Doe Fund Inc., which assists the homeless, said "I think it's very important that we concentrate on the rights of the people who live in these 52,000 rooms. And it's important that the Mayor recognizes this."

'A Fragile Population'
Saralee Evans, director of the West Side S.R.O. Law Project, one of two supported organizations defending the rights of such tenants, said: "We are encouraged that the Mayor sees the need for additional legal services. Clearly the increase in tenants facing eviction is going to place an inordinate burden on the two law projects."

But Harold Weingarten, director of the Metropolitan Hotel Industry Stabilization Association, representing the owners of 40,000 single-room-occupancy units, contended that the overturning of the law would not create havoc for the tenants. "There's been a tremendous diminution of harassment of tenants," he said, "There are great restraints on landlords today."

But Ms, Fuentes said: "We're talking about a fragile population. Someone who is mentally ill or a substance abuser can easily be bought out for a couple of thousand dollars, not knowing that they can't find another unit for that amount of money, and they end up homeless."

While praising the Mayor's pledge of legal protection for tenants, Mr. McDonald said he was not upset about the Court of Appeals decision. "Now we can concentrate on the building of new S.R.O.'s to replace the 100,000 rooms that have been torn down."

In the 1960's, he pointed out, S.R.O. construction was banned because it was considered substandard. "I've seen plans for 100-unit, for-profit S.R.O.'s not needing any government subsidy except existing tax-abatement programs," Mr. McDonald said. "These units can provide a very profitable return on private investment." He said San Diego bas built 2,500 such units.

Ms. Fuentes said such proposals deserve consideration. But she added she is not sure New York "can replicate what's been done in San Diego."

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