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As Wilson Men’s Hotel prepares to close for renovations, a look at shrinking number of SROs in Chicago
The 7-by-7 room fits a mattress, a plastic bin for clothes and milk crates that double as storage.
The wooden floors in Jonathan Adams’ North Side unit are worn and creaky, and he frequently cleans his mattress to keep out bed bugs. For him and his neighbors, the walls of their rooms don’t stretch to the ceiling, so a metal cage fills the space — limiting privacy but offering some ventilation. It’s how the Wilson Men’s Hotel, and the single-room occupancy hotels like it across Chicago and in other large cities, became known as “cage hotels.”
Still, at $320 a month it’s affordable, a fraction of what apartments are going for in the surrounding Uptown neighborhood.
So Adams, a 13-year resident of the SRO, has mixed feelings when he thinks about packing what few belongings he has and moving out later this year when the hotel on Wilson Avenue near Broadway shutters for renovation by its new owners.
The city of Chicago passed an ordinance in 2014 aimed at preserving the stock of affordable units, like the Wilson Men’s Hotel, by requiring owners to first look at proposals from buyers who could keep a single-room occupancy building as affordable housing. Still, in that time the number of licensed SROs in the city dropped from 81 to 66, according to city data.
The Uptown community area alone lost nearly half of its SRO buildings in a 10-year period from 2008 to 2018, according to a Tribune analysis of city data. And today, SROs are found in fewer corners of the city. Ten years ago, SROs could be found in 36 community areas compared with 31 as of this year, according to city data. The license for the Wilson Men’s Hotel expired, though the owners say they are working to renew it.
For Adams and others on fixed incomes, it’s a conundrum: SROs are in dire need of renovations to make them more livable, but those updates — which will mean larger apartments with, for example, their own bathrooms rather than shared toilets and showers in the building — effectively reduce the number of affordable housing units in the city. And that leaves fewer options for Adams, 55, who has been living on Social Security benefits since the 1980s because of a learning disability.
Adams says he’d love to return one day to what he’s sure will be nicer digs, but he doubts he’ll be back after the 246-unit building is turned into 80 to 90 larger apartments. Competition will be stiff for the 20 to 30 percent of affordable units that developers are promising after the overhaul. And he wonders how they’ll define affordable.
“Oh, I’m quite sure I won’t (return) because it will cost at least $1,000, I’m hearing, or maybe $800,” said Adams, who’s not far off the mark. “That’s more than I get in a month.”
Before the Wilson Men’s Hotel was sold, Jeff Bone, an architect who works on affordable housing projects, was among those who toured the building. The lobby seemed to have been maintained enough that it still had some original details, but the residential floors were dimly lit and packed in more units per floor than developers do in new structures.
“We talked to a few residents,” he said. “Some were thankful to have the place and had been there for a long time. Even though they admitted the conditions were a little rough, in their minds they thought, ‘Hey, it’s better than being on the street.’ ”
SROs in Chicago in the late 19th century were the first home for newcomers to the city who were here as seasonal workers. As many as 40,000 to 60,000 people once called the SROs home during the winter months, according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago. Madison Street east of Halsted Street was one of the stretches with a cluster of SROs.
By 1950, the buildings had a more notorious reputation for people with drug-related problems, though many people who were living there were working poor. And with a reinvigorated economy after World War II, the city didn’t have a need for the inexpensive housing like it did decades before, said Charles Hoch, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
But in the 1980s, the perception of SROs as a kind of slum evolved into a solution for an increasing homeless population amid changes in the economy, Hoch said. And by the 1990s, a movement was formed to preserve the buildings.
The Wilson Men’s Hotel, which opened in the 1920s, was built to serve as inexpensive housing with wire ceilings to allow air to circulate because most of the rooms were without windows, Hoch said. It hasn’t been without its own set of problems. In 1995, two men died during a heat wave. And it’s failed nearly three dozen city inspections since 2001, according to the city’s website.
When the building was first put up for sale by former owner Jay Bomberg, the Interfaith Housing Development Corporation, a Chicago-based nonprofit, was one of the groups interested in buying the hotel before it was sold to City Pads. The corporation wanted to renovate and maintain about 120 units, said Perry Vietti, the president of the corporation. But Vietti was surprised to learn that for-profit developers were willing to pay above the $3 million price tag.
“In my world, I can’t pay you the money,” he said. “I have to go raise (it) through tax credits and other funding for what we do. I’m not like a for-profit that can just get a loan from the bank. I needed six to eight months. (The owner) did not like the time requirements; he slashed those every time. He just didn’t want to wait.”
In July, City Pads LLC purchased the hotel. Andrew Ahitow, a managing principal at City Pads, said in an email that 20 to 30 percent of the units — or 16 to 27 — will be maintained as affordable housing. Monthly rent will range from $800 to $1,300, he said. The renovations, which will leave the building with less than half of the roughly 250 units now there, are slated to begin in the fall and could take a year.
As the city saw a decrease of SROs from 113 in 2008 to 86 in 2013, the City Council in 2014 passed an ordinance aimed at preserving, at least in the short term, SROs.
New rules required SRO owners looking to sell to give first dibs to buyers planning to maintain the building as an SRO for at least 15 years. That meant negotiating in good faith with interested parties for at least 180 days. If a deal is not struck, the owner has 120 days to sell the property to anyone. The owner also can cut down the time frame by paying to the city’s SRO preservation fund $20,000 for each unit in the building.
But even with the ordinance, the number of SROs has continued to dwindle. On the South and Far South sides, there are only a handful of SROs south of 55th Street, according to the city’s data portal. About 16 percent are on the West and Near West sides.
The Near North Side community area has kept five SROs during a decade-long period, and it is now the area with the second most SROs behind Uptown. Renovations at one SRO within the community area, the Carling, are nearly complete. Originally built in 1927 as a 155-unit hotel, it underwent a gut job. Each unit will now have its own kitchenette and bathroom, meaning the number of units was reduced to 80.
Bone, a principal architect at the firm Landon Bone Baker Architects working on the Carling, said historic details like the original closet doors, arches and a wooden staircase were preserved.
The funding to complete the project was complicated. The city acquired the Carling for $10 million and then transferred it to Michaels Development Co., for $3.8 million. Greg Olson, from Michaels Development, said some of the sources of funding came from a variety of tax credits. Because the building was placed in the National Register of Historic Places, it meant developers could also get a tax credit.
Residents in 75 of the units will pay 30 percent of their income for monthly rent and they will be required to make less than 60 percent of the area median income, Olson said. And like updated SROs, a part-time social service coordinator will work out of the Carling, Olson said.
In total, there are 66 licensed SROs citywide and nine of those remained in Uptown community area as of January, according to the city’s data portal. That doesn’t include the Wilson Men’s Hotel, and Ahitow said City Pads was working with the city to renew its license.
Back at the Wilson Men’s Hotel, about a dozen men have found new housing, but Adams is among the 120 tenants still at the hotel as of early January, according to City Pads.
In late December, Adams began applying online for a spot at a federally subsidized apartment that would mean his rent would be a set percentage of his monthly income. That could mean he’ll move to the Far North Side, something he’s considering because he knows someone living in a building with affordable units. But he wouldn’t pass up a chance to move back to the Wilson Men’s Hotel if he could afford it.
“The (added) space, I would have my own kitchen and bath,” he said with a laugh as he considered how the hotel will change. “It’s impossible to pass up really.”
Another resident, Eric Holmes, formed a tenants association for the men who remain. While Holmes has a steady stream of income from his job at a cafe, he wants to make sure none of his fellow residents end up on the street.
“If you get them decent housing in an area that they are OK with, then we don’t have a problem,” Holmes said at a coffee shop on Wilson. “That’s basically what we are fighting for, to make sure every gentleman in there has housing.”
Holmes likes the hotel’s convenient proximity to the lake and public transit, but the deteriorating conditions have him questioning how much longer the men will live there.
“I’m under the impression (the new owner is) just trying to make it as uncomfortable as possible,” Holmes said.
The declining number of SROs is something Eric Rubenstein, executive director of the Single-Room Housing Assistance Corporation, has been tracking. He said SRO owners need more financial help to stay in business. An increase in taxes, utilities and an increased minimum wage is putting a strain on owners, Rubenstein said.
“When you put it all together, it makes it very difficult to operate,” he said. “That’s why so many are selling their properties.”