2012-02-03 / Top Stories

Vets Fight To Keep Home Open

By Howard Schwach

Safos, second from right, with a group of his residents in front of 187 Beach 115 Street. Safos, second from right, with a group of his residents in front of 187 Beach 115 Street. To many who shop on Beach 116 Street and adjacent Rockaway Beach Boulevard shops, the scraggy men who hang out in the area, some asking for a cup of coffee or a handout, are a dangerous distraction, and some have said they do not shop on the street because they resent the intrusion and the implied threat.

To many of those who are reviled simply because they live in the single room occupancy former summer homes that surround the shopping area and hang out on the shopping streets, the belief that they should be put somewhere else both angers and shames them.

“The city says that we are a bad element and they are trying to shut us down,” says Matthew Safos, who, along with family members, owns several of the single room occupancy buildings on from Beach 109 Street to Beach 115 Street. “About 90 percent of my residents are Vietnam era veterans who would have no place to go if the city shuts us down. They come into my buildings and they write violations because they cannot get access to the private living spaces of my residents. The violations are phony and they are thrown out in court, but they keep trying to close us down.”

On a Friday last month, more than a dozen of his residents from 187 Beach 115 Street gathered in front of the building to protest the city’s actions. They proudly showed a Wave reporter proof that they had served in the military during Vietnam or the first Desert Storm.

They are proud of what they did and ashamed that the city and other Rockaway residents look at them as a problem to be swept under the rug.

Safos says the building has 44 units; 30 rooms and 14 studio apartments, which rent for about $400 a month and include cable television. “[The inspectors] want to go into every room, to open doors and drawers. I won’t let them do that. These men have rights. They fought for their country and put their lives and health on the line. The say that we won’t give them access and write phony violations.”

He pointed to a campaign advertisement from City Councilman Eric Ulrich.

“Ulrich wants to get rid of the lousy landlords like me and close down the SROs and Section 8 buildings. Where does he want these people to live?” Safos asks.

He argues that there is ‘zero crime’ in his buildings and records show that there are few arrests from his properties. He says that most of the panhandlers and criminals come from other facilities on the street such as the Park Inn Hotel and the Rockaway Beach Hotel. “The city just wants to close us down, to send us somewhere where we can’t be seen,” said Bobby James, a Vietnam vet. “They want us back on the street or in city shelters that are terrible places.”

For its part, a city task force made up of Community Board 14 officials and city agencies such as the fire and police departments and the department of buildings, has been trying to close down the SROs for 20 years. So far, they have not been successful, and Safos expects that he will remain open. “We have been here for 93 years,” he says, “and we provide a service to a vulnerable population. All we want to do is to keep providing that service, and the city keeps trying to stop us.”

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