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August 8, 1985
SRO Moratorium

'Imperfect' measure to address New York City's housing crisis signed

by Tricia Gallagher
With Cardinal O'Connor as a witness, New York Mayor Edward Koch signed into law an 18-month moratorium on the conversion, alteration or demolition of single-room occupancy hotels, commonly called SROs.

However, the cardinal and the mayor both conceded at the City Hall ceremony on Aug. 5 that the measure is "imperfect." They also stressed that it is an essential beginning toward solving the city's housing crisis.

"The purpose of the moratorium is to preserve the city's rapidly diminishing housing stock of low-cost SROs while a study is made by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development to determine the best means of providing this housing or other suitable low-cost housing for people who will otherwise become a part of the city's growing homeless population," Koch explained.

The cardinal added, "This is a monumental step toward exciting the public and making them aware of the very critical needs in housing."

Cardinal O'Connor noted that he had brought the problem of SRO conversion to the attention of the federal government when he testified before Congress on the housing crisis last spring.

"Maybe when a city like New York does something of this sort, it will make the country realize it really is serious," he said.

But Cardinal O'Connor told Koch, "We do not consider the bill to be perfect. I think you understand that."

The cardinal said the law should have included an anti-warehousing measure, which would prevent landlords from evicting SRO tenants during the moratorium in anticipation of profit-making when the time is up. He also asked for an extension on the moratorium since it is retroactive to Jan. 9, 1985, and "more than six months are already gone."

"But we recognize it's an imperfect world," Cardinal O'Connor said. The legislation, he explained, was the result of "sincere, knowledgeable, reasonable people who recognized the complications in the issue and came up with the best bill they could."

"We would look at this as only a beginning," he said. "We feel the needs are urgent, and the archdiocese is prepared to do all it can to help."

The bill was introduced at the mayor's request by the council vice chairman and majority leader Tom Cuite and was sponsored by eight other council members. It came eight months after Koch announced that he would seek such legislation. At that Dec. 13 news conference, the mayor invited then-Archbishop O'Connor to join him since the archbishop had pushed for the moratorium as a means to stem the tide of homelessness in the city.

Under the terms of the moratorium, building permits issued after Jan. 9 for SRO conversion will be revoked. Developers face a $150,000 fine for each SRO unit unlawfully altered or demolished and a denial for four years of a certificate of occupancy for those units.

According to Mayor Koch, a low- and moderate- income housing fund will be established from the fines. "Civil penalties?are to be used to provide housing assistance for persons of low and moderate income, with a preference to be given to single adults of low income whose last residence was an SRO dwelling unit exempted from the moratorium," he explained.

Speaking in opposition to the measure was George McDonald, a resident of an SRO and a candidate for city council president, who described the measure as "closing the barn door after the horse has left." He urged greater attention to replacement of the lost SRO dwellings and encouraged the mayor and the council to address the practice of warehousing.

The cardinal noted that Seattle has an anti-warehousing measure and that he would like to see New York consider such measures.

After the mayor signed the bill, he presented the pen to the cardinal, who gave it to Father Donald Sakano, director of the archdiocesan Office of Neighborhood Preservation.

"Father Sakano has done far more work than I have to see this bill passed," Cardinal O'Connor said.

The mayor noted, "I am especially grateful for the cooperation and support of the Archdiocese of New York, particularly, Cardinal O' Connor, Msgr. (James) Murray (executive director of Catholic Charities) and Father Sakano." Koch added that he hopes his "partnership" with the cardinal on such issues will continue.

In an interview with Catholic New York after the ceremony, Father Sakano said, "I'm not so starry eyed that this bill with its compromises disappoints. I'm very happy."

Father Sakano will serve on the advisory committee that will examine a study and cost analysis of SROs and low-income housing to be conducted by Urban Systems, a private organization, and the Settlement Housing Fund during the moratorium.

Father Sakano would like to see progress toward the building of new units.

"What we want is for the city and voluntary and private sectors to fix on some solutions and to find some programs that can be used by the non-profits," he explained.

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