The Many Lives of a New York S.R.O.

We lived there for several weeks, and my memories of that time are spare — a dark, dusty, oppressive room, walks along Broadway where we encountered other war refugees living in S.R.O. hotels, and a fistfight between my father and a man who came to kick us out of the hotel after the immigrant aid payments ended. But the Capitol Hall gave us a foothold in the country and introduced us to the cosmopolitan pleasures of the West Side, a neighborhood we were to live in for most of the next five years.

The Capitol Hall has also given a foothold to Ms. Saliski and Mr. Ortiz as well as to thousands of migrants from the hinterlands. According to a history provided by organizers of the celebration held on May 24, it started life in 1913 as an apartment building with four apartments per floor. By the early 1940s the building’s owners found it more profitable to cut up the apartments into narrow hotel rooms that would house the vigorous young workers flocking to New York for jobs in the wartime mobilization.


Eddie A. Ortiz, a former interior decorator, in the Capitol Hall unit where he lives and that he redecorated.

Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

In the 1950s, the Capitol Hall and scores of other hotels like the Marseilles and the Whitehall housed war refugees and, later, solitary elderly men and women, disabled people and mental patients released from state psychiatric hospitals. By the 1970s, during the city’s economic downturn and near-bankruptcy, the term S.R.O. had acquired a sinister overtone, with many hotels filling up with drug dealers, prostitutes and released convicts who would frighten other tenants trying to scratch out a living and would disturb their neighbors with drunken brawls. One nearby hotel, the Endicott, was the site of several murders.

By the 1980s, a wave of gentrification had spread across the brownstones and apartment houses, and hotels like the Endicott were converted to luxury co-ops. But some West 87th Street residents, among them Mig Boyle, a former tenant organizer, and her late husband, Robert Hoyt, the founder of the National Catholic Reporter newspaper, and Eric and Gillian Rosenfeld, wanted to preserve the diversity they had come to prize. They also realized that throwing the hotel’s tenants out would increase the neighborhood’s street homelessness.

In the late 1970s, the West 87th Street 100 Block Association had arranged for social services to be provided in the hotel. They invited hotel tenants to take part in the block’s annual pumpkin festival and help with spring plantings. “We got to know all the people in the hotel,” Ms. Boyle said. “We totally lost the idea of us and them.”

When the landlord decided to convert the building, Ms. Boyle urged her neighbors: “Let’s buy it.”

“Mig comes up with these big plans and often they work out,” said Mr. Rosenfeld, a lawyer, chuckling.


From left: Kathy Jones, Eric Rosenfeld, Mig Boyle and Gillian Rosenfeld, who share their block on West 87th Street with Capitol Hall, were part of the effort to save it.

Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

Despite opposition from some block residents, they brought in Goddard Riverside, a neighborhood social services organization, which steered them to the Settlement Housing Fund, a nonprofit that specialized in packaging financing for low-income housing. After a complicated struggle, financing was arranged through several government agencies and donations from foundations and private individuals. One donor was the socialite Brooke Astor, who toured the building and gave $100,000.

In the three decades since, the building’s upkeep and oversight have sometimes been challenging, mostly because money has been hard to come by. Ms. Saliski said that when she first moved in, the building seemed dilapidated in places. There were also complaints from neighbors of loud televisions and occasional thefts.

The renovation, started in 2013, was complicated because Goddard Riverside wanted to displace no more than one-third of the tenants at a time and temporarily shelter them in other subsidized housing. Among the improvements made: A courtyard used for storing garbage was converted into a community room. Along with the physical renovation, social workers were added and weekly visits by nurse practitioners started. The renovation was paid for with a combination of city bond financing and low-income housing tax credits. Most tenants receive support from the federal Section 8 rent program; while rooms rent for $900, the tenants pay no more than one-third of their income.

Stephan Russo, executive director of Goddard Riverside, noted that where commercial S.R.O.s once accommodated 200,000 tenants, they probably house no more than 20,000 now; an additional 35,000 people live in nonprofit-run S.R.O.s. Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo have pledged to create 35,000 additional units of supportive housing over the next 10 years.

Projects like the Capitol Hall, said Mr. Russo, provided a model for other “permanent supported housing” projects.

“Rather than saying, ‘Not in my backyard,’ they said, ‘Yes on my block!’” he said of the residents of West 87th Street.

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