HIV-Positive Tenants Seek Relief

Residents at Upper West Side hotel buoyed by officials’ response to housing complaints

When James Staton, who is living with HIV, moved into the Malibu Hotel on the corner of Broadway and 103rd Street in November of last year, after separating from his wife, he was appalled by his new housing conditions.

The management of the hotel, which provides emergency housing for people living with HIV and AIDS, harassed him, he said, telling him he had to follow a strict 5 p.m. curfew that prevented him from seeing his family in the evenings and threatening him with eviction if he didn’t follow the rules.

At first, he wasn’t especially upset, assuming that it would only be a few weeks until his caseworker found him a permanent apartment. Instead, he ended up on the city’s informal housing waiting list—and his “short term” stay at the hotel has felt increasingly permanent.

Last month, Staton and members of the Malibu Tenant’s Association, a group formed in May to deal with the concerns of those living at the hotel, held separate meetings with City Councilman Philip Reed, who represents the Upper West Side and East Harlem, and John Ruscillo, the housing director for the city’s HIV/AIDS Services Administration (HASA), to ask for their help in resolving the temporary housing conditions they face. The meetings were organized by members of the New York City AIDS Housing Network (NYCAHN), a nonprofit group that advocates for better housing for people living with HIV/AIDS.

“A lot of us here tonight live in the [hotels],” Staton told Reed at the November 10 meeting. “We’ve been having a lot of problems. We’re trying to address it through the right channels, but we haven’t gotten nowhere with that. If I’m not going to be part of the solution, I’m part of the problem. We’re just hoping you can work with us to try to get answers for us.”

Staton and other tenants of the Malibu, one of the city’s 59 commercial hotels used to house HASA clients, say conditions at the hotels are far from homey. They accuse the management of implementing strict curfews, harassing patrons and turning a blind eye to rampant drug use. Many of the hotels also lack private rooms, bathrooms and the minimum sanitary conditions mandated by the city for people living with HIV and AIDS.

After listening to the laundry list of complaints, Reed, who is gay and living with HIV himself, agreed to help the tenants by working with hotel owners and the police department to open lines of communication. Several tenants argued to Reed that because the hotel owners have no contracts with the city and therefore have no obligation to provide housing that meets the needs of HIV-positive people, they don’t. Reed responded that both the city and the owners are responsible.

“I certainly support the idea in concept of making them answer for the conditions if people are profiting the way they are. I think what you’ve said makes sense,” Reed said.

After Reed met with the tenants, Ruscillo attended a November 17 meeting with the group, a gathering which he insisted be closed to the press. Officials from NYCAHN said Ruscillo listened to complaints from Malibu tenants and promised help in working with the hotel’s management to end the restrictive curfews and also committed the city to move more quickly in finding permanent housing for the tenants. A member of the management staff of the Malibu also attended the meeting.

A representative of Branic International Realty Corp., the company that owns the Malibu and other hotels on the Upper West Side used to provide emergency housing for HASA clients living with HIV and AIDS, said the company had not been aware of any problems there before the meeting.

“We really can’t comment on those issues if we don’t know what they are,” said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous. “No one has made complaints. No one has come to the front desk. No one has given us negative comments. We’re willing to do whatever needs to be done, but we have to know about it.”

Jennifer Flynn, NYCAHN’s co-founder and director, said her organization sent a petition and a list of complaints to both the hotel’s management and its owners that were returned unopened. In the meeting with Reed, she asked the councilman to push for legislation that would require private hotel owners to have contracts with the city, making them responsible for providing “medically safe” housing that is clean and functional.

“I’m committed to continuing to pressure HASA to do what it needs to do,” Reed said, adding that he hasn’t seen the legislation yet and can’t promise to push it until he gets the chance to review it.

A group of NYCAHN staffers and tenants also attended an open community meeting later in the day on November 17 at the New York Police Department’s 24th Precinct, which has jurisdiction over many of the residential hotels located on the Upper West Side. The group asked for police cooperation and Inspector James Dean responded by telling the advocates and tenants that he was aware of the ongoing problem with policing the hotels. He denied allegations that his officers work with the hotel management to illegally evict tenants and to enforce rules selectively against HIV-positive clients only.

“We go through this at every location, day in, day out,” Dean said. “We have to make sure everybody’s rights are upheld. Whether they have AIDS or not shouldn’t come into the policy.”

Dean told the tenants that there currently is no city law that addresses the legality of imposing curfews and other restrictions on HIV-positive people living in commercial hotels, but committed to work with the 24th precinct’s legal advisor to try to find a solution. He suggested that there likely needs to be a test case in court that sets a precedent to guide police on enforcing private rules of the hotel.

After the meetings, Staton expressed satisfaction with the progress.

“[They were] helpful,” he said. “It seems people are on the spot now and we’ve got a variety of people coming together with the same mission. We’re still working it on. We want the equality of life just as much as everybody else.”

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