The Viceroy Hotel, which stands at the southern edge of Union Park on Chicago's Near West Side, wears different chapters of its history on its sleeve.
On the building's front facade are Art Deco stylings that date to the building's construction in 1929 and 1930 as one of the city's “apartment hotels.”
The faded sign promising “new deluxe transient rooms with free adult movies” on the Viceroy's eastern flank speaks of its past as a lodging place for people seeking a cheap bed.
Metal guards strapped across its ground-floor bay of windows, meanwhile, testify to the building's vacancy in recent years.
Rev. George Daniels, senior pastor at First Baptist Congregational Church, located just north of the Viceroy, remembers the hotel before it closed in the early 2000s as a place used by people who had “fell on hard times.”
“It was a wide swing of people. Mostly it was people on the low-income side, people trying to make it day to day,” he said.
Unit prices were relatively inexpensive, Daniels said, ranging from $20 to $40 a night. The figures come easily to him, because his church would sometimes pay for a room for a homeless person at the hotel. But crime stemming out of the building―Daniels recalled nearby homes were burglarized by Viceroy residents―was a problem. “It wasn't the most pleasant place,” he said.
Daniels said his church wanted to purchase the building in the early 1990s, but the owners declined to sell. In 2005, as the neighborhoods adjacent to the Viceroy were rapidly developing, the city of Chicago paid $5.1 million for the structure. That purchase kept the Viceroy available for a future affordable housing development, according to a city spokeswoman.
That project is now starting to come into focus.
A non-profit developer called Heartland Housing, Inc. and First Baptist are putting some of the last pieces together to transform the building.
The partners plan to use some $23 million to convert the Viceroy into a 89-unit affordable housing building with on-site social services, said Hume An, Heartland Housing's director of real estate development.
This July a city commission approved two subsidies, both of which the full city council must weigh in on, for the project: a $3.87 million tax increment financing grant and a land write-down worth more than $2.29 million.
In addition to assistance from the city, the Viceroy's developers have secured low-income and historic property tax credits from Illinois Housing Development Authority and are seeking other grants to complete project financing.
The new units will be 347 square feet in size and include a bathroom and kitchenette. Most will cost $685 per month, but tenants will pay no more than 30 percent of their income toward that amount.
St. Leonard's Ministries, which provides housing and runs classes for people who have left the state prison system in facilities located just west of the Viceroy, will lease 17 units in the rehabbed building and run a coffee shop on its first floor. The building will feature a farm, too.
An said the new Viceroy will provide housing for people at risk of homelessness.
In a sense, he said, the former tenants at the Viceroy in its last days are “probably not too far from our target population.”
“The huge difference between the way the Viceroy was run then and the way we're going to run it is we understand the needs of our participants,” he said. “And we're going to be providing a full complement of supportive services to allow them to rebuild their lives and to progress.”
For decades single-room occupancy hotels in large cities attracted a reputation for seediness and vice-related crimes, but in recent years urban planners and others are taking a new look at them. Supportive housing projects like the new Viceroy grew out of a recognition that single-room occupancy hotels did provide a housing resource for lower-income people, according to Charles Hoch, a professor of urban planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Hoch studied Chicago's single-room occupancy hotels during the 1980s.
“These places served a really important function, even if some of the owners were a little shady,” he said.
Hoch described the city's single-room occupancy hotels as places that offered a basic structure, like a desk clerk in the lobby, and flexibility on prices (paying daily was ultimately more expensive than paying monthly), important for people in and out of jobs. And such hotels offered privacy.
“You have a tiny space but it's yours,” Hoch said. “You can lock the door and no one can come in. It's a big step up for people on the street.”
The Viceroy Hotel was not part of the Near West Side skid row in the first decades of the 20th century―the heart of which was located further east, around Halsted and Madison―though its later transient clientele might suggest such a connection.
The Viceroy opened as the Union Park Hotel, part of a construction trend that hit Chicago between 1918 and 1930 that combined aspects of hotel and apartment living, a city historic landmark report about the building says. The report goes on to say the hotel appealed to Chicago's "single professionals, office workers, and young couples."
The Viceroy name emerged by 1963, the landmarks report says.
Before the Viceroy Hotel is ready for its latest chapter, it first has to get ready for occupancy – and there’s a long way to go before that happens. A recent visit inside the building revealed peeling paint, hanging wires and scattered debris. “The building's in rough shape,” An, from Heartland Housing, said.