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August 6, 1985
No High Praise for Low-Rent Bill

by Saul Friedman
Mayor Edward I. Koch signed a bill yesterday designed to protect thousands of the poor who live alone from being forced out of their homes.

But virtually everyone invited by the mayor to the signing ceremony, including John Cardinal O'Connor, criticized the bill as inadequate.

The law, retroactive to January, calls for an 18-month moratorium on the alteration, demolition or conversion of "single room occupancy" dwellings, known as SROs.

The purpose of the moratorium, the mayor said, "is to preserve the city's rapidly diminishing housing stock of low-cost SROs" until officials study how to best provide permanent housing "for people who will otherwise become part of the city's homeless population."

But because the moratorium includes a number of exemptions, most of which had been sought by the mayor or real estate interests, O'Connor, the head of the Archdiocese of New York, led critics at the ceremony in voicing reservations about what he called "very serious imperfections" in the law.

O'Connor had suggested a moratorium on all SRO buildings, "But we recognize it's an imperfect world and we look at this [bill] as only a beginning," he said. Several church basements are now housing the homeless, he said, many of whom had been forced out of SROs converted into homes for the more affluent. The cardinal also said he favored legislation to prevent landlords from "warehousing" -- keeping apartments vacant after removing tenants.

The bill excludes smaller SROs, including brownstones and buildings with up to 24 rooms in which fewer than seven apartments are now occupied. And its critics said that owners of larger buildings could force tenants out by withholding services, then waiting for the moratorium to expire next July.

George McDonald, a candidate for the City Council presidency and a supporter of SRO tenants' rights, said, "While the bill is in effect, landlords will continue to move tenants out."

Similarly, three Manhattan members of the City Council called the bill a compromise that may slow, but won't stop the development of housing for the affluent at the poor's expense.

Koch himself refrained from praising the legislation, saying merely that it was the result of "months of discussion, negotiation and compromise among many people." City officials said that current SRO tenants will continue to be protected by other laws restricting landlord harassment and eviction, and estimate that up to 70,000 SROs remain; others have put the estimate at fewer than 20,000.

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