In a crumbling Rogers Park high rise, a group of tenants is fighting the building’s new owner to keep in place what may be one of the last few affordable rental housing units in Rogers Park. This is the first story in a series on rental housing in Chicago for the very low income.
Happy is a smidge of a kitten – small, lanky and perfectly content to lounge among the boxes and suitcases that pile up the walls of Arbie Bowman’s one-bedroom apartment in Astor House, a 13-story building in Rogers Park. But the reasons that Bowman has Happy aren’t quite as sweet.
“I got her for the mice,” says Bowman, who sometimes lends the kitten to her neighbors to deal with their own rodent problems. Bowman and her 8-year-old daughter have been living out of boxes since October 2012, when Bowman was first given a five-day notice to vacate her apartment.
Astor House had just been purchased by BJB Properties, a North Side developer known for turning single room occupancy hotels into upscale high-rises. When BJB Properties bought Astor House, the developer also inherited the building’s legal battles. The building has been in and out of court since 2002, most recently with multiple code violations.
After she first received the eviction notice, Bowman scrambled unsuccessfully to find an equally affordable home near her daughter’s Rogers Park school. But she couldn’t. Bowman works as a home health aide, taking care of the sick and elderly, as a housekeeper and occasionally as a mover. But none of these are steady employment. In a good month, her monthly income is over $1,000. In a bad month, she scrapes by with $300 and careful use of the Link card she receives.
Even with its rodent problem, crumbling plaster and bedbugs, Bowman’s $550-a-month studio apartment was still an affordable home, unlike much of the housing she came across in the area.
She wasn’t the only one having difficulty finding an affordable place to move, so Bowman and some of the 150 tenants in the building decided in November to protest their evictions. Nine months later, 15 are still in their Astor House homes. But BJB Properties also has been going ahead with its planned rehab of the building.
An ill-fitting door frame at Astor House, where construction work is in full swing . Photo by Lucio Villa.
Fighting their case
Construction is in full swing around the Astor House.
On a Wednesday afternoon in June, nearly every one of the eight floors had one apartment whose worn gray carpet was being replaced with wood floors. The apartments that were already being worked on were easy to spot –a new but ill-fitting doorframe hung in place of the old.
The construction work has made her living conditions worse, Bowman says. The noise has pushed mice and roaches toward their quiet apartments, and since May the tenants have had trouble getting hot water. Sometimes, it takes more than 45 minutes for the water to heat, Bowman says.
“The reason I’m fighting to stay is because it’s affordable housing,” she says. “Everything for my daughter is around here. Her doctor’s appointment, her after school program, her camp.”
The tenants, along with the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing, a Chicago-based group that advocates for affordable housing, have been following the building through its court hearings. They are calling on the city to take over as property manager because, they argue, construction activities by BJB Properties are creating bad living conditions for the tenants who are still fighting their evictions.
In the longer term, The Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing is fighting for BJB Properties to give the remaining tenants a stipend to help with relocating–or better yet, promise housing that they can afford in the building when the construction is completed. But the tenants’ push to stay in the Astor House is also one part in a larger battle for the last few rental units in Rogers Park that are affordable for the very low income. In the short term, they say that the construction is being done without a permit, and getting it shut down is the immediate goal of the activism around Astor House.
Arbie Bowman walks through the hallways of her building. Photo by Lucio Villa.
Affordable rental housing an endangered lot
Rental housing makes up a critical portion of the housing stock, especially for families without the capital to purchase a home. For the past 20 years, at least one in three households have been renters, according to the National Housing Conference, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group focused on affordable housing.
A foreclosure crisis that hit low-income families and the landlords that rent to them disproportionately hard has made it challenging to find affordable rental housing in Chicago.
Affordable housing is defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as taking no more than 30 percent of an individual’s income, as calculated by HUD standards.
Lakeside Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit housing and community development organization on the far North Side, considers the median income of an area when setting the rent for an affordable housing unit, Michael Polsky, vice president, says. Rents are based on what an individual earning just under the average median income of the area can afford by HUD standards.
In the Rogers Park area, Polsky says, that would be $650-750 a month for a one-bedroom apartment.
Even $650 a month would be out of the reach of Bowman and her daughter, but it’s closer to what they can afford than most other apartment rents in the area.
Polsky says he has seen rents in Rogers Park “skyrocket” over the last 18 months. “In most markets, rent could go up from 3 to 10 percent on a yearly basis,” he says. “What I found [in Rogers Park] is the competition to find good apartments has led to a 25 percent increase in rent ” on average in the area.
BJB Properties says it intends to rent Astor House apartments at market rate, according to DNAinfo Chicago.
Bowman stands next to another ill-fitting door frame. Photo by Lucio Villa.
Developers cashing in on a trend
It’s no surprise to Mark Swartz, legal director with the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing, that rents in Rogers Park are going up, or that developers like BJB Properties are interested in cashing in on the trend.
Swartz sees the story of the Astor House as part of the same trend affecting single room occupancy (SRO) hotels around Chicago, several of which have been bought by developers and turned into rental apartment buildings. In the process, the developers displaced some of the most economically vulnerable people.
BJB Properties, the developer that bought the Astor House, also recently bought the Chateau Hotel, an SRO in Lakeview that residents unsuccessfully fought to save. The Chateau Hotel was the fifth SRO in Lakeview alone that BJB Properties had purchased, according to Lakeview Patch.
BJB Properties did not respond to repeated requests for comment over a period of several weeks.
Some residents of the Chateau were given cash settlements to move, which Astor House tenants also are demanding.
A hallway at Astor House. Photo by Lucio Villa.
Ald. Joe Moore of the 49th Ward, which includes Rogers Park, says he is aware of the tenants’ concerns about Astor House and the affordability of Rogers Park in general. Moore was the target of a July 1 protest by Astor House tenants and Communities United Against Foreclosure and Eviction, a local housing rights group.
Moore says he has reached out to the tenants and offered assistance to those who were able to produce documents supporting their concerns. Regarding affordable housing in the area, Moore says: “I have a long-standing policy of requiring affordable housing set-asides for any new development that needs a zoning change or some other relief from the City, and will continue to do so.”
Even if BJB Properties agrees to set aside some apartments at affordable housing rates, Bowman is unlikely to be able to afford the going rate in the area.
A city inspector visited the building to see the tenants housing conditions on July 8 and they are still awaiting the results of the visit.
Bowman says she will continue to fight to stay at the Astor House, despite the cold showers and multiple code violations, primarily because she has nowhere else to go.
She sighs as she sees the apartments around her being rehabbed.
“It makes me mad and angry because they were fixing up the new place and renting it to Loyola students, when they should have been fixing up this building when people lived there before,” she says. “Shouldn’t nobody have to go through what we did.”