Hostel environment: Council bill could shape tourist accommodations in Queens

Hostels could allow tourist who may not be able to afford high hotel cost, proponents. Photo by Jake Ingle via Wikicommons.

Hostels could allow tourist who may not be able to afford high hotel cost, proponents. Photo by Jake Ingle via Wikicommons.

By Victoria Merlino

Watch out, cramped subway riders: backpackers may be making a comeback in New York City. 

New legislation under consideration in the City Council may legalize hostels in the city again, after a state law directed at curbing illegal hotels — and catching Airbnb in its net — inadvertently shuttered dozens of the budget-friendly accommodations in 2010.  

The two councilmembers supporting the law, Manhattan’s Margaret Chin and the Bronx’s Mark Gjonaj, believe inviting hostels back to the city will open the city’s booming tourist market back to those who may not be anywhere close to affording a night at the Plaza Hotel.

“If you can stay in high-end hotels, thank you for visiting, come back again. But we want to afford opportunities for those with modest means,” Gjonaj told the Wall Street Journal, who first reported on the potential legislation

The bill would create a new office to oversee and regulate hostels — shared, dorm-like spaces that provide cheap pay-by-the-bed rates compared to traditional hotel rooms.

Queens and the outer boroughs could see new hostels crop up if the law passes. Queens is in the midst of a boom in hotel development right now, with 34 hotels that have opened since May or are in the pipeline to be built, more than any borough outside Manhattan. 

New York City saw a record number of tourists last year, attracting more than 65 million visitors, according to NYC & Company, the city’s tourism marketing arm. Tourism has increased dramatically over the last decade, even without hostels, with numbers rising from 48.8 million to 65.1 million annual tourists from 2010 to 2018. 

Only a few hostels currently remain in New York City, though it can be confusing for the average traveler to tell what constitutes a hostel when they go to book accommodations. Many places bill themselves as hostel-like, but are actually classified as hotels. One of the only true hostels left is in the Upper West Side. The sturdy brick building received special permit in 1989, according to Gothamist.

A spokesperson from the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs confirmed to the Eagle that the city does not currently give out licenses or permits for hostels. 

As of Thursday afternoon at 4:45 p.m., beds at the Hostelling International hostel on the Upper West Side were renting at $50-$85 a night.

Hostelworld, an international hostel-booking website, told the Eagle that it currently has 38 New York City accommodations on its website, including the Long Island City property the Q4 Hotel. Most of those accommodations aren’t actually hostels, however.

“Today, we are seeing a booming hostel industry, with three in four recent American travelers choosing to stay in a hostel over a hotel during an extended trip,” Fabrizio Giulio, Chief Supply Officer at Hostelworld said in a statement to the Eagle. “With this growing demand, it's no surprise that New York City is looking to lift its hostel ban, as Americans and foreign travelers alike are eager to experience all that the city has to offer, while enjoying beautiful, budget-friendly accommodations that promote community."

This isn’t the first time the City Council has considered whether to bring back hostels. In 2015, Chin and other councilmembers — including Kew Gardens’ Karen Koslowitz — tried to pass similar legislation, but it died before it made it to a vote. 

A spokesperson for Koslowitz told the Eagle that she was still in favor of hostels, but would have to look further into the new bill before forming an opinion.

In 2016, hostel entrepreneurs toured Long Island City as a potential space for new growth as they lobbied for hostels to make a return. The New York Times followed them as they toured locations, stopping at the neighborhood’s Paper Factory Hotel, which was originally planned as a hostel in 2010 before they were outlawed. 

“I’d change it into a hostel in a heartbeat if the law changes,” Gal Sela, the hotel’s owner, told the Times at the time. Sela’s real estate firm, the Sela Group, also owns Q4 Hotel, in Long Island City, which advertises itself as hostel-style accommodations. The Paper Factory, Q4 Hotel and the Sela Group did not return requests for comment for this story.   

Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, told the Eagle that hostels could open up new business opportunities for other industries in the city. 

“Many restaurants and bars would embrace legalizing new hostels as their guests are known to go out and eat, drink and spend locally,” Rigie said. “There would also be opportunities for them to partner with the hostels to drive more exposure for their own businesses.”

CORRECTION 8/15 6:50 p.m.: A previous version of this article stated that New York state passed a 2010 law to curb Airbnb specifically. The law was meant to address illegal hotels in general.