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Single-room housing: Can not-for-profit developers turn the tide?



It seems the most unlikely of combinations: single-room-occupancy hotels, those holding pens for the John Hinckleys and Travis Bickles of the world, and not-for-profit organizations, those bastions of goody-goodyism. Yet such a combination has emerged on the north side, and it may represent a new direction for Chicago in the provision of low-income housing.

Acting Mayor Eugene Sawyer and others christened the Harold Washington SRO Apartments in April. The 70-unit building at Sheridan and Argyle, formerly the Moreland Hotel, marks a local first. The building will be renovated by the Lakefront SRO Corporation, a Chicago not-for-profit corporation that executive director Jean Butzen claims is "the only group doing exclusively SRO housing."

"This is an important step in providing affordable housing for low-income people," said Sawyer at the project's dedication. But can its example turn a long-rising tide that threatens to eradicate the city's SRO housing?

What is single-room housing? It's what the name implies--one room with Spartan furnishings, usually with a shared-bath. The typical SRO room may or may not have a sink, refrigerator, or stove. These rooms are found in multiunit, multistory buildings that usually have commercial establishments at street level.

Housing for one has been with us as long as the city, answering the demand of railroad laborers and other transient workers, of immigrants saving to bring their families to America. "Prior to the 1890s, most single men lived in boardinghouses. But boardinghouses were seen as paternalistic. People wanted a sense of freedom. It was at this time that most SRO hotels emerged," commented Bob Slayton, Chicago author of a forthcoming book on single-room-occupancy housing.

"At the turn of the century, there was a massive traveling population," he added. "Workers, for the most part, were based out of cities. Railroad workers and others came to Chicago, in part because we had the biggest SRO community, plus the goods and services that these people needed."

Entire SRO communities sprang up, most of them on the outskirts of the Loop. A more middle-class rooming house neighborhood existed in the Grand and Clark area. Working-class residences could be found north of the Loop up to North Avenue, on the south side along State and Clark streets, and slightly farther away in the Milwaukee-Ashland-Division and Pilsen areas. The largest concentration was on the near west side, in an area known as the "main stem," between Randolph and Van Buren, Halsted and the river.

Conditions changed. The immigrants originally satisfied with cheap rooms could now afford to marry or bring over their families. They wanted apartments. The demand for single-room housing started to decline in the 1930s.

Although the end of World War II saw a boomlet for single-room housing, that demand was met by the conversion of apartments to rooming houses. And by 1950, the returned veterans and new immigrants were moving on to family housing. Working men left the Workingman's Hotel and other near-west-side residences. As they left, the percentage of alcoholics and deviants increased, and the stem became skid row.

Political attitudes also hastened the demise of SROs, according to Eric Rubenstein, president of the Single Room Operators Association, whose members operate 90 percent of the SROs in the city. "Richard Daley was a family man, and he must have considered SROs to be evil. In any case, the city went after many SRO owners. It wasn't fair to the residents, since the majority were low-income workers, pensioners, and welfare recipients," said Rubenstein.

A public aid change further hurt many residents in 1980. General assistance--the basic allotment for welfare recipients--was cut from $200 to $144 a month. "Tens of thousands of persons no longer had the means to live in SRO or any other kind of housing," said Rubenstein.

The buildings themselves often were handicapped by locations that were increasingly favorable to upscale housing. One example is the old Central YMCA at Ninth and Wabash, the city's largest SRO building when it was closed in 1979. The Y was rehabbed into something called Burnham-Park Plaza, and now rents out apartments at up to $2,500 per month.

Likewise, skid row vanished under the bulldozers in the early 1980s. More than 3,000 residential units were destroyed, according to a 1987 Tribune story. In place of the old Star and Major hotels Presidential Towers now stands, another development with four-figure monthly rents.

Other conditions threatened the survival of SROs. Loans from financial institutions dried up. And, said Rubenstein, "the media also did a disservice. Instead of trying to find decent SROs, they looked for those with drunks and bums."

In the middle 1980s, attitudes toward single-room housing began to change. A 1985 study by the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs showed that half of Chicago's SRO tenants were employed and half went to church regularly. Despite the stereotype of the SRO resident as a drifter, 29 percent of those surveyed had lived at their present abodes four years or more. People became more willing to grant SRO housing its place.

"There's an extreme shortage of low-income housing for single people," said Alan Goldberg, a community consultant for the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs. "They can't live in CHA housing. There are only SROs or rooming houses--or the streets."

At the time of the JCUA study, Douglas Dobmeyer was affiliated with a group running emergency shelters on the north side. Dobmeyer discovered that many of the shelters' guests were former SRO residents. He, Jean Butzen, and others combined to establish the Lakefront SRO Corporation, whose mission would be to preserve SRO housing in Uptown, Edgewater, and Lakeview, where 36 percent of the city's remaining SRO stock is located.

The fledgling group quickly found its first project. The venerable Moreland Hotel, a once-proud building about to be condemned by housing court, was up for sale. "We bought the building from a guy who got it for taxes at a scavenger sale," Butzen said. Lakefront SRO worked with a local activist group called Voice of the People, which managed the building from 1985 until 1987.

"We received no opposition to the Harold Washington project, in part due to how we handled it," said Butzen. "We had a community board, composed of people who live and work here. And we went to the alderman early on and detailed our plans."

The remodeling, which is about to begin and will take nine months, is being financed by a mix of public and private money. When it's done, the Harold Washington SRO will have 56 shared-bathroom apartments, and 10 studios and 4 one-bedrooms with private baths. On the ground floor there is room for nine businesses. Butzen says seven of the storefronts have already been taken by "everything from a Vietnamese restaurant to a hair stylist to a kosher butcher."

The Harold Washington Apartments have something not available at most SRO buildings--a resident social worker. Sister Patricia Schlosser "provides not just social work but socialization," according to Dobmeyer. "She takes residents on outings to movies or ball games--things that families and friends do."

Lakefront SRO's example has created interest among other not-for-profits in the management of single-room housing. Butzen says that an unidentified church group is seeking to rehab a former YMCA building at 36th and Wabash. Latin United Community Housing Association (LUCHA) in Humboldt Park is looking for possible single-room properties in that area.

At the Washington Apartments dedication, Mayor Sawyer announced plans for a "low-income-housing trust fund." This fund, to be created by legislation that will be introduced in City Council once the mayor nominates a 15-member board, is to be capitalized with some $4 million the developers of Presidential Towers were made to put up before they could clear the area for their four high rises.

While many applaud the initiative, few believe that a trust fund by itself will ease the SRO crisis. Alan Goldberg of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs said, "Sawyer's trust fund for low-income housing is a good idea. But little, clever mechanisms like this will never take the place of a federal commitment to housing that was abandoned by the Reagan administration."

The future does not look especially promising to champions of SROs. Lakefront SRO Corporation was interested in buying and remodeling the Stuart Plaza Apartments, a building on North Winthrop with a reputation as a neighborhood trouble spot. Lakefront backed off when the community refused to get behind the project. "People haven't seen the outcome of the Moreland [Washington] experiment," explained Jack Markowski, executive director of the Edgewater Community Council. "There's a question of how the management of that building will work out. Maybe in a year or year and a half, we'll get back to them."

Alderman Kathy Osterman, whom SRO groups describe as very helpful to the Harold Washington project, is hedging her bets. "Let's see how this one works out. Let's not have all of [the SROs] in one area," she said.

Goldberg acknowledges the possibility of "bad egg" tenants, but he thinks Lakefront is capable of heading them off. "In the nonprofit sector, if anything, there's a harder management than in the private sector. Lakefront SRO has already proven itself to be a hard manager."

Eric Rubenstein sees reason to hope that single-room-occupancy buildings can hold their own. Refusing to take no for an answer, he finally began to convince bankers in the mid-80s that SROs were not necessarily rat holes for their money. With their investments, he has been fixing up his buildings. "Pretty soon, people began talking that SROs were maybe not that bad. The units became something they could identify with, like college dorms or fraternity houses."

Not everyone is so optimistic. "The SROs are for many the only alternative to homelessness or shelters," Jean Butzen said. "Destruction of them has become a major source of homelessness. But in the last 25 years, 60 percent of the city's SRO stock has been destroyed or gentrified. At that rate, it will all be gone by 1995."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.

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