Talk about a hostel living environment!
City officials raided and cleared a six-story Williamsburg building that contained two allegedly illegal hostels and dozens of residential tenants last Friday afternoon after an inspector found that the commercial building was not zoned for residential use.
Twenty hostel guests, mostly in their 20s and early 30s, and other residents were told to gather their things and leave the building by this evening. The Red Cross arrived at the scene shortly after 2 pm to provide emergency services including temporary housing for those with nowhere else to go.
“We were told we had a few hours to get out,” said Adriana Lee, an employee at Loftstel, one of the two hostels in the building. “Some people have been living here a couple of years.”
Two hostels, Loftstel and Zip112 Hostel, separately managed 12 apartments total, which could house up to 16 people each with a capacity of 192 people. Tenants, many of them international students and interns at local hospitals and the United Nations, paid upwards of $1,100 per month to live in the communal setting.
According to city officials, in addition to not having the proper permits, the building did not have a fire escape, sprinkler system or a secondary exit in case an emergency arises.
The owner of the building, Soonbin Kim, did not return calls for comment.
While the residents of Loftstel were evicted, guests at Zip112 were allowed to return to their rooms.
According to Zip112 President Young Yang, the city inspector was prepared to close the business, but after checking out the unit and noticing the second exit, the inspector permitted the company and its 10 tenants to stay.
Yang insisted that ZIP112 is a legally registered company and said that the building’s owner has been working with the city to work out any problems or violations.
“I don’t know what is going to happen next week,” said Yang. “If they are closing the whole building, eventually I may have to move out.”
Most of the building’s tenants were not guests at either hostel. City inspectors told residents that it could take more than a year to resolve vacate orders and bring the building up to code. For now, these tenants are couch-surfing until they can find another place to live.
“We are not just backpackers who can go home,” said one tenant who refused to give her name. “That was our home. We live there. Those were our apartments.”
The building is just one that contained what city officials estimate are dozens of hostels operating out of illegally converted warehouses, commercial buildings, and residential lofts. In some cases, the owner has launched the hostel, and in others, a tenant has sought to earn extra cash by converting his apartment into a mini-dormitory.
The proliferation of hostels and illegal hotels has so concerned residents and community leaders in Brooklyn that state legislators are proposing four bills that would make it illegal to rent residential buildings on a nightly basis.
Community leaders, including Community Board 1 member Ward Dennis, said that the vacate order was not surprising, given the proliferation of hostels and illegal building conversions in the neighborhood. He expects even more evacuations in the near future.
“Apartments are not built to the same code as transient hotels,” said Dennis “Putting 192 transient residents into a non-fireproof building designed for 20 or 30 residents is a recipe for disaster.”
Perhaps, but some locals were sympathetic to the evicted residents.
“It’s horrible!” said Ralph De La Rosa of Go Yoga, which occupies a first-floor business space. “The city should be doing something else instead of vacating them in this way.”
Assemblyman Joe Lentol (D-Williamsburg) agreed and blamed the building’s owner for not having the proper zoning and safety requirements for his business.
“This type of situation, where people are being kicked out on the street, should not be allowed to occur in the first place,” said Lentol. “It’s simply unacceptable. I never want to see people on the street in my district.”
While some tenants will be relocated, an apoplectic Adriana Lee is moving back in with her dad.
“I can’t really process this right now,” said Lee. “We’re shoving everything into our Honda Accord.”
Friday’s eviction comes at a crucial moment in the underground hostel scene. Earlier in the week, someone got wind of another clandestine hotel, this one in the old Glove Factory on Graham Avenue in Williamsburg. A Craigslist posting seeking “housekeepers” was quickly removed from the online classified Web site, apparently after someone figured out that the hostel might, in fact, be illegal.