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Housing Thu Aug 07 2014
At the peak of urbanization in 1915, new migrants to Chicago weren't renting apartments or buying houses. Instead, many made a home in one of the city's 3,700 operating single-room and residential hotels (SROs). In the decades since the Gilded Age, the number of SROs has dwindled to 73 licensed residencies. And in the past three years, 2,200 rooms have been lost to a number of private developers buying and converting these properties into market-rate (if not high-end) apartments. Almost 600 residents were displaced without viable housing alternatives.
Last week, the a City Council approved a moratorium (47-0) backed by Mayor Emanuel and a number of aldermen to halt the redevelopment of SROs for six months or until permanent legislation on the issue passes. That leaves 6,000 remaining SRO units--and hundreds of residents--in a state of limbo.
These buildings, which were once considered standard, if not sometimes even "high-class" or luxury living, are now stigmatized by stories of extremely poor living conditions (often including bedbug infestations), mental health issues, and crime. With rent ranging anywhere from $280 to upwards of $1,000 a month, standard SRO housing includes one room with a bed, dresser, microwave, and refrigerator. Bathrooms are shared with other residents on the same floor. For many residents, SROs are the first step out of--or last resort before--homelessness.
The majority of the 73 licensed SROs left in Chicago are in the 60640 zip code, encompassing parts of Edgewater and the majority of the Uptown neighborhood--the same neighborhood with the highest concentration of people living with mental illness, not to mention disconcerting crime rates.
Alderman James Cappleman, whose territory in the 46th ward encompasses many of the SROs in question, has raised concerns on these very issues. Last summer, when the Chateau Hotel was bought out by 3838 North Broadway LLC and evicted residents with plans to renovate and hike up the rent by more than 50 percent, Ald. Cappleman spoke out in favor of the sale: "This sends a clear message to other building owners in the 46th Ward that we require a safe environment for their residents and the surrounding community." And at a city council meeting regarding the moratorium on July 24, Ald. Cappleman said, "If we need to provide wraparound services, or if there's mental health issues, we need to separate that from the building itself." On July 30, however, he voted in favor of the moratorium.
To fast-track official legislation, the city has been meeting with developers, community organizers and housing advocates. One powerhouse supporter is the Chicago for All Coalition, headed by ONE Northside, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, and the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law. Lead political sponsors of the Coalition include Ald. Walter Burnett (27th), Ald. Will Burns (4th), Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) and Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th).
Norman Kaesberg moved into the Lakeview YMCA in 2012 . Now he's an organizer with ONE Northside, and is optimistic about the future of affordable housing. Kaesberg explained, "What we are attempting to do at ONE Northside is to have those developers see not just the building itself, but the people who live in that building and call it home."
Kaesberg told me that the Coalition's next meeting with the city is scheduled for this Wednesday, August 6th--not even a week after passing the moratorium--with an agenda to meet with lawyers and fine-tune the ordinance to gain the majority of support from aldermen.
"We feel the timing is crucial, and hope to introduce the Ordinance at the September City Council." Kaesberg went on to explain, "After that timeslot, things down there start heating up, and with the elections and all, we feel the legislation we're writing has a very good chance of becoming law this year."
Update: An earlier version of this piece included a picture of Belmont Tower Apartments. It has been removed as it is not an SRO building.