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New York City Hostels: What You Should Know Before Renting

Katie Lemon |
March 28, 2011 | 11:52 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

There was no sign reading “Times Square International Hostel” at 243 W. 38th St. when four college students arrived in New York City on a cold Saturday night in March.

The story begins with a sketchy, yet decent and convenient place to stay, and ends with an N.Y. police department officer knocking on the door with a stern order: “Leave immediately, this place is illegal.”

Being lost and homeless in New York City is not at all fun.
This hostel situation gone wrong has become too common of an occurence in New York City. 

“Landlords prey on students,” said Amy Cleary, communications director for New York Assemblyman Joseph Lentol.

Apartment building owners realize they can make more money charging tourists and students by the night than they could charge more permanent residents by the month.

But sections of buildings illegally converted to hostels create several problems. They decrease the quality of living for other residents in the building. They have to put up with people constantly moving in and out and loud 20-something’s returning at unruly hours of the night.

Many illegal hostels are generally unsafe for residents because they violate fire safety codes and allow more people to stay there than the maximum occupancy. The unlicensed hotels also affect the city's housing market in NYC, which is crushed by a high demand and a low supply. These hostels and halfway houses make apartments unavailable to people who want to move to the city.

Hostels, both legal and illegal, have been operating in New York for years, so why crack down now? How have they been in operation for so long?

There have been an increased number of instances of people being left on the streets in the middle of vacations due to hostels being shut down, according to Cleary.

She said the landlords who operate the illegal hostels profit enough from overcharging that they have enough money to pay the fines placed by the city, so they don’t close down. The Times Square International Hostel may have been shut down due to fire codes and other violations, but once the fines are paid, it may re-open. The owner of Times Square International Hostel declined to comment on the hostel's status.

Former New York Governor David Patterson signed a law in June 2010, which gives the city more power to bust illegal hostels starting May 1.

"By signing this bill into law, the governor has helped us clear up ambiguities in the law that have hindered our ability to take enforcement actions against illegal hotels," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said last summer.

The bill adjusted the city’s multiple dwelling law, requiring that most dwellings be rented for at least 30 days. Landlords will no longer able to rent apartments like hotel rooms at rates that are higher than what current rent laws allow.

But N.Y. City Hall spokesman Jason Post said the city will not target hostels, and that “there is no crackdown.” NYPD will not search the Internet or city for illegal rentals. Post said they will respond to 311 calls and other complaints and will be on the lookout for unsafe living conditions.

“When we observe violations of the fire code and building code, we are certainly going to take steps to protect the safety of the residents,” Post said in an email.

Some hostel owners criticized the new regulation after it was passed, saying politicians were favoring deep-pocketed hotel owners, who stand to benefit from less alternatives being available to tourists.

Cleary said that the city definitely supports hostels and wants them to be legal so that people can easily and affordably travel to the city. However, they want to make sure that the conditions are safe and that they are following regulations for safety, fire exits and occupancy.

“It’s a balancing act," she said. "We’re finding ways to legislate around it to allow for current hostels to operate and for new hostels to open, provided that they are actually hostels and are operating in building zones which allow hostels and hotels."

Cleary estimates that about 24 illegal hostels exist in the north Brooklyn district alone.

The law still could hamper tourism by making trips to New York City more unaffordable. Many hotels will not rent to people under 21, making it difficult for young travelers.

To avoid being unexpectedly homeless in a big, overwhelming city like New York, here are some tips to prevent a hostile hostel situation:

1)    Visit http://www.nycgo.com/. They promote travel to NYC and have a comprehensive list of legal hotels and hostels.
2)    Find reviews of the hostels on websites such as Yelp.
3)    Call the hostel to ask about fire safety codes.
4)    Pay attention to where the hostel is located. If they are on the third floor of a random building, that’s probably a bad sign. If it occupies multiple floors or is its own building, then it should be legit.
5) The hostel requires you to prove that you are from out of state. This is prevents state residents from claiming rental rights.
5) Hostels only accept cash as payment.
6) Hostel operator refuses to give you exact address until after you arrive and pay.

Reach reporter Katie Lemon here.



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