Chicago Muckrakers is taking a look at affordable housing in the Lakeview neighborhood, specifically single room occupancy buildings or hotels that often function as the housing of last resort for working-poor in the area. The neighborhood has seen these SRO buildings closed and transformed into high-end housing one-by-one for the past few years. Now, only one remains. Reporter Bob Zuley with the Inside-Booster has been covering this problem for the last few years. He sat down with me to discuss the issue.
Megan: Why did you start covering affordable housing in Lakeview?
Bob Zuley: I've been here in Lakeview since 2001. I'm a lifelong Chicagoan, born and raised in hillside. After high school went in the army, and I moved back to Chicago in 1980. Last year, I approached the editor at the Inside Booster about the closing of the Bellair and Sheffield house hotels. He said, "That story has legs. Run with it."
I write a lot about development and housing. I think it's important to raise awareness - to shame our elected leaders into being more proactively engaged.
Megan: What are SRO hotels? Who lives there and why are they important?
Bob: SROs are single room occupancy buildings. Most of them here are old hotels that now operate as private rental buildings. It's housing. It's affordable and accessible housing stock that maintains diversity in the community. People can pay a certain amount per week or per month to live there. They're paying for it. They're not getting anything for free. The people who live there are mostly local workforce - people who work at hospitals, security guards, food stores, baristas, streetwise vendors, taxi drivers. The local service industry. It's where they can afford to live that's close to their jobs.
One of the benefits for the tenants is that you can move in right away. You don't need furniture. There are no utility bills. Some people stay there for 30 years and some are there for three weeks.
It's a very viable and recognized housing stock . Other cities have taken concrete steps to preserve and improve SRO housing stock. Chicago's not a very proactive city in that regard. The developers have the inside track, and the city isn't lifting a finger.
Megan: What have been the problems with SRO housing stock in Chicago?
Bob: The owners who have had SROs haven't always looked out for the best interest of the residents. There have been a lot of code violations and building problems. The folks who live in these buildings, they're not complaining about it. They're very accepting of where they live. They want to keep them.
The problem is management and upkeep. None of us want to live in an area where if there's an SRO that's not well managed. We don't want vagrants, trash, people urinating, and drinking. It's up to the building management to run responsible operations. People living around SROs in Lakeview have complained about them, but what they're really complaining about is bad management and upkeep. That doesn't have to be the case.
There's a tremendous stigma about it. None of the public officials have any real understanding of why SROs are important. These buildings have been in the community for years and years and years. The neighbors seem to accept it until it's in the news. There's no one defending them.
Megan: How many SROs are still open in Lakeview?
Bob: We're just losing everything. Many have been closed down, bought out. There's one hotel left up here. The Chateau, and there's so much public pressure to close it. We know the owner is already selling his other properties to Jamie Purcell, who owns BJB properties. He has properties in properties Millennium Park Plaza downtown, 5,000 rental units in the Gold Coast, Lincoln Park and Lakeview. He also owns the Beyond the Ivy Rooftop club.
Megan: How many SROs has Purcell bought? What is he doing with them?
Bob: He's bought four buildings - the Belair, the Ambers, the Abbot and Sheffield House. He's putting a lot of money into them. All of his properties are existing buildings - existing rental unit buildings that he gut rehabs.
He pulled one over on us. We were pushing for the buildings to stay SROs, and he did re-license them as SROs. But he's gut rehabbing them, and they're going to be like boutique SROs with wood floors and granite counter tops. The former residents will never be able to afford to stay there. It'll probably be rented to young urban professionals, people just out of school with good jobs.
Megan:What has been done with some of the other SROs that have been vacated in the last few years?
Bob: Some of them have been turned into condos, and some given to social service agencies to use for their causes.
The Diplomat, at Belmont and Sheffield, was given to Thresholds, and it'll be reopened as 51 units of housing for the severely mentally ill. That's a good thing, but it doesn't replace the independent housing that was lost. People who lived in SROs didn't have to meet any existing criteria or in a program.
There was another big one, the Viceroy hotel at Ashland and Washington. It's a big building, built int he 1920s. It was sold to a local church and now the building is being renovated with a grant. I understand it's going to be housing for women released from the department of corrections. Again, a good use, but it's still a loss of independent housing.
Megan: You said the Chateau Hotel is the only one left. What's going to happen to it?
Bob: There are a lot of neighborhood complaints about people hanging out in front of the buildings. Some people say that it became sort of a dumping ground for a social service agency - that they put people there without support who had mental health or substance abuse issues. There's been a bunch of community meetings, and the alderman, [46th ward alderman James] Cappellman, the perception was that he was going to come in and close it down. But he's stated outright that it's not his intention to close down the Chateau. He says he wants to see it improved.
But we got a notice that the building is going to housing court this month. What will happen? We just don't know.