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Features
Why Run a Slum If You Can Make More Money Housing the Homeless?
One notorious real-estate family has converted its run-down buildings into for-profit shelters, paid for by the city. The going rent per cubicle: $3,600 a month.

By Andrew Rice
Published Dec 1, 2013

Shelter properties owned or controlled by the Podolskys and their associates.

The Continental Hotel, a turn-of-the-century pile on West 95th Street, was a vintage flophouse. In the sixties, a man could pick up the phone, dial UNiversity 6-1420, and find a bed there for a few bucks a night. It was never a place for nostalgia, and over the years it filled with drunks, vagrants, and deinstitutionalized mental patients. But the hotel did serve a function: providing a reservoir of dirt-cheap housing. As recently as a few years ago, the Continental’s tenants, protected by rent regulation, were paying just $330 a month on average. So, in 2005, the owners sold it for $3.1 million to Jay and Stuart Podolsky, brothers with an unsentimental eye for the potential of seedy properties.

The Podolskys had been active players in Manhattan real estate since the roughneck days of the eighties, when landlords all over the Upper West Side rousted low-paying tenants from single-room-occupancy properties like the Continental. Few were as ruthless as Zenek Podolsky and his sons Jay and Stuart, who became neighborhood legends and tabloid villains—“terror lords,” the Post called them. But they were only a particularly blunt instrument of inexorable market forces. As gentrification advanced, the family thrived, amassing a fortune fished from the bottom.

http://nymag.com/news/features/podolsky-homeless-shelters-2013-12/#print

The Podolskys’ flagship company, Amsterdam Hospitality, operated boutique hotels—mostly old SROs that they repositioned for tourism—but their portfolio included everything from Coney Island oceanfront to Grand Concourse tenements. “They are very effective at finding adaptive reuses,” says a competing hotel developer. “Whatever is expedient.” They acquired the Continental and two adjoining SROs to add to a discount chain. It was renamed the Fresh Hostel and marketed to European backpackers.

Such transformations are a fact of economic life in an increasingly smooth-edged city—think of the Breslin, a Gramercy fleabag, recently converted into the Ace Hotel—but the Continental became a flash point. The SRO Law Project mounted attacks, alleging an escalating pattern of pressure on rent-controlled tenants. The hostel’s conditions were as fetid as a spring-break crash pad—online reviews referenced vomit and bedbugs—but the young tourists would pay $50 to $120 a night for a bed to pass out in. The more they trashed the place, the less tolerable the living situation became for the less profitable holdout tenants.

The housing activists organized protests, engaged politicians, and provoked a raid by the city’s Buildings Department, which discovered numerous illegal renovations, such as a haphazard wooden bridge constructed between two buildings. An inspector scrawled: “Discontinue illegal occupancy forthwith!” After much litigation, the Podolskys finally agreed to shut down the hostels.

It turned out, however, that they had found a more profitable angle: the homeless. In July 2011, a nonprofit called Housing Solutions USA was incorporated, listing one of the 95th Street hostels as its address. The charity’s board was made up of Podolsky employees and contractors, including a lawyer who contributed a $725,000 loan for start-up costs. Instead of fighting City Hall, the Podolskys were shifting their tactics, turning an antagonist into a customer. Catering to the city’s demand for shelter beds, their property could produce revenues like a perpetually booked hotel, with none of the amenity expenses.

In August 2012, Housing Solutions won an “emergency” contract to operate a shelter on West 95th Street, which has since expanded into a five-year, $47 million deal. The city pays $122 a night—or more than $3,600 a month—for each cubicle-size room to Housing Solutions, which in turn directs rental income back to the Podolskys. Suddenly, the Continental’s holdout tenants found themselves living in a homeless shelter, renamed Freedom House, that reeked of urine, marijuana, and chaos. But the Podolskys had hit upon a coldly self-sustaining business model: They created the homeless supply and profited from the shelter demand.

Homelessness is a perpetual crisis in New York. Since a judge’s decision created a legal right to shelter in 1981, the city has consistently struggled to find appropriate shelter for its poorest citizens. During Mayor Bloomberg’s tenure, the homeless population metastasized, reaching a record level of 52,000 in September. There are many possible explanations, including policy decisions, such as the elimination of rental-subsidy programs. But the most compelling one is familiar to all: It’s harder than ever to find an affordable lease in New York. Market-rate rents have risen sharply, even as incomes have shrunk and the number of rent-regulated apartments has declined. (And stabilized units can cost as much as $2,500.) This viselike dynamic has squeezed one out of every 150 New Yorkers onto the streets.

Bloomberg’s critics—including Bill de Blasio—have cited this figure as one of the mayor’s most profound failures. To a few, though, it has represented an opportunity. The city will spend almost $800 million on shelters this year, $200 million more than in 2010, and it relies heavily on outsourced providers. “Any of us can look at the data pretty simply,” said one shelter operator, “and say it’s a growth business.”

Next: “It’s all about business, and it’s big money.”

24 Comments

ulpanaylaylo Jul 4, 2014

As there is no public discussion of the neo-liberal economic model that Mayor Bloomberg capitalized on and because even the public airwaves are flooded with MARKETPLACE and PLANET MONEY broadcasting underwritten by entrepreneurial institutes and think tanks while not a single broadcast or newspaper insert is for LABOR, your holiday season old school exercise in muck raking is the exemplary illustration of good journalism I’ve sent out to all my FACEBOOK and social media obsessed and under-informed friends.

Thank you for giving superb analytical reporter Andrew Rice all the news hole needed to piece together the shell game played by those exploiting the national security problem more commonly known as ‘homelessness’ and for removing the fig leaf from the ‘public servants’ like da billionaire mayor who surely didn’t lack the business savvy to understand how the problem was being perpetuated rather than remedied. Of course, the roots of the problem lay at the national level. Should Washington DC’s beltway machers begin calling homelessness what it is; namely, a national security and public health emergency then we’d see the resources rushed into place like all those aircraft carriers, destroyers and Hercules C-150 airlift jets full of pallets of freshly minted US currency underwritten by the taxpayers that were deployed in March 2003 to Iraq for regime change.

Both of our political parties have to pledge loyalty to Free Market Fundamentalism in order to mount a candidacy as approved by the mass media (whose members must every day prove their loyalty to Free Market Fundamentalism or risk dismissal for lack of underwriting) despite the failure of these neo-liberal economic policy outcomes. Not surprising then that this July 4th the alternative press nationwide has collaborated to present a round-up of our Rogues Gallery of Public Servants. I added a comment to my own local Portland, OR weekly applauding the mirror held up to our ailing US body politic, yet noting that the rogues gallery needs to inhale to accommodate da billionaire mayor dat wuz along wid all his private and public partner enablers of homelessness, not to mention former Brooklyn DA Hynes, the Brooklyn identity politics gang known as the Boyland Family LLC, the internationally funded former U.S. Marine and sweet-talker out on Staten Island the state Rep Grimm and the biggest shanda absent from the alt-press roundup the NY-NJ Port Authority aka Samson-Wildstein LLC and its towering manipulator and siphoner Governor Christie:

http://www.wweek.com/portland/article-22736-america%E2%80%99s_best_worst_politicians.html

Keep on doing until we can freely analyze the costs\benefits of the neo-liberal economic model with its credo of LLC Regulate Thyself! It sure has worked so well for Wall Street, the Cayman Islands, Charlotte, NC, London, Paris, Luxembourg, Zurich, Basel und Geneva…Yah!
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matthewmarion.fondel Feb 9, 2014

On or about January 16, 2014, HPD JUST DELETED APPROXIMATELY 163 VIOLATIONS against Jay Podolsky’s SRO building at 465 Central Park West. In response to a subpoena, HPD provided no documentation that Podolsky performed the necessary repairs to have those 163 violations removed. Even with approximately 163 violations against 465 Central Park West just deleted by HPD, there are still more than 120 outstanding HPD violations against the building and 26 open DOB/ECB violations against the building.
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ryan.napoli.5 Dec 9, 2013

Amazing Article Andrew!! This is a must read article. Very well researched!! ust Read Article: Mayor Bloomberg and DHS are conspiring with private developers to get filthy rich off the homeless. First they unlawfully evict tenants (who pay $800 per month), thus making them homeless; and then the landlords rent the apartments to the City (Department of Homeless Services) at $3,600 per month per apartment. This very thoroughly research article outlines not only the layers overtly criminal activity on the part of the City and Private Real Estate, but how taxpayers are enriching private developers. S/o to Yarrow Willman-Cole is cited in the article for advocacy and fight against the City and the Owners. This article truly makes my blood boil. Ryan Napoli, Bronx Defenders
KristinMIller_CSH Dec 5, 2013

This article highlights a major break in the Citys safety net. The Citys homeless population increased by 80% since 2002. For-profit building owners have benefited from this spike in shelter need through a practice that is inappropriate, unsafe and expensive. Moreover, this practice takes permanent apartments, some rent-controlled, and replaces them with temporary shelter beds.

The increased demand on the shelter system is partly due to the elimination of federal rental subsidies – subsidies critical to keeping at-risk individuals and families in their own homes, for less than the cost of shelter. For the most vulnerable New Yorkers who face complex barriers to living stably, supportive housing is a permanent solution. Offering a combination of affordable housing and supportive services, this housing is a platform for health, recovery and personal growth. It decreases reliance on shelters and emergency services, which can generate significant savings to public systems. And, unlike for-profit shelters, supportive housing helps build strong, healthy communities by improving safety and beautifying city blocks with new or rehabilitated properties.

We hope the DeBlasio Administration will work to expand these proven supportive housing solutions to repair our safety net and improve the lives of our most vulnerable New Yorkers.

Kristin MIller, http://www.csh.org
NewYorker01234 Dec 3, 2013

I know the Podolsky family; scum and sleaze bags are antonyms to their name. This family has built a successful business on a foundation of hard work and family loyalty. It saddens me that there are readers out there who will believe vindictive former employees and unsubstantiated allegations over actual facts. The Podolskys are hard working tax payers who help keep homeless people off the streets.
ethicsareimportant Dec 4, 2013

@NewYorker01234 – Go look up their names in the online court records system, let alone some of their LLCs. The sheer volume of litigation is as staggering as most of the contents of the cases and the egregious safety violations are. Sit down with some of these homeless people they are “keeping off the streets”, and their former business partners, and employees, and family members that apparently didn’t fit in to their concept of family loyalty (they screw and sue each other too, just go look). Strangely enough the story is never congruent with your portrait of an honest family. Honest people don’t typically go to such great lengths to stay in the shadows either. They are ANIMALS and our city government has left the door to the pantry open for them. Considering they don’t actually “give” anything that our taxpayer dollars don’t pay for, it seems we can perhaps close that door and lock them out alright. If we’re going to pay private firms this kind of money to provide shelter, well I’m sure we can demand better. Imagine the healthy competition that could come about with the access to these lucrative contracts based on transparency and quality of service. Just need a leader with stones who this “honest family” can’t buy.
matthewmarion.fondel Dec 3, 2013

An Inspector from HPD Code Enforcement for Manhattan walked into a Jay Podolsky controlled SRO that had 287 housing violations listed as open on HPD’s website and that Inspector somehow didn’t see any of those 287 violations. In another instance, the I-cards for the same SRO mysteriously disappeared from HPD and HPD’s website with HPD claiming that (I quote) “It had no records at all showing the legal configuration of the rooms in the SRO”. Really, the public should probably thank Podolsky for helping to bring down HPD and DHS.
Homelesslaw Dec 3, 2013

The main issue is here not the Podolsky’s and others like them, it’s the homeless issue in NYC that needs the attention! I could careless about these people and their 30 year history..Who cares?! For the past four years we have fewer homeless people on the streets, a safer city, a more appealing city for business and tourism. These homeless people need housing and the city does it’s best to house them. It might not be the perfect solution however it’s a solution. It’s a lot easier to sit back and criticize and bash landlords and city agencies while some of you are sipping a hot cup of coffee in your comfortable apartment. The article seems to be on exposing the Podolsky and it should have been on commending the city and all it’s efforts to house these people!! Pathetic! Lets see what family can we pick on next!! Very productive piece! (Not). It seems that the writer has an issue with the mayor and/or podolsky. Journalism or personal vendetta? You decide.
sting316 Dec 3, 2013

@Homelesslaw – If they carried out the service in any way commensurate with the compensation they are being paid by TAXPAYERS, and weren’t guilty of enough blatant safety violations to liken them to an Indonesian sweatshop proprietor, then there’d be more merit to this argument. Bureaucratic incompetence, lackluster policy, and general systemic flaws do not excuse immoral, criminal behavior. Nice try, perhaps have another hot coffee in your comfortable Hampton mansion and go back to the drawing board.
sting316 Dec 3, 2013

@sting316 – That said, you’re correct in identifying the real means for change – policy change. This article aims to stimulate that by exposing these monsters, not to simply attack their name genius.
Homelesslaw Dec 3, 2013

@sting316 – you have a valid point, but I have done enough research to know that most landlords in the city have their share of violations. The city needs to be stricter in enforcing these landlords to comply!! I will have another cup of coffee now thanks, and why don’t you and the writer of this article join me, and we can debate this for years. Oh by the way I live in a pre war studio the same building as Mr.Rice.
NJLady Dec 5, 2013

@sting316 –
westofhere Dec 3, 2013

There are more homeless on the streets now than ever. Inconvenient things-facts.
Wasting taxpayers’ money is not a solution.
Personal note- go learn how to use an apostrophe while drinking your coffee and then write about the sad, picked-on Poddles.
sting316 Dec 3, 2013

I know these people and their operations very well. There’s one word to sum it up: SCUM. They take great pleasure in inflicting pain on others. Any rational actor would avoid all this negative PR and the unwanted spotlight on policy by improving conditions and doing business ethically in general, it’s not like they couldn’t do so while still turning massive profits. But, then you have to understand the mind of a Podolsky: it’s all a zero-sum exercise to them; they perpetually compete within the family over who can be “more ruthless.” It’s not enough to game the system and amass more than $6 Billion, they instinctively have to take a sh*t all over anyone they encounter. It plays out something like this in the mind of a Podolsky: “The city shut down our Hostels, so f*** them, we’re going to make a point [suspiciously the same point “Ronald Edelstein” makes in his comment on this article] and they’ll be ‘lucky enough’ we even do this business with the homeless. And the tenants… well, it was ‘nice enough’ of me to ‘provide’ shelter for the city’s ‘animals’ in the first place; last time I shelled out $50 bucks for a proper piece of IKEA furniture, someone peed on it, so f*** them all and any sense of humanity in this whole operation.” As if the vile nature of the mind is not apparent enough, pepper in some use of the racial slur “Schvatza” (sp?). And then a Podolsky comes up with a zinger… “Conditions were even worse at these shelters under the control of the last owner. We got this former DHS executive at the helm, we’re making things better!” And they tell a lot of people that… and a lot of people believe it, undoubtedly many who find such beliefs politically, socially, and of course financially beneficial. For any pesky officials or regulators who do not drink the figurative Kool Aid, there’s an army of lawyers and a maddeningly complex paper trail to accompany our incredibly inept legal system and desperate homeless conundrum in NYC. The Podolskys are effectively ensured they’ll keep making “f***-you” money well before they even see any real legal consequence coming, and that they’ll have plenty of space to stay one step ahead of authorities/lawmakers. I wonder if anyone in government, least of all our new mayor (who put Podolsky LLCs. on his “Worst Landlord” list but accepted lots of campaign money from Lapes & friends), will do anything about it?
thelyms Dec 3, 2013

The Podolskys are well known pieces of crap that, hopefully, with more stories like this, will be forced out of their rat holes into the public eye. Let’s see what the new guy will do.
mulnella Dec 3, 2013

So are the Podolskys going to be prosecuted yet?
RonaldEdelstein Dec 5, 2013

@mulnella – No They Wont! They are too big for the city to stop dealing with them now. The City probably has no legal basis to go after them as well.
ShermanK Dec 3, 2013

I happen to know the Podolskys. When I was a small child in Brooklyn a branch of the family lived on my street. I used to play with their kids.

In any case I agree the Podolskys are very sleazy and gross. However, the real villains in this story are not the Podolskys but the liberal politicians who insist on maintaining rent-control and rent-stabilization laws. These deranged laws cause buildings to become grimy and fall into disrepair. This is because landlords have either no economic incentive to properly maintain them or they simply can’t afford to properly maintain them (because rent collected is so low).

When these apartment buildings become rundown it opens the door for sleazebags like the Podolskys to exploit the situation and make a bad situation even worse.

If NYC would do away with these archaic rent control/stabilization laws the Podolskys would be out of business.
Splanky Dec 13, 2013

@ShermanK – Just how much economic incentive do your friends, the Podolskys, need to keep the homeless shelters they run in good repair? With the City paying them 3 times more than the average NYC rent every month for each unit they manage, it seems they should have more than enough money to maintain the buildings they own. But regardless of their exorbitant income and stupefying wealth, they dont.

Rent regulation is not the problem; its part of the solution. For decades now, landlords have opposed any measure to open their books. If landlords truly dont have enough money to maintain their properties, they should be willing to prove thats true. So, I dont buy your argument that landlords simply can’t afford to properly maintain [apartments] (because rent collected is so low). Its something that needs to be proved on a case-by-case basis, and likely doesnt apply to homeless shelters run by the Podolskys.
matthewmarion.fondel Dec 3, 2013

In 2000, a Consent Order from Housing Court in Manhattan directed Jay Podolsky to correct some 200+ buildings violations in the SRO he controls at 465 Central Park West and to conform the rooms in the building to the existing Certificate of Occupancy or to get a new valid Certificate of Occupancy. What actually happened is that The Department of Housing Preservation and Development did nothing to get that Consent Order enforced. The majority of the tenants in the building were bought out and the building’s owners were left free to operate the SRO as a commercial hotel. Even with some 200+ building violations, the SRO on Central Park West still managed to some how get a “contract” to serve as temporary housing for the Homeless immediately after 911. How does a building with 200+ outstanding building violations get a “contract” with the city to serve as temporary housing?
matthewmarion.fondel Dec 3, 2013

@matthewmarion.fondel – It is very likely that the move by the city to “divert the homeless into hotels after 911” is what showed some building owners in Manhattan how lucrative The Homeless could be. As I recall, the City claimed that it was helping to shore up the hotel industry (hard hit after 911) by temporarily housing the homeless in hotels.
RonaldEdelstein Dec 2, 2013

This is deservingly what the Upper West Side politicians like Gale Brewer, Linda Rosenthal, Dick Gottfried get when they force legal SRO buildings to rent for no less than 30 days. Weren’t the Tourists acceptable? I thought so!

Couldn’t they just left these folks alone to run their businesses?

The SRO problem of converting to homeless shelters has just begun. The only way to stop this downward spiral is to “grandfather” these buildings back to they’re preexisting use like they were operating for 60-70 years and paying Hotel taxes to the City and State of 18% of the gross income.

The other way to solve this problem is to change the State laws back to where they were. This is an enormous Political mess that only the Politicians created for themselves!
westofhere Dec 3, 2013

@RonaldEdelstein – “Let these folks alone to run their businesses? Are violence, bribery, extortion, corruption, fraud and harassment businesses?
No convicted organized crime figure has been accused of this type of criminality.
RonaldEdelstein Dec 5, 2013

@westofhere – I think I may have expressed myself incorrectly.What I was referring to when I stated “let these folks run their business” I did not mean to give the Podolskys the green light to beat tenants up and do what they’re doing. What I meant to say is that one source of the homeless problem. Is that SRO buildings are being converted to homeless shelters because of a new law that limits the rental of these type of rooms for no less than 30 days. Renting these types of rooms for this time frame is virtually impossible. Therefore it leaves these properties “prime” targets for homeless shelter “TakeOver!”. Prior to this new law Owners of SRO buildings were renting for only one week which attracted tourists. Basically what I was trying to say is that the powers at be. The City, the Politicians and the public should move to “grandfather” the SRO usage policy to again allow 7 day stays as they have been for decades! (at least since the great depression) This will alleviate the gouging taking place in the homeless arena. The homeless situation must be dealt with a citywide effort to help these folks and a nationwide policy to force municipalities to house their own homeless folks. Today Cities and Towns are gladly sending their homeless to us in NYC with a one way bus ticket $20 in their pocket and directions of how to get housing. We are shouldering the burden of the entire nation because no other municipality has a court order mandating them to house the homeless like we are obligated by law in the big apple. Moreover the new administration should have a nationwide legal team starting actions on municipalities so that they take care of their own. Until we all get serious about the myriad of issues we will continue to have these people on the streets. I hope I clarified my comment and apologize if I was not clear. The basic message is new laws created by Gale Brewer, Liz Kruger and Linda Rosenthal is flawed, created havoc and more homeless facilities and must be reversed light speed to avoid more shelters being opened in the UWS. This is a solid fix that will not hurt statutory tenants leaving them in place for as long as they like and providing the owners with a fair rate of return on their investment. It will also allow middle class tourists to once again gain affordable access to our great city. They generate millions of dollars of revenue for the merchants the city and state. It’s a no brainer. Grandfather them back in or change the laws back!
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New York Magazine
Why Run a Slum If You Can Make More Money Housing the Homeless?
One notorious real-estate family has converted its run-down buildings into for-profit shelters, paid for by the city. The going rent per cubicle: $3,600 a month.

By Andrew Rice
Published Dec 1, 2013

Shelter properties owned or controlled by the Podolskys and their associates.
(Photo: Andrew Rice; Cassandra Rose Tannenbaum (203 W. 145th St.))

The Continental Hotel, a turn-of-the-century pile on West 95th Street, was a vintage flophouse. In the sixties, a man could pick up the phone, dial UNiversity 6-1420, and find a bed there for a few bucks a night. It was never a place for nostalgia, and over the years it filled with drunks, vagrants, and deinstitutionalized mental patients. But the hotel did serve a function: providing a reservoir of dirt-cheap housing. As recently as a few years ago, the Continental’s tenants, protected by rent regulation, were paying just $330 a month on average. So, in 2005, the owners sold it for $3.1 million to Jay and Stuart Podolsky, brothers with an unsentimental eye for the potential of seedy properties.

The Podolskys had been active players in Manhattan real estate since the roughneck days of the eighties, when landlords all over the Upper West Side rousted low-paying tenants from single-room-occupancy properties like the Continental. Few were as ruthless as Zenek Podolsky and his sons Jay and Stuart, who became neighborhood legends and tabloid villains—“terror lords,” the Post called them. But they were only a particularly blunt instrument of inexorable market forces. As gentrification advanced, the family thrived, amassing a fortune fished from the bottom.

The Podolskys’ flagship company, Amsterdam Hospitality, operated boutique hotels—mostly old SROs that they repositioned for tourism—but their portfolio included everything from Coney Island oceanfront to Grand Concourse tenements. “They are very effective at finding adaptive reuses,” says a competing hotel developer. “Whatever is expedient.” They acquired the Continental and two adjoining SROs to add to a discount chain. It was renamed the Fresh Hostel and marketed to European backpackers.

Such transformations are a fact of economic life in an increasingly smooth-edged city—think of the Breslin, a Gramercy fleabag, recently converted into the Ace Hotel—but the Continental became a flash point. The SRO Law Project mounted attacks, alleging an escalating pattern of pressure on rent-controlled tenants. The hostel’s conditions were as fetid as a spring-break crash pad—online reviews referenced vomit and bedbugs—but the young tourists would pay $50 to $120 a night for a bed to pass out in. The more they trashed the place, the less tolerable the living situation became for the less profitable holdout tenants.

The housing activists organized protests, engaged politicians, and provoked a raid by the city’s Buildings Department, which discovered numerous illegal renovations, such as a haphazard wooden bridge constructed between two buildings. An inspector scrawled: “Discontinue illegal occupancy forthwith!” After much litigation, the Podolskys finally agreed to shut down the hostels.

It turned out, however, that they had found a more profitable angle: the homeless. In July 2011, a nonprofit called Housing Solutions USA was incorporated, listing one of the 95th Street hostels as its address. The charity’s board was made up of Podolsky employees and contractors, including a lawyer who contributed a $725,000 loan for start-up costs. Instead of fighting City Hall, the Podolskys were shifting their tactics, turning an antagonist into a customer. Catering to the city’s demand for shelter beds, their property could produce revenues like a perpetually booked hotel, with none of the amenity expenses.

In August 2012, Housing Solutions won an “emergency” contract to operate a shelter on West 95th Street, which has since expanded into a five-year, $47 million deal. The city pays $122 a night—or more than $3,600 a month—for each cubicle-size room to Housing Solutions, which in turn directs rental income back to the Podolskys. Suddenly, the Continental’s holdout tenants found themselves living in a homeless shelter, renamed Freedom House, that reeked of urine, marijuana, and chaos. But the Podolskys had hit upon a coldly self-sustaining business model: They created the homeless supply and profited from the shelter demand.

Homelessness is a perpetual crisis in New York. Since a judge’s decision created a legal right to shelter in 1981, the city has consistently struggled to find appropriate shelter for its poorest citizens. During Mayor Bloomberg’s tenure, the homeless population metastasized, reaching a record level of 52,000 in September. There are many possible explanations, including policy decisions, such as the elimination of rental-subsidy programs. But the most compelling one is familiar to all: It’s harder than ever to find an affordable lease in New York. Market-rate rents have risen sharply, even as incomes have shrunk and the number of rent-regulated apartments has declined. (And stabilized units can cost as much as $2,500.) This viselike dynamic has squeezed one out of every 150 New Yorkers onto the streets.

Bloomberg’s critics—including Bill de Blasio—have cited this figure as one of the mayor’s most profound failures. To a few, though, it has represented an opportunity. The city will spend almost $800 million on shelters this year, $200 million more than in 2010, and it relies heavily on outsourced providers. “Any of us can look at the data pretty simply,” said one shelter operator, “and say it’s a growth business.”

(Photo: Andrew Rice; Cassandra Rose Tannenbaum (1233 White Plains Rd., 2263 Adam Clayton Powell Blvd.))

In contrast to Bloomberg’s customarily technocratic, market-based approach to governance, the shelter system is ruled by opaque deal-making and informal handshake agreements. Quality varies wildly. Some shelters are run by respected nonprofit social-service agencies, others by private companies, which operate with startlingly little oversight. “The for-profit guys come and buy a hotel, empty it out, and say to the city, ‘Hey, we can get you the rooms tonight,’ ” says George Mc­Donald, founder of the Doe Fund, a nonprofit shelter operator, and a recent candidate for mayor. “It’s all about business, and it’s big money. It’s not nickels and dimes; it’s hundreds of millions of dollars.”

The city government does not publicize the addresses of shelters, citing the privacy of its homeless “clients.” But a list obtained via a Freedom of Information request suggests the industry is dominated by a handful of competitors. There’s Shimmie Horn, whose father, a notorious slumlord, willed him an empire of hotels. There is a consortium of investors who administer a portfolio of tenement shelters from an unmarked office above a Brooklyn laundromat. Most players operate through shell companies and front men, obscuring their interests, and the Podolskys are particularly secretive. But the evidence suggests the family is among the largest shelter providers, and they are expanding aggressively.

Altogether, public records indicate that the Podolskys own or control close to 40 shelter properties, which house at least 1,300 homeless families, about 11 percent of the city’s total. (Families now make up the vast majority of the homeless population.) A calculation based on city records suggests that the Podolsky-related shelters have generated rents in the range of $90 million since 2010.

The story of the family business traces back to a Coney Island kosher butcher shop and a hardened patriarch. Zenek Podolsky was born in Poland in 1920. Most of his family was killed at Treblinka. He later recounted, in a testimony for the Shoah Foundation, that he survived the Holocaust by working for the Gestapo as a mechanic, then on a crew commanded by the Jewish Police. His job involved traveling “city by city, cleaning out the Jewish neighborhoods” after their occupants had been deported. “They gave me a torch,” he said, “and made me in charge of opening up the safes.”

After the war, Zenek and his wife, Fanny, immigrated and opened the shop on Mermaid Avenue. Podolsky spent his workdays cutting meat, evenings at the local Democratic clubhouse, and weekends acquiring Coney Island rooming houses. Between 1970 and 1978, according to a document filed by District Attorney Robert Morgenthau in an unrelated case years later, “almost all were burned down in over 125 suspicious fires.” Podolsky was never charged with a related crime, and he profited when the government condemned the properties for urban renewal.

Podolsky used the condemnation windfall to expand. Every Friday, he and his seven children talked real estate over Sabbath dinner. The family philosophy was summed up by the name of a company it used to acquire one Brooklyn building: Fountainhead Associates. There and elsewhere, the Podolskys clashed with tenants. They also fought with each other: In 1984, Zenek sued his eldest son, Abraham, over ownership of some properties, and the two traded accusations of fraud, forgery, and betrayal. Jay and Stuart took their father’s side in the bitter feud, which resulted in an unhappy division of assets.

Zenek acquired his first Manhattan property, the Belfar Hotel on West End Avenue, for $350,000 in 1980. The city soon brought suit, citing tenant complaints about deficient heat, vermin, and frequent fires, one of which killed a man whose death was classified as a homicide. In a court filing, Jay Podolsky, the building manager, called any suggestion of his involvement in the arson “an innuendo which is totally false,” but the family ultimately paid a fine and agreed to properly maintain the building.

In 1983, the Podolskys and another family partnered to purchase three connected buildings on West 77th Street. What happened next caught the attention of Morgenthau’s office. According to prosecutors, after some preliminary hostilities with tenants, the Podolskys hired “professional vacators,” a gang that traveled Manhattan in a U-Haul truck, rendering buildings unlivable. A leader called “Bear” was allegedly installed as the superintendent, and apartments were filled with hustlers, prostitutes, and junkies. Tenants reported frequent burglaries and harassment. One elderly woman died of pneumonia in an unheated room. The vacators received $600 for each departing tenant. They were friendly with all three Podolskys, prosecutors claimed. When Zenek visited, Bear would wash his Cadillac.

In 1984, Morgenthau indicted the gang and twelve landlords, making front-page headlines. The Podolskys cut a deal to avoid serious prison time, pleading guilty to 37 felonies, including grand larceny and coercion. After Zenek offered evidence in a corruption case against another member of the Coney Island clubhouse, Mayor Koch’s taxi-and-limousine commissioner, and agreed to grant the buildings to the Coalition for the Homeless, he was sentenced to 90 days, his sons to probation. Outraged tenants nearly rioted in the courtroom, the Post reported, shouting, “Scum!”

(Photo: Andrew Rice; Cassandra Rose Tannenbaum (515 W. 148th St.))

“It’s haunted them for the rest of their lives,” says David Satnick, attorney for Jay and Stuart, who claims his clients, then in their twenties, had little say in their father’s schemes. “They were children, and they were told, basically, ‘You either plead to the entire indictment or your father goes to jail.’ ” Dispirited, Zenek withdrew from management. “I thought these kind of tactics stopped when the Nazis were defeated,” he complained, according to a doctor’s report filed in court. He retired to Miami.

The Podolsky brothers continued to buy SROs: the Park View Hotel on 110th Street, another on Central Park West. At every turn, they did battle with enforcement agencies and tenant groups, who ­complained—in a prelude to today’s ­argument—that the landlords were allowing the city to use them as a dumping ground for the homeless. In the early nineties, outrage about filthy “welfare hotels” drove the city to shift emphasis to programs operated by nonprofits. But this policy change, along with the Giuliani administration’s hostility to tenant rights, opened a new marketplace for the Podolskys. Once emptied of the indigent, the welfare hotels could become “boutiques.”

The Podolskys, with a partner, signed a cheap long-term lease for a hotel near Times Square primarily occupied by Senegalese street merchants. They renovated and reopened for tourists as the Ameritania, run by a manager imported from the Catskills. The Ameritania was soon clearing millions in annual revenue, which financed further acquisitions, like the downtrodden Karachi Inn (rebranded the Amsterdam Court), a Gramercy SRO now called the Marcel, and the Empire Hotel next to Lincoln Center.

The boutique business was just one example of the brothers’ aptitude for speculating at the margins. “There has to be a huge payoff,” a former employee said. “That usually means going to the properties no one else will touch.” A decade ago, they snapped up tenements in Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy; right now, they are wrestling a developer in foreclosure for a Harlem condo project. The family’s holdings are now worth many hundreds of millions of dollars. A Goldman Sachs bond issue valued the Empire Hotel alone at nearly $400 million.

Amsterdam Hospitality remains a tight-knit firm, employing many Podolsky siblings, spouses, and children. Jay is in charge of strategy. (“Like, here’s a piece of crap,” said the former employee, “and how can I turn it into something profitable?”) His older brother “Stewie,” a bearded tough-talker with a taste for Italian sports cars, handles acquisitions. They are active in Jewish charities, and their children have branched into fashionable enterprises like nightclubs and handbag design. Stuart owns a condo on East 57th Street and has a house in the Hamptons next to a friend, billionaire John Catsimatidis. Jay’s family lives in a townhouse on West 64th Street. The extended clan often gathers at Jay’s summer place in Westhampton Beach, a Charles Gwathmey–designed mansion. I was told it was a bargain, that the previous owner sold it cheap after it was damaged in a fire.

The Podolskys take pains to keep a deniable arm’s length from the shelter business. It operates behind a firewall of arcane lease arrangements and interrelated holding companies, many of which have been placed in the maiden names of the brothers’ wives, Shirley and Sharon. “It may appear that it’s all in the family,” Satnick says, but he claims the structures reflect both the brothers’ status as “passive owners” and the wives’ interests as independent investors. “Stuart and Jay have much bigger fish to fry than what their wives are doing in their business.” (During a legal dispute over a hotel purchase in 1999, a court-appointed referee found it “credible” that Jay and Stuart were “the real players” in the disputed transaction and that their use of their wives’ maiden names in that instance “was to avoid state/city scrutiny” owing to their felony convictions.)

The Podolskys don’t deal with the city; they lease the shelter buildings to companies run by Alan Lapes, a building contractor who has long worked with them. “These buildings are not owned by Mr. Lapes,” Satnick says. “They are owned by the Podolsky family in one way or another.” But Lapes, a blustery guy, serves as a manager and a lightning rod. Over the years, his facilities have been investigated by the police (over criminal activity by a manager and tenants in a Times Square location the Daily News dubbed the “Hell Hotel”) and cited by the city comptroller’s office for safety violations and bookkeeping irregularities. In a recent e-mail, Lapes called those allegations “old [stories] that are on google and for the most part are not true” and said journalists should “look for the good in all of the hard work that I do to help homeless New Yorkers.”

From top to bottom: Zenek Podolsky, Jay Podolsky, and Stuart Podolsky.
(Photo: Patrick McMullan (Stuart Podolsky))

At most of Lapes’s facilities, the city reimburses the landlord directly via uncontracted “per diem” payments. Facing criticisms, DHS has recently been shifting to formal contracts with non­profits, often under emergency procedures allowing expedited approval. Perhaps as a result, Lapes has ceded his emissary role to Housing Solutions USA. Its chief executive, Robert Hess, served as Bloomberg’s commissioner of homeless services until 2010. “As Jay [Podolsky] is using Alan to be his front man,” said Jae London, the former manager of a Podolsky shelter called the Washington Hotel, “Alan is using Robert Hess.”

Although Hess said in an interview that he had “no knowledge” of involvement by the Podolskys in the nonprofit, the board roster listed on its tax return consists entirely of their business associates. Via a complicated merger, Housing Solutions took over contracts belonging to Aguila Inc., a troubled nonprofit tied to a Bronx politician, which oversaw services at almost all the Lapes shelters. Hess and Lapes were often seen visiting the Amsterdam Hospitality offices during Housing Solutions’ launch, and Blabbermouth Social, an Internet firm co-owned by the sons of Stuart and Jay Podolsky, designed its website. “There were so many places to connect the dots,” said Will Felcon, a former Blabbermouth employee. “Hess couldn’t be in the dark.”

Hess, who earns at least $250,000 annually, has since capitalized on city demand for new shelters, boosting the nonprofit’s revenues to $57 million last fiscal year. DHS officials have said there is no conflict of interest in his dealings with the agency he ran for four years.

The Podolsky shelter business has two prongs. There are a dozen or so Manhattan hotels, some of which the Podolskys have owned since the Koch era. Then there is a collection of outer-borough residential buildings that operate as “cluster” sites—basically, apartments rented by the city to house homeless families. The city’s largest shelter cluster encompasses fourteen locations in the Bronx. All but one of the buildings are owned by the Podolskys.

The cluster shelters still typically open under per diem arrangements, providing minimal social services. In a deposition last year, Hess said that the approach circumvents a “rather lengthy and cumbersome procurement process,” allowing the shelter system to expand and contract “like an accordion.” But it’s controversial, because clusters usually operate with scant oversight. In a recent decision, a state judge likened the city policy to “a CIA black op, spending unbudgeted funds without apparent restraint.”

Typically, cluster units are mixed into rent-regulated buildings. At 941 Intervale Avenue, a six-story apartment building in the Bronx cluster, news of the impending arrival of the homeless came abruptly one day in 2009, with a superintendent’s knock at the door. “I knew that they were going to throw me out,” tenant Carmen Torres told me later. She could do the math. An unemployed health aide who had lived in the building for decades, she used a Section 8 subsidy to pay the $800 rent on the three-bedroom that she shared with her two children, which was brightened by plastic flowers and a menagerie of caged tropical birds. The city was offering the landlord about four times that for shelter units.

Torres tried to organize her neighbors. The landlord countered with buyout offers and eviction notices. The buyouts started at around $1,000, hardly enough to pay for relocation, but most tenants left, weary of conflict and shoddy maintenance. The elevator broke down so frequently it made the Buildings Department’s list of worst offenders. Torres’s elderly mother fell on the stairs and broke her hip.

“The living situation there was not suitable for any human being,” said Andrew Webster, who arrived at the building on Intervale Avenue in 2010, during his senior year in high school. Garbage was piled to the second floor of the courtyard, and there were giant rats everywhere. But the Websters had no choice about the living situation: They were homeless owing to eviction from a former rental. Shelters are supposed to be for emergency stays, but the family ended up staying for more than two years. Like all the shelter residents, Webster possessed an acute awareness of his economic value. “I know they put a price on us,” he said. “We were $3,200, I believe, $3,200 a month.”

Of course, for much less than that amount, the city could have rented the Websters a modest but decent apartment. In fact, the city’s approach to homelessness used to include rental subsidies for its poor residents, allowing the homeless to jump to the head of the line for federal Section 8 vouchers. But Bloomberg ended the policy, believing that it created an incentive for poor households to enter the shelter system. The administration’s replacement, a short-term subsidy, was eliminated owing to state budget cuts in 2011.

The courtyard at 941 Intervale Avenue in 2010.
(Photo: Andrew Webster)

“It’s literally the biggest policy mistake of the Bloomberg administration,” said Patrick Markee, a senior analyst for the Coalition for the Homeless, which opposed the shift from Section 8 vouchers. “It’s the keystone of why family homelessness has exploded.”

The cluster system has been the target of persistent criticism, in part because it appears to create more homeless people. In June 2012, Torres found a letter taped to the door of her apartment saying that her lease was about to be terminated. The letter was written in legalese, but it seemed to say there was a problem with her Section 8 eligibility. Soon afterward, an eviction action was filed in court.

There is little doubt that this was a strategic decision. Last year, a federal bankruptcy proceeding related to a dispute between the Podolskys and the mortgage holder on another building in the Bronx cluster offered an unusual glimpse into the workings of their shelter business. Lapes filed a sworn affidavit, disclosing that he was the president of a company called We Care Housing. It appears that We Care’s only purpose is to take over leases on vacated units, serving as a pass-through for monies from DHS. The vast majority of this income, the affidavit disclosed, went directly to We Care and its owners: the Podolsky wives.

“We Care was essentially a start up with no assurance of long-term success,” Lapes wrote. But he said the company had excelled, taking over 55 units, about half the building, and further expansion was projected as the city increased placements. The company, Lapes claimed, had become “a stable business with a good future.”

In our conversations, Lapes declined to explain the justification for this ornate financial ­structure. But the comptroller’s office has repeatedly investigated the confusing flow of funds to shelters owned by the Podolskys. In October, Comptroller John Liu cited their nonprofit administrators for an “appalling record” and “repeated failures to account for millions of dollars spent,” singling out undocumented payments to the Bronx cluster.

In 2011, the Bronx cluster spent nearly $10 million of public funds, 75 percent of which went to rent—a proportion that is typical for Podolsky properties, but unusually large by industry standards. Little of the money appears to be reinvested in the buildings’ upkeep. Liu’s most recent audit found that since last December, Housing Solutions’ cluster units failed DHS inspections more than 80 percent of the time, typically for “hazardous conditions.” Some tenants say they suspect the landlord cultivates disorder. “It’s the same pattern as the eighties,” says housing activist Larry Wood, of the Goddard Riverside Community Center. Once again, buildings are emptying—but this time, the government itself is playing the role of vacator. “They are forcing out people,” Torres said. “I think they are making lots of money.”

Residents of the Intervale Avenue shelter say its security has always been lax. One Sunday evening last December, a child playing with matches ignited a dirty mattress stowed beneath a first-floor stairwell. The blaze quickly spread through the building. There were no hallway smoke detectors, DNA Info reported, and residents found that fire extinguishers were empty or broken. Six people were injured, two severely. In the chaos, thieves made off with the few valuable belongings many of the homeless families had.

The Websters, along with the other homeless clients, were relocated. (After Andrew graduated, he took a job at Starbucks, and his family found a new apartment.) But as Carmen Torres stood in the cold night, her bare feet singed, she knew she had little choice but to return. “I don’t have a place to go,” she told me soon afterward. “A little apartment is $1,400.”

After the fire, Torres brought her dilemma to Rafael Salamanca, the district manager of the local community board, who called a public meeting. At it, he projected pictures of her charred hallway for an audience that included an executive from Housing Solutions. “These are not livable conditions,” Salamanca said. He said that the city had “refused to let me know who the landlord is.”

“I’ll find out,” the executive promised. “I have a contact person.”

But Salamanca never got an answer. ­Torres’s lease termination, notarized by one of the Podolskys’ office attorneys, was signed by the building’s registered manager, Nate Follman. But when Salamanca sought out his office address, at another shelter, he got nowhere. It later turned out that Torres had met the elusive Mr. Follman, who had offered to buy out her lease, but she knew him as “Mike.” Jae London, the former hotel manager, told me that Podolsky shelter employees are encouraged to use “fake names and fake e-mails” in order to conceal their affiliations. “They are terrified of DHS finding out that Alan Lapes doesn’t own any of the properties, that it’s still being handled by Jay Podolsky,” London said. “Alan says that the Podolskys are out of the business, they have nothing to do with it, which is a lie. They never went anywhere.”

A room at the Washington Hotel shelter.

London worked at the Washington Hotel for thirteen years, before he was recently fired after a confrontation with a DHS caseworker over faulty security. In the outraged belief that he was taking the fall for his neglectful bosses, he offered me an account of systematic mismanagement. He produced invoices and e-mails showing the constant involvement of Amsterdam Hospitality executives and a year-end bonus check that was signed by Jay Podolsky. London, who went by the name “James Washington” at work, says his facility housed the homeless in “horrific” conditions: tiny, often windowless cells so narrow that you could stand in the middle and touch either wall.

London’s management duties sometimes included unusual assignments. He claims he attended meetings of the SRO Law Project on the orders of Lapes. “He said he needs me to go to a community meeting, use a fake name,” London said. He says he briefed Lapes on a street corner about plans to oppose the company’s actions at the Continental Hotel and later attended a protest masquerading as a tenant. A housing activist asked London to speak to the press, but when the cameras went on, he instead praised Lapes. The activist, Yarrow Willman-Cole, burst into tears. “I felt so naïve,” she recalled.

Sometimes, such ploys have consequences more serious than embarrassment. One frigid February morning, I met Torres at the Bronx Housing Court, a building housing advocates call an “eviction mill.” Tenants are not entitled to a lawyer. Torres, swallowed in a black parka, carried her creased legal documents in a floral-print bag. In the hallway, the landlord’s lawyer, Vadim Goldshteyn, gruffly told her, “The most I can do is give you until the end of the month to leave.” When Torres tried to make her case to the judge, Steven Weissman, he cut her off. “Mrs. Torres, we are beyond staying in the apartment,” he said. “The landlord wants you out.”

The building’s management company sent Torres a letter claiming it was owed $19,899 in back rent. But it turned out this was because the government had cut off Section 8 payments after a failed building inspection—in other words, because of the landlord’s own neglect. Obviously, this was not a proper justification. After Kathleen Meyers, a Legal Aid attorney, was alerted and intervened, the eviction was dropped. Torres is now one of the last rent-paying tenants in her building, which was renovated after the fire.

I wanted to ask the architects of Bloomberg’s homelessness policy why the city continues to do business with the Podolskys, but DHS officials declined interview requests. Privately, however, current and former agency employees advanced a rationale. The city needs beds, and it has to seek them from the willing suppliers: the kind of people who inhabit the bottom reaches of the real-estate market.

Like many creations of the Bloomberg era, the shelter system is now under reassessment. Liu tried to block the West 95th Street shelter contract, though Bloomberg sued him and the facility remains open for now. Last month, after protests from Carroll Gardens residents, Buildings Department inspectors descended on an empty Podolsky condo building slated to become a 170-bed shelter. Its front window is now pasted with a VACATE sign, warning of conditions “imminently perilous to life.”

De Blasio has promised to reform the city’s “disastrous and broken homelessness policy,” reinstituting rental subsidies and ending the cluster program. But the mayor-elect has also been embarrassed by reports that he raised more than $35,000 from shelter landlords and contractors linked to Hess and Housing Solutions USA. In May 2012, Hess threw the candidate a fund-raiser, attended by Lapes, who exploited a loophole to give twice the legal limit. De Blasio returned some of the contributions and has rejected any suggestion of improper influence.

The Podolsky’s business model, however, has outlasted many mayors; it has proven as persistent as the problem is intractable. Last week, a federal study showed a 13 percent rise in homelessness in New York last year, even as the population dropped nationally. On West 148th Street in Harlem, workers recently began subdividing a brownstone into cubicles. Winter is coming, and it promises to be a lucrative season for the Podolskys.

Map: A $90 Million Shelter Empire

The city declines to publish the addresses of homeless shelters, making their ownership difficult to determine. But information gathered from various public sources (see explanatory note below) suggests the Podolsky family and their associates control close to 40 facilities, some through direct ownership, others through net leases or operating agreements with Alan Lapes. And the network is expanding: A controversial Brooklyn shelter is currently awaiting final approval, and other Podolsky properties appear poised for conversion.

A $90 Million Shelter Empire: Click to expand

A note on sources: This graphic was compiled via documents from the NYC Comptroller’s office, including a list of shelter addresses obtained via a Freedom of Information request, as well as other public records and site visits. Revenue estimates were derived from the comptroller’s payment records, contract budgets, and a 2012 audit for Aguila Inc. filed with the NY State Charities bureau. When available, the estimated number of beds or units in each Manhattan shelter was taken from the Housing Solutions USA website. Bronx cluster unit estimates were derived from a count as of this August, provided by the Coalition for the Homeless. Shelter use of Brooklyn addresses determined via internal correspondence produced as part of federal lawsuit, site visits, and tenant interviews.

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