The four-story brick building tucked under the Stevenson Expressway at 3022 S. Archer is far from an ideal place to live. The hallways are narrow and dank, the rooms are small, stuffy, and mostly windowless. Each floor has two bathrooms, but some don't work.
And residents say that their fellow tenants are both the best and the worst thing about the building. This single-room occupancy hotel is a landing place for people with few other options: people with serious substance abuse issues and criminal records; people who have lost jobs or their health; people who struggle to make it from one day to the next.
They grate on each other's nerves and sometimes threaten and exploit each other, as residents describe it. They also watch out for each other, joke around, and help each other out.
"There's riffraff—I'm part of the riffraff," says Jamie Harding, 39. "But they're good people. We stick together."
Now residents are afraid their days here are numbered. The building is in foreclosure, and the management company running it has ordered them out by the end of the day Monday.
The city has made efforts to preserve a dwindling number of SROs, which provide affordable housing to people who have trouble finding other options. Efforts have included an ordinance that mandates owners give six months' notice when they want to sell, so the city can try to find a nonprofit developer to take over and preserve affordable housing.
A number of other SROs have been saved in this manner, including some in Logan Square, Near North, and Pilsen. But the fate of this building, in another gentrifying and trendy neighborhood, appears more precarious and complicated.
Many tenants refer to Jim Adkins, who still lives in the building, as the owner. Adkins headed companies that owned the building through a land trust starting in 1997. In 2013 foreclosure proceedings began and BMO Harris Bank, then later the company Monty Titling Trust 1 took over the mortgage.
Adkins declined to talk for this story. But on March 17, he sent tenants a letter, a copy of which was obtained by the Reader, saying, "This is to inform you that we have put the building you live in up for sale. . . . We will keep you informed of important developments. Your cooperation has made the building a good place to live. Thank you."
Last year a foreclosure court appointed John J. Fitzmaurice as the receiver responsible for managing the building, which he does through his company, JCF Real Estate. On March 29, Adkins and his company, JHA Associates, notified the city that the building is up for sale, as required under the city's SRO ordinance. The 12,500-square-foot building had previously been listed for $1.9 million. Today commercial real estate brokerage firm SVN's website lists it for $850,000, touting a "price reduction!"
The listing says the 40-room building "has loads of additional space, which makes it appealing for both affordable buyers and investors. . . . This ethnically diverse neighborhood is a happening commercial, entertainment, and arts destination."
On August 11, JCF sent tenants letters, also obtained by the Reader, saying they had to be out by August 31. On August 24 JCF sent another letter noting that the law requires 30 days' notice, and giving a new move-out date of September 12, 30 days from the date of the first letter.
Residents say a handful of potential buyers have come to look at the building. "But they walk in and they walk right out when they see the people here," says Raymond Miller, a 69-year-old Vietnam veteran who has lived in the building for 20 years. "They get scared so easily," says another tenant.
Residents think the management company wants them out so the building can be more easily renovated and marketed.
Mimi Simon, spokesperson for the Buildings Department, says that Fitzmaurice is on shaky legal ground in trying to evict the tenants. According to Simon, the city is moving the building into a housing court that deals with building code violations and "troubled buildings."
Fitzmaurice "has reported to the judge in the foreclosure case that he made repairs, but he has not obtained any permits for the alleged work completed," Simon says. "If this work is not up to code, the city will seek to have a receiver appointed out of the Housing Court to undertake the needed repairs."
In addition, Simon points out that JCF's two letters telling tenants to get out lack "any specific details of any particular tenant's breach of the lease," which she says is necessary for an eviction. (In fact, many tenants say they have never signed leases, but the law still requires they be given proper notification before an eviction.) JCF did not return calls for comment.
Simon adds that Fitzmaurice told the court he can't maintain the property, "despite the foreclosure judge authorizing payment of fees to Mr. Fitzmaurice in excess of $10,000 as recently as June." (As part of the foreclosure process, the receiver is granted money to keep up the property. The funds come from tenants' rent or from the entity carrying out the foreclosure, in this case Monty Titling Trust 1.)
Simon says that if Fitzmaurice wants to evict the tenants, he will have to convince an eviction judge that he has the right to do so. She notes city law requires that relocation assistance be paid to the tenants, and that Fitzmaurice "is either going to pay the relocation assistance or he is potentially attempting to avoid the law."
A few weeks ago, a tenant called the Metropolitan Tenants Organization hotline and asked for help avoiding eviction. Since then, the tenants' group, the Lawyers' Committee for Better Housing, and the nearby community group Pilsen Alliance have been in contact with city officials and have tried to organize tenants.
"What are we looking for?" asks MTO organizer Miguel Jimenez. "Relocation money, at least 90 days more, ideally a new buyer so they can stay."
Ramon Barnes, 58, moved to the building in January after he was referred by the mental health provider Thresholds following a ten-year prison term on gun and drug charges, he says.
Barnes, who has a gentle, quiet demeanor, says he grew up in the Robert Taylor Homes public housing project until his parents were killed in a car accident on the Skyway when he was nine years old. After that he was raised in foster homes; residents here, he says, have been like the family he never had. Barnes emphasizes that he always pays his rent promptly on the first of the month, and he is proud of how painstakingly neat and orderly he keeps his small room.
"I help elderly people here, I help clean the showers," he says. "I really don't want to move—I mean that from the bottom of my heart."
A number of residents here have criminal backgrounds that make it extremely difficult to find jobs or housing.
Like many SROs, the Archer building doesn't require credit or background checks and charges only a $100 security deposit. The 40 or so residents here pay $400 to $600 a month in rent. Many say they have been looking for new housing, with no luck. A number of the tenants grew up in Bridgeport when it was a more hardscrabble neighborhood. And most say they want to stay.
"I like Bridgeport because it's not just focused on one race—it's not all black, it's not all white, it's not all Chinese," says Henri Khodabakhsh, an Iranian immigrant who landed here after serving almost 12 years in prison.
"As for us," he says, "we're the black sheep of Bridgeport."
Khodabakhsh asks his neighbors in the first-floor hallway: "What's it like at 43rd and Emerald?"
"It's like a trailer park without the trailers," replies a middle-aged African-American man. "You'll fit right in. But I wouldn't go there."
Khodabakhsh says racial tensions rule out his relocating to neighborhoods farther south, where he used to live in a homeless shelter. "I would walk down the street and get called 50 names—white boy, cracker, fresh meat," he says.
Like many of the SRO tenants, Khodabakhsh works for minimum wage through temporary staffing agencies. In Iran he worked as a long-haul truck driver, with routes through Germany and the U.S.S.R., he says. But he fled the country in 1999 because, as a Catholic, he faced persecution from the government. Now, with his criminal background, he sees little hope of a better job, and prospective landlords don't want to rent to someone who does temp work.
"I did my time," Khodabakhsh says. "I thought prison was hard, but this society is even harder."
As previously reported by the Reader, last year residents of an SRO in nearby Pilsen, the Lugo Hotel, also faced eviction as the longtime owner was set to sell the building to a market-rate developer. Dawn Overstreet, the real estate agent repping the Archer building, was also showing the Lugo Hotel. (Overstreet didn't return a call seeking comment.)
The Pilsen Alliance began organizing the Lugo Hotel tenants, and ultimately the Resurrection Project, an affordable housing developer based in Pilsen, stepped in to buy the building. Resurrection Project CEO Raul Raymundo says residents' rent will remain the same and they will add supportive social services for residents.
"The SRO-type housing is a unique and necessary option for residents who otherwise cannot afford apartments," says Raymundo. "This was one of their only options given their limited income, their current situations."
Pilsen Alliance executive director Byron Sigcho says they are hoping for a similar outcome at the Archer SRO, but that the clock is ticking.
"A lot of people are nervous," he says. "If they leave it will be really hard for them to find housing. We're hoping we can set an example for these developers, so they will be more collaborative, and work with us to find solutions, not send eviction letters right away."
Kathy Born, 58, became the live-in manager of the Archer building after starting work as a housecleaner there seven years ago. She says she earned $300 a week, plus free rent, until JCF cut her pay to $150 and then stopped paying her. "They said they would pay me if I got people out, but I can't do that," she says.
Born was known for giving residents $20 in a pinch, or food or clothes if they looked hungry or ragged. On holidays she cooked and served turkey dinners in her small room, a table on the bed.
"It's amazing what you can cook in a microwave," she says.
She's still holding out hope that a new buyer will renovate the building but maintain affordable housing as well as her job.
"It's an old building, but it's pretty sturdy," she says with pride. "There's never going to be another building like this. And the deal is, I come with the building."
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the SRO's address in a photo caption. The correct address is 3022 S. Archer.