The slow disappearing act of the Chicago SRO
This weekend, residents of the Chateau Hotel on Chicago’s North Side hope to learn the fate of their building. Many of them received notices in late January, notifying them that their leases would be terminated in 30 days, but they haven’t received information about what will happen after that. Some of the building’s tenants fear the building will go the way of other North Side single-room occupancy hotels (SROs) in recent years: Namely, its new owner will renovate it for a higher market-rate clientele.
“All I know is this: There’s too many different stories I’m hearing,” said Tiffany Myers, a resident of the Chateau Hotel since August. “Some say they’re going to remodel it, that the new manager is supposed to be closing it down, remodeling it,” she recounted, sitting in the small studio that she shares with her fiance. “That this new owner has a habit of buying SRO buildings, low-income buildings, and then making it expensive for people who can’t afford to move in. Only for ritzy people.”
The Chateau is among the city’s shrinking pool of single-room occupancy hotels (map below), which offer an important housing option for people with low- and fixed-incomes. SROs also serve clients with troubled credit or criminal histories. The North Side has long been an SRO hub, but in recent years many such buildings have been purchased by developers and closed, only to reopen as more expensive housing — often beyond the means of prior tenants. Some SRO residents and community organizers worry the Chateau Hotel might be the next building in this trend.
“To me it’s kind of unfair because not too many of us can get an apartment right now,” Myers explained. Myers said she and her fiance had no choice but to live at the Chateau Hotel after they were evicted from their last apartment. When they moved into their first unit — a small, one-room place without a kitchen, typical of the building — they paid $575 a month. Later, they upgraded to another of the building's units: a studio apartment with a kitchen.
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Myers relies on a monthly disability check so, like many other SRO tenants, she is on a fixed income. Her fiance was laid off several months ago and has not been able to find steady work since. She said even if he found a job and could afford a higher-priced apartment elsewhere, they would still have a tough time finding a building that would accept them.
“Some of us have really nasty backgrounds. Some of us can’t pass the credit check,” she said. “Now, I’m not saying I’m going to live in this rat shack forever, but at least until I’m able to get myself on my feet. And if they do put us out, at least help us out with somewhere to go.”
Myers rattled off the problems with the building, echoing violations documented by city inspectors: mice, bedbugs, waterbugs, rotting window frames, peeling wall plaster and a broken smoke detector. The city has slapped the Chateau Hotel with 137 code violations, and is pursuing compliance in an ongoing buildings court case.
“They’ve not been living in safe housing, and those conditions were deplorable,” said Chicago Alderman James Cappleman (46th), “and that should never have been allowed.” Cappleman, a former social worker, said the city should have intervened earlier with the Chateau and other SROs before they got to this point. But he said he feels the conditions there are dangerous enough that the building should be vacated for renovations.
The 46th Ward had 14 licensed SROs in 2012 — at least twice as many as any other ward. About one quarter of the city’s SROs have been in four of the North Side lakefront wards alone: (wards 44, 46, 48, and 49). But on the whole, the number of SROs in Chicago has declined noticeably in the last five years. In 2008 there were 106 licensed SROs. Today, there are 81.
Carmelo Vargas, former Chicago Commissioner of Human Services, says he’s concerned about SROs disappearing citywide, but especially on the North Side. That’s because many of the support services like food pantries, soup kitchens, and medical clinics for the populations that live in SROs are located near those buildings. “If you’re not building affordable housing two blocks away and you’re closing this one down, we have a problem,” Vargas said, referring to the Chateau Hotel.
Still, Vargas has worked on — and sees — both sides of the issue; he’s helped the homeless find rooms in SROs, but at the same time he was also involved in closing many SROs. “Most of the closings that we did were related to fire issues, safety issues, living condition issues,” he said, “not because somebody wanted to buy the building.”
Vargas says the SRO disappearing act can be explained by two things: First, they sit on prime real estate near the lake; and second, many SRO owners let the buildings fall almost beyond salvaging. Together, these create the perfect opportunity for a well-funded developer to swoop in and make a kill.
The new owner of the Chateau Hotel is still shrouded by some mystery. Cappleman’s office announced that a land trust called 3838 N Broadway LLC bought the property in January, but the alderman has declined to name the individuals behind it. An attorney for the land trust also declined to comment.
Cappleman says the new owner has assured him the building will still contain affordable SRO units, but that the rent will go up to $800 a month, putting it out of range for many current tenants. Still, Cappleman feels the era of SROs on the North Side has not passed. “Is it more difficult to find on the North Side? It’s more difficult,” he conceded, “but it is there.”
Cappleman has vowed to tenants that none will be left homeless or in a shelter, and he said Catholic Charities and Department of Family Support Services will work individually with tenants of the Chateau Hotel to find alternative arrangements. But Cappleman said he can’t guarantee that everyone will find on the North Side.
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Notes on the data
Data on single-room occupancy licenses were obtained from the City of Chicago. Figures from the 2008, 2010, and 2012 reporting periods represent licenses in operation during portions of those years. 2013 figures are current as of March 1.