Gimme Shelter

Checking out Hotel Ellington

By Jen Sluka

Hotel Ellington does not take reservations. Standing at 610 West 111th Street with a fading awning where the words Hotel Ellington are barely visible is not a hotel but a women’s shelter. Its name was not always so deceiving. As it turns out, the Hotel Ellington was once an expensive boutique hotel frequented by Columbia parents visiting their children.

On March 4, 2002, Morningside Heights residents were surprised to see a large collection of furniture lingering outside the hotel instead of the usual assembly of wealthy patrons. They soon learned the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) would be using the building to house women and children in need.

Hotel Ellington is not public property, and its ownership and management have a complicated history. In 1987, Jay Podolsky purchased the building for $925,000, and used it to house clients of New York City’s newly formed Division of AIDS Services and Income Support. In 1996, the city withdrew its contract with Podolsky when it discovered that he had been illegally subdividing studio apartments.

It was at this point that Jay’s brother, Stuart Podolsky, took over the management of the building with his Amsterdam Hospitality Group, and his wife, Sharon Olson, took over the ownership of the building under her company California Suites. The Amsterdam Hospitality Group spruced up the building, and turned it into a tourist hotel that only lasted for six years. When tourism dropped after 9/11, the Hotel Ellington closed. California Suites then leased the building to Alan Lapes, who contacted the DHS with a proposal for the building to become a homeless shelter.

The connection between the Podolskys and Lapes goes far beyond the Ellington. Lapes leases buildings from the Podolskys, and manages them as homeless shelters for the DHS. A 2013 exposé on the Podolsky shelter empire in New York magazine lists 38 shelter properties in all boroughs of the city owned or controlled by the Podolskys, with many of them operated by Alan Lapes. New York magazine estimates that the Podolsky shelters house 11 percent of the city’s homeless population, and have generated $90 million in rent from 2010 to 2013, including $7.4 million from the Ellington alone, with most of that money coming from the city itself.

While the Podolskys run a service for the city’s homeless population with their shelters, their business methods call their altruism into question, and Jay Podolsky’s citation at the Ellington is only one of many of the Podolskys’ run-ins with the law. In 1983, Jay, Stuart, and their father Zenek purchased three buildings on West 77th Street, and then hired “professional vacators” who received $600 per apartment to make the building unlivable. When this was discovered, the Podolskys pleaded guilty to 37 felonies, but they cut a deal, with Zenek receiving a 90-day sentence and Jay and Stuart only receiving probation.

When I visited the Hotel Ellington, the staff seemed to know nothing of the building’s history or ownership. By all accounts the shelter is safe above board these days. Hopefully that’s where the story ends.

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