Pam Gore has got to be the most unlikely low-rent hotel operator in Chicago. She stands all of four feet 11 inches and might weigh 100 pounds. By her own definition she's a middle-class suburban housewife.
Yet she oversees a mini-empire of low-rent motels and single-room- occupancy hotels: the Cedar, the Abbott, the Diplomat, the Lincoln, the Rio, and the Admiral Oasis Motel, which is in Morton Grove. You might call some of them flophouses, but Gore would give you an earful if you did. "They're not flophouses. They're decent places for people who don't have a lot of money but need a place to live. We provide a much-needed service."
They are also, she says, an endangered species, victims of rising taxes, gentrification, and well-intended but misguided tenants-rights legislation. "You hear so much about how sleazy these places are. I think the time has come for me to tell the hotel operators' side of the story. You have no idea of what we're up against. I don't want to sound corny, but what happens to my tenants if I go under? We need places like the Abbott and even the Diplomat. But we're getting forced out of business."
She was born in 1951, the second of three kids in a middle-class Rogers Park family. "My father was a hardworking west-sider who came from a family of nine sisters. He wanted to be a lawyer but he had to work to support the family. He never went to college. He sold tires. Then he bought a gas station at Western and Monroe."
Later her father started buying properties, concentrating on low-rent hotels. He belonged to a circle of inner-city landlords, some of whom were pretty shady. But he was different, his daughter recalls. "He wasn't like a lot of those guys. He was warmhearted. He took care of people. He'd buy a car for $200 and sell it for $400. That looks like a big markup, but it's really not. His friends would yell at him and say, 'Mark it up more.' His attitude was, I'd rather sell 50 cars than 20."
By her senior year at Mather High School, Gore was a hippie, rebelling against everything her father represented. "I told him I was rejecting everything in his material world. And he said, 'Pam, your car. That's as material as you can get. I think I'll take the keys.' And I said, 'My car! You can't take that away!'
"Years later I apologized to him for all the grief I had caused. And he said, 'Stop apologizing. I only hope that your children do to you everything that you did to me.'"
For most of the 70s and early 80s she was a suburban housewife. But around 1985 her father's heart weakened, and his doctor demanded that he stop driving. He asked Pam if she would be his chauffeur. "I'd take him to his hotels, but he wouldn't want me to come in. He didn't think I could take it."
And for good reason. The Diplomat, at 3208 N. Sheffield, had become a notorious hangout for drug dealers, junkies, gang-bangers, prostitutes, and pimps. The Abbott, at 721 W. Belmont, was one of New Town's leading hot spots for one-night stands. "You could get a blow job in the lobby," says Ray Bell, manager of the Abbott. "Well, maybe not always. But definitely in the stairwell."
In 1986 Pam's father died. Her brother, who was running the hotels, asked if she wanted to manage some of them on a full-time basis. "I wanted to clean the buildings up--there's no excuse for that kind of sleaze," she says. "I don't care about whether people are gay or straight. That's their business. But gay or straight, I don't want them doing it in my lobby."
Bell remembers thinking that Gore was a spoiled brat. "I figured this is daddy's girl. What does she know about anything?"
But Gore made changes, starting with the Abbott. She had the place painted and cleaned, and the rooms outfitted with new carpeting and linens. "There's no reason hotels like this have to be depressing," she says. "Some of these guys who stay here are all alone--they're on the brink as it is. And then they come into a dark room with one light, and the paint's peeling, and the window's grimy. I can understand why they might commit suicide."
She wasn't so successful at the Diplomat, which she acknowledges is a "zoo," a constant source of complaints from residents and the police. Over the years the surrounding neighborhood has been transformed by an influx of wealthier residents and upscale businesses. But the Diplomat remains unchanged.
"I admit it--I can't control the Diplomat," she says. "It's wearing me down. There's just something about it. I don't go out into the street and say, 'If you're a drug dealer, come and stay at the Diplomat.' It just seems to attract rough characters. I know a lot of the neighbors would like to see it torn down. OK, fine. But where you gonna put the people? I don't know the solutions. I'm trying to sell the place myself."
She may also have to sell the Cedar because of rising property taxes. "When a neighborhood gentrifies, your property taxes go through the ceiling, no matter what kind of hotel you run. I pay about $80,000 a year in taxes at the Cedar. It's the same for me as it is for the upscale housing. Doesn't make any sense."
Generally SRO operators make money by minimizing expenses. The most notorious ones go on collecting rents while their buildings deteriorate. Gore insists she maintains her properties. "This is not a big money-making business. The margin of profit is very small. It takes about $26,000 a month to break even on one of these hotels. If I'm lucky I'll do $32,000 a month. You have to keep rents low, or else what's the point? I'll charge 30 bucks a night. For that you get a 10-by-15 room, a television set, and daily maid service. It's clean. You fall behind on rent, I'm not gonna evict you--at least not if you're honest. We'll work something out. Times are hard. I understand."
Most of her tenants are law-abiding residents. Some are good people down on their luck--a guy whose marriage just broke up, a woman trying to escape an abusive husband. "Some of the stories are so sad. We had a young man die of an overdose. He went to throw up in the toilet, and he died on his own vomit. Then the family came, and you had to console them. It breaks your heart.
"We had another man, Paul. A wonderful 80-year-old gay man who lived at the Diplomat for years. As he got older, Paul lost control of his body. He had this young guy who moved in and started stealing his social-security checks. He was supposed to take care of Paul, but he just let him live in his filth and feces. It was disgusting. We called the city, we called the state, we called social-service agencies. Finally Ray wrote a letter to Mayor Daley, and that's when the city moved Paul to a different hotel. He died recently. So sad."
Aside from taxes, her biggest headache comes from troublesome tenants. "In my hippie days I fought for the rights of the needy. Now I realize the help doesn't go to the needy. It goes to the scum.
"I had this one couple living here not paying rent--they owe me $1,000. I went and found a hot plate and electric frying pan in their room. That's against city code. I took the hot plate, and this tenant filed suit saying I beat her and stole some of her tapes. I had to hire a lawyer, which required a $500 retainer. The lawyer calls me up and says I can settle the case by paying her $2,000. I said I'd rather spend $10,000 on legal fees than give her a penny. I didn't do anything."
Gore says she is now involved in five tenant-related lawsuits. "I got this other guy at the Diplomat. He owes me $900. I knocked on the room next to his, and he comes at me with a hammer. He said, 'Get the fuck out of here or I'll kill you.' It was 2:30 in the afternoon, and I woke him up. Excuse me."
Gore pressed charges, and the case is working its way through the courts. Meanwhile the tenant remains in her hotel and doesn't pay rent. "To evict someone for not paying rent can take four months," says Bell. "You have to file a notice with the court. You have to wait for a trial. If you win, you have to wait for the sheriff to complete the eviction. And these days the sheriff is pretty busy."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.