This week, after a pandemic hiatus of more than three years, one of New York’s marquee hotels will reopen its 1,025 rooms to guests. The Roosevelt Hotel, celebrating its centennial next year, has earned a place in Gotham history. The stately mid-rise limestone and brick edifice—designed as part of Grand Central Terminal’s “Terminal City” complex, just steps from the North American long-distance train hub—was home to Guy Lombardo’s band for three decades, hosted New York governor Thomas Dewey when he prematurely declared victory over Harry Truman in the 1948 presidential election, and served as Mayor-elect John Lindsay’s victory stage and transition headquarters in 1965. Though worn with age, the hotel, before the pandemic, garnered praise from travelers: a quiet, reliable property with a low-three-figures-a-night price tag. The reopening should be a sign of New York’s post-2020 progress—except that it’s opening not to paying customers but to migrants crossing the southwest U.S. border and making their way north in search of New York City’s free, no-questions-asked shelter. So instead of being a symbol of New York’s post-pandemic resurgence, the reopening has become a sign of Mayor Eric Adams’s failure to lead on his administration’s biggest emergency to date.
Adams didn’t create the border crisis, of course. Under President Biden, attempted and successful border crossings are up significantly compared with the Trump administration. During the five months of fiscal year 2020 that occurred before Trump imposed pandemic restrictions—from October 2019 to February 2020—“encounters” between border-patrol agents and migrants ran slightly above 200,000; during the similar five months of the current fiscal year, they topped 1 million. Most such encounters have ended in a release into the United States; 1.8 million people released in the country in the past two years await court dates for asylum claim, some scheduled as late as 2035. Others cross entirely undetected and unrecorded. Adams expects that the number of migrants will “rapidly accelerate” as Biden stops removing some migrants under a public-health rule that Trump invoked.
But Adams is making the crisis worse for New York. Though he blames Texas governor Greg Abbott and other Republicans for offering migrants free bus transport to New York, he ignores the reason that migrants find such transport so attractive. New York City is unique in the country, and indeed in the Western world, in that it guarantees all comers shelter: immediately, no questions asked.
The media often incorrectly report that this shelter system is an ironclad “right,” imposed by a court under a reading of the state constitution’s obligation to provide “aid, care, and support of the needy.” It is not. In 1981, in response to a lawsuit by homeless advocates, the city voluntarily agreed to provide universal shelter, first for men, and two years later for women and families, before the state’s top court ever issued a ruling.
One presumes that the city settled the case to avoid the inflexibility that a final high court ruling would have created. But in the current crisis, the city has done nothing with the flexibility that it retains. More than two years into the Biden-era migration crisis, Adams has not challenged the shelter-eligibility rules. It would be reasonable for the city to restrict eligibility to people, of any citizenship or nationality, who have had a fixed address in New York City at some point during the past five years. Such a restriction would face a court challenge by migrant advocates, but so be it. The mayor could also restrict shelter eligibility to migrants already approved for asylum, putting pressure on the federal government to process applicants quickly. Most migrants, to judge from their own words, appear not to be refugees from war or from persecution, but people fleeing dysfunctional governments and economies.
Even under an expansive reading of New York’s shelter system, the mayor has no obligation to host migrants in private rooms. He could offer them communal shelter only. And he is doing some of that: the latest plan is to convert at least seven public school gyms into shelters. But Adams has vacillated on such plans, opening one tent city last year only to abruptly close it. That’s partly because gyms and other large-scale spaces are not appropriate for long-term stays; they’re not equipped with adequate bathrooms and showers, and previous experiences of using such spaces as long-term shelters, even when well-managed, have proven untenable. Gyms are emergency waystations—but to where?
So Adams has spent the past year converting New York hotel rooms into migrant shelters. Last year, the mayor inked an “emergency” no-bid deal with the city’s Hotel Association: 5,000 rooms for a year, at $130 a night. These 122 hotels included upper-end Manhattan tourist properties, including the world’s tallest Holiday Inn, in Lower Manhattan, and Midtown’s Stewart Hotel, where, until recently, tourists “gather[ed] under high ceilings and flow[ed] between its New York-inspired lobby, stunning ballroom, designer event space and spacious suites.”
Now, Adams is signing the biggest hotel deal of all: a $225 million, three-year deal for all of the Roosevelt’s rooms, working out to $205 a night. According to the Pakistani government, which owns the Roosevelt, the deal even includes a payout for hotel union workers laid off during the pandemic.
Beyond the obvious fact that no-bid emergency deals breed corruption, using prime hotel properties for shelter is a bad idea for several reasons.
First, the city is crowding out the tourists whom it needs to entice back to New York. The city has only 120,000 hotel rooms. Taking several thousand—at least—off the market significantly reduces supply, raising prices for paying guests at other properties. Reserving hotel rooms for migrants thus deters tourism, and it harms the recovery of nearby restaurants, retail stores, and entertainment offerings.
That’s particularly true in Midtown Manhattan, where only half of office workers are regularly back at their desks. Five years ago, the area around the Roosevelt Hotel was peopled by its business and leisure travelers, all eating and shopping nearby. Before the city swooped in with its deal, the Pakistani government was planning a partial reopening of the property to paying guests. The Stewart, too, tells visitors to its website to contact its corporate offices if they have had their reservations suddenly cancelled, implying that it, too, was planning to reopen before the city offered a good deal: guaranteed 100 percent occupancy by guests who can’t grumble about the service. The city isn’t just distorting its own hotel market with these mass-scale room buys; it’s also reserving rooms in upstate New York, upending everything from weddings to baby showers as hotels cancel existing reservations for paying guests.
The impact on New York City itself goes beyond the economic. Newcomers to the city and to the country will naturally behave as they see others behaving around them. So it’s not good that, as New York welcomes potentially hundreds of thousands of unassimilated newcomers, it has lowered its standards of public behavior. People will smoke pot in public if they see other people doing it. Similarly, migrants with no legal source of cash will be sorely tempted to engage in theft, as they learn quickly that nonviolent retail shoplifting faces no real penalty.
Second, New York confronts a direct fiscal impact. The city isn’t just paying hundreds of millions of dollars for hotel rooms; it is sacrificing hotel taxes from those rooms. Assuming 80 percent occupancy of 6,000 hotel rooms at $200 a night over three years, lost taxes could amount to more than $60 million. And the city’s pledge to pay enough to hotels sheltering migrants to support union jobs will add even more to this tab. As the head of the hotel union, Rich Maroko, said last week, “This agreement … allows an iconic hotel to reopen its doors,” and “hundreds of union workers to return to their good-paying jobs.” But the only reason the Roosevelt and other union hotels could support middle-class pay was the deep pockets of New York’s tourists and business travelers. The city has bizarrely cut out the private-sector hotel customer, as if the outside party providing the actual revenues to fund social services were just an inconvenient middleman.
Third, what is the exit strategy? Irregular migrants are not allowed legally to work—though many will work anyway, with employers exploiting their status to pay them less than minimum wage—and they are looking at years of waiting as the federal government processes their asylum claims. Many claimants, even most, will be rejected. It’s one thing for New York to reserve hotel rooms after a finite disaster, such as a hurricane, so that temporarily displaced residents have a place to stay while they repair their homes. It’s another thing to sacrifice centrally located lodging into an open-ended “emergency” comprised of people who aren’t staying there temporarily, but permanently, because they have no local ties to rebuild.
Fourth, the city will pay a cost in diversion of scarce resources for social programs. Migrants now account for 37,500, or nearly half, of the city’s 79,762 homeless-shelter residents, itself a record. But New York cannot adequately care for its indigenous homeless and distressed. Jordan Neely, the 30-year-old man killed in a subway chokehold two weeks ago after behaving menacingly on the train, was on the city’s Top 50 list of people desperately in need of intense services. On the train, he reportedly begged for food and water. Why wasn’t he in a private hotel room, with round-the-clock “welcoming” care?
Adams’s opening of prime properties as migrant shelter creates a final problem: self-perpetuation. The mayor says over and over that he wants to discourage migrants from coming to New York. He has said “there’s no room at the inn” and that the city “is being destroyed by the migrant crisis.” This Tuesday, he said that New York “is being overwhelmed by the financial and number burden associated with the national problem.”
Adams knows that what he is trying to do is impossible: New York City does not have the resources to shelter an unlimited number of migrants for an unlimited amount of time. Yet the mayor keeps opening more inns. The Roosevelt Hotel will serve not just as shelter but as New York’s first central “asylum seeker arrival center.” An “arrival center” implies to would-be migrants, observing from afar on social media, that New York knows what it’s doing, and that it has infinite resources to host an unlimited number of people in hotel rooms. “We continue to ask our federal and state partners for a real decompression strategy,” the mayor said over the weekend. But why should President Biden do anything, when New York City is the decompression strategy for the rest of the country?
Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images