Adams’ call to turn hotels into lodgings is great for middle-class youth

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Mayor-elect Eric Adams recently called for converting hotel rooms to affordable housing. This great idea could easily be extended to tens of thousands of additional homes for the middle class. All of a sudden, we could help put a roof over people’s heads, bring New Yorkers closer to their jobs, boost jobs, and fill city coffers.

Here’s how: Legalize a change of use from a hotel to an apartment without requiring compliance with the residence code.

About 20% of the city’s hotels have been downgraded due to COVID, many permanently, and at least a fifth of Gotham’s 120,000 hotel rooms are vacant. However, obtaining a residential occupancy certificate means complying with modern codes which almost always make it prohibitive to change the use of an old building.

Why not legalize life in hotel rooms as they are? After all, tens of thousands of Americans slept in these rooms last night; they must be habitable. A quick security check to ensure compliance with the current hotel code should suffice. If we are comfortable accommodating the homeless in these accommodations, why not let the middle class and young professionals pay to live there?

The biggest obstacle to converting hotels is a regulatory thicket of well-meaning housing laws that fail to address the way people live today. Americans stay single longer and live more nomadic lives. To compete for top talent, New York City needs a variety of housing sizes and types. Compact and efficient micro-units would offer a new price for middle income earners.

Yet, in practical terms, converting a hotel means combining two rooms into a code-compliant apartment, with huge construction costs and downtime. Instead of taking advantage of the immediately habitable space, you need to renovate the building, expand bathrooms to make them accessible to people with disabilities, and install code-compliant kitchens in every unit.

The city’s disused and empty hotel rooms can easily be converted into lodgings.
James Messerschmidt for NY Post

This, in a town where people are known to use their ovens to store their shoes.

By immediately opening hotel rooms for accommodation, you are also driving demand for restaurants, take-out and room service: labor-intensive hospitality experiences that mean more jobs. . With the money saved by not tearing down rooms to install giant kitchens, you could reopen hotel restaurants and put thousands of employees back to work.

We would also be doing the environment a favor: there are many older hotels in downtown America where people can walk to work.

In the past, when the crisis was less acute, unions often vetoed residential hotel conversions to protect jobs. Today, closed hotels are not doing anyone a favor. A win-win compromise could make this program viable. The exemption from the code could be made conditional on the re-hiring of former employees to work in the new building or the new restaurant.

Young people moving in and populating New York’s housing stock have put pressure on prices everywhere. That demand could be absorbed by compact apartments that meet their needs and don’t require them to double down to larger apartments that might otherwise be more affordable for families.

We have been here before. At the dawn of apartment living, apartment hotels were a luxury. A century ago, the most luxurious apartments and sports clubs still had a dining room on the ground floor. People lived affordably in apartments, rooming houses, boarding houses, apartment hotels, apartments and townhouses.

Manhattan Island was home to a million more people 100 years ago than it is today. This is the advantage of habitat biodiversity: Different types of units can serve different styles of life at different prices.

Adams' plan can also be used to provide affordable housing for middle class and young New Yorkers.
Adams’ plan can also be used to provide affordable housing for middle class and young New Yorkers.
Lev Radin / Pacific Press via ZUMA Press Wire

Look at what happens when you adapt housing to people’s needs. In the 1980s, Gotham legalized thousands of artist lofts in SoHo and NoHo. The city has adapted regulations to allow creatives to live safely and affordably where they work.

The various housing types are not dangerous – millions of affluent Americans live in these older housing types because they are grandfathered. No one would have to live in one of these rooms; but the option would be there for those who want it.

One thing I’ve learned in real estate is this, it doesn’t always take a lot of square footage to make people happy. Some people are just having fun living in the biggest city in the world, and it should be legal.

It is by no means a panacea and would not replace urgent philanthropic and government action. But this simple legislative change would create much-needed jobs and environmentally friendly housing for middle incomes at no cost to the city.

Joshua Benaim is a New Yorker, founder of award-winning real estate company Aria and author of “Real Estate, A Love Story: Wisdom, Honor and Beauty in the Toughest Business in the World”.

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