Mayor-elect Eric Adams recently called for converting hotel rooms into affordable housing. This excellent idea could easily be expanded to provide tens of thousands more middle-class housing units, too. In one stroke, we could help put a roof over people’s heads, get New Yorkers closer to their jobs, boost employment and refill city coffers.
Here’s how: Legalize a change of use from hotel to apartments without requiring compliance with residential code.
Some 20 percent of the city’s hotels have been decommissioned due to COVID, many permanently, and at least a fifth of Gotham’s 120,000 hotel rooms sit vacant. Yet getting a residential certificate of occupancy means complying with modern codes that almost always make it prohibitively expensive to change an older building’s use.
Why not legalize living in hotel rooms as they are? After all, tens of thousands of Americans slept in those rooms last night; they must be habitable. A quick safety check to ensure compliance with the current hotel code should be sufficient. If we are comfortable housing the homeless in those units, why not let the middle class and young professionals pay to live in them?
The biggest impediment to converting hotels is a regulatory thicket of well-intended housing laws that don’t address how people live now. Americans are staying single longer and living more nomadically. To compete for the best talent, New York City needs a variety of housing sizes and types. Compact and efficient microunits would offer a new, middle-income price point.
Yet in practical terms, converting a hotel means combining two rooms to make one code-compliant apartment, with enormous construction costs and downtime. Instead of taking advantage of immediately habitable space, you must gut renovate the building, enlarging the bathrooms to make them handicap-accessible and installing code-compliant kitchens in every unit.
This, in a city where people are known to use their ovens for shoe storage.
By immediately opening hotel rooms to housing, you also stimulate demand for restaurants, takeout and room service: labor-intensive hospitality experiences that mean more jobs. With the money saved not demolishing guest rooms to install jumbo kitchens, you could reopen hotel restaurants and put thousands of employees back to work.
We’d also be doing a favor for the environment: Many older hotels are in downtowns across America where people could walk to work.
In the past, when the crisis was less acute, unions often vetoed residential conversions of hotels to protect jobs. Today, shuttered hotels aren’t doing anyone any favors. A win-win compromise could make this program viable. The code waiver could be conditioned on hiring back former employees to work in the new apartment building or restaurant.
Young people moving in and populating New York’s housing stock have put pricing pressure everywhere. That demand could be absorbed by compact apartments that fit their needs and don’t require them to double up in larger apartments that might otherwise be more affordable for families.
We’ve been here before. At the dawn of apartment living, apartment hotels were a luxury. The most luxurious apartments and athletic clubs a century ago always had a dining room downstairs. People lived affordably in tenements, rooming houses, boarding houses, apartment hotels, apartments and townhomes.
The island of Manhattan housed a million more people 100 years ago than we do today. That’s the benefit of housing biodiversity: Different unit types can serve different lifestyles at different price points.
Look at what happens when you match housing to people’s needs. In the 1980s, Gotham legalized thousands of artist lofts in SoHo and NoHo. The city tailored regulations to allow creative people to live safely and affordably where they work.
Diverse housing typologies are not dangerous — millions of well-to-do Americans live in these older housing types because they’re grandfathered in. No one would be forced to live in one of these rooms; but the option would be there for those who want it.
One thing I’ve learned in the real-estate business is: It doesn’t always take a lot of square footage to make people happy. Some people get their kicks simply living in the greatest city in the world, and that should be legal.
It’s by no means a panacea and wouldn’t take the place of urgent philanthropic and government action. But this simple legislative change would create much-needed jobs and environmentally friendly, middle-income housing 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.”