Low-income tenants of Chicago’s disappearing single-room occupancy hotels have new protections under an ordinance city council approved Wednesday. The “Chicago for All” ordinance, as it has come to be known, passed 47-2, with only Aldermen Carrie Austin (34th) and Mary O’Connor (41st) opposing. Supporters of the measure hope it will slow the trend of affordable SRO units falling into the hands of for-profit developers who displace low-income tenants.
“This is all a piece of an overall fabric,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose office helped broker the compromise between affordable housing advocates and SRO owners. “The housing strategy particularly is part of a five-year plan: 41,000 units of affordable housing in the City of Chicago.”
Emanuel’s office worked closely with sponsors Alderman Walter Burnett (27th), Ameya Pawar (47th), and a coalition of organizations including ONE Northside, the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, and many more.
The ordinance regulates the sale of SRO buildings such that owners are encouraged to negotiate first with buyers who intend to preserve the building as affordable housing. If an owner opts not to do so, he may sell to for-profit developers and pay into a city SRO preservation fund at the rate of $20,000 per unit in the building. The preservation fund, in turn, could be used to provide forgivable loans to SRO owners who wish to make building improvements, to subsidize building purchases by preservation buyers, and to build new SRO buildings in Chicago.
“In places like the Fourth Ward, we believe that we are doing our fair share when it comes to affordable housing and public housing,” said Alderman William Burns (4th). “And when we look at other places in the city, we ask what’s being done to create affordable housing on the north lakefront? On the North Side of Chicago? So that there’s equal opportunity for people to have affordable housing throughout the city—and particularly in communities where there’s access to good schools, jobs, grocery stores, and an opportunity to break down racial segregation in this city?”
Burns and other aldermen praised the ordinance for addressing, in part, the city’s shortage of affordable housing. In particular, they cited it as a key way to combat the problem of homeless veterans. Housing advocates estimate about one-quarter of SRO residents are war veterans who might otherwise be homeless. Mayor Emanuel has declared one of his goals in the 2015 budget will be to end veteran homelessness in Chicago.
Additionally, the ordinance would provide additional financial assistance for SRO residents who are displaced. It would require building owners to pay between $2,000 and $10,600, depending on the circumstances. It would also forbid SRO owners from retaliating against residents who complain to the city or the news media about conditions in their buildings.
Negotiations between the city, advocates and SRO owners were challenging. Initially, many SRO owners hoped the city would shy away from regulations, and instead offer more financial incentives for them to keep their buildings affordable. But concerns early on that the regulations may be enough to prompt a lawsuit against the city have largely dissipated.
“We were disappointed that the ordinance fell a bit short. We, and so many other stakeholders over about six months had been working very diligently,” said Eric Rubenstein, Executive Director of the Single Room Housing Assistance Corporation. “We will, as operators, do our very best to work with the plan, with the ordinance, as it was presented.”