SRO tenants see unionizing as last chance to fight developer

The Rosemoor Hotel follows a script that has been playing out across Chicago the past few years. The Chateau Hotel, the New Jackson Hotel, and many others have had their dramas, as the single-room-occupancy hotels, or SROs, have been bought up by developers with grander plans than providing low-income housing.

SROs tenants have protested, marched and held vigils in trying to persuade the new owners to offer affordable housing, give them more time to move out or offer some financial assistance to help with relocation. But few tenants have been successful in these efforts. In most cases, low-income residents of SROs end up pushed out.

Few, if any, SRO tenants have tried to bargain through a tenants association. But the Rosemoor Tenants Union aims to give it a try. In May a group of Rosemoor Hotel residents formed the union, which is technically a tenants association, four months after the building was purchased.

Joe Perillo, the owner of Perillo Automotive Group, which runs several luxury car dealerships around the city and in Downers Grove, in January purchased the Rosemoor, located near the University Village neighborhood.

Some Rosemoor residents were concerned that between rent increases and 30-day notices to vacate the property, Perillo was trying to push them out. Many residents have lived at the Rosemoor for up to two years, and few could find a new place to live in only a matter of weeks.

Legally, owners aren’t obligated to address the larger issues affecting SRO tenants—keeping rents affordable or making sure tenants have affordable housing options.

The Rosemoor Tenants Union sought to stop what it saw as retaliation by management and demand repairs to the crumbling building. It also wanted to persuade new management to meet with the tenants and consider keeping some units affordable.

Historically, tenants associations have been credited with the organizing that led to rent control in notoriously overpriced New York City. In Chicago, tenants in foreclosed buildings or Chicago Housing Authority’s subsidized housing programs have also created tenants associations to fight on their behalf.

An association also creates a legal protection for tenants to organize. Retaliation against a tenant organization member is illegal, said the Rosemoor Tenants Union legal representatives, Susan Ritacca and Victoria Ogunsanya from the Lawyers Committee on Better Housing, a local group working around housing rights issues.

By calling themselves a tenants association, the Rosemoor residents secured a “legal standing,” allowing them to bring the building’s new owner into court, their legal representatives said.  The Lawyers Committee for Better Housing is considering whether to take legal action on the association’s behalf to buy time to keep tenants in their homes.

Elce Redmond, an organizer with the South Austin Coalition Community who helped organize the tenants union, said it was important to organize because management had already retaliated against tenants before they created a union–after tenants reported city construction that was being done without a permit. At that point, Redmond said, he knew the tenants needed some protection.

“A lot of the folks [who] live at the Rosemoor–they live on the edge,” he said. “And people don’t know what their rights are. The only way we are going to have a voice is people have to come together.”

Perillo denied that he was retaliating against any of the tenants, or that his actions had anything to do with tenants’ decision to form an association. For tenants to stay in the building, “all they have to do is pay the current rent and not do anything illegal or immoral,” he told The Chicago Reporter during a phone conversation.

When asked about the concerns of low-income people being displaced from the area, Perillo said that it just wasn’t possible for him to continue running a business on the low rates paid by the hotel’s original tenants.

“I am not running a nonprofit,” he said. “It’s just a matter of economics.”

The tenants association recently wrote management to protest the 30-day eviction notices that some tenants received on Sept. 1. They also suggested a meeting to discuss rent changes.
So far they‘ve gotten no response.

But when they do, they expect to see the benefit of organizing collectively: positive outcomes for all tenants. “The fact that [tenants] are in a union is going to be much greater for them than if they are going to negotiate individually,” Ritacca said.

Meanwhile, time is running out for the Rosemoor Tenants Union to take action before its members start being evicted. For those who received a 30-day eviction notice on Sept. 1, the new management could start proceedings to take them to court as early as Oct. 1. And with an eviction their record, finding a new home would be even harder.

Despite that, Kerry Carter, a steward of the association and two-year resident of the Rosemoor, thinks it’s worth staying and fighting. Carter, a technician at the nearby University of Illinois at Chicago hospital, has the means to move to another place. But he knows that many of his neighbors don’t.

“I really do feel for [tenants]. It’s not right, I feel, what [the management is] doing,” he said. “The fight is real, and I believe in it. If it comes to the court challenge as far as we have to move, I will do it. But I will fight to the end.”

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