Chicago Sun-Times, Mark Brown: Under the wire in Uptown – the Wilson men’s cubicle hotel is for sale

Editor’s Note: Chicago Coalition for the Homeless worked to stop a fast-tracked 2013 city ordinance that would have closed the city’s last two cubicle hotels. CCH also assisted men living in another cubicle hotel, the New Ritz, when the city closed it with little notice in 2006 – both issues covered by Mark Brown.

By Mark Brown, columnist

Duane Rajkowski, 67, is a resident and manager at the Wilson Men's Hotel, which is up for sale. The Uptown facility is one of the city's last two "cubicle hotels," unique for their room ceilings made of wire fencing. Mark Brown / Sun-Times
Duane Rajkowski, 67, is a resident and manager at the Wilson Men’s Hotel, which is up for sale. The Uptown facility is one of the city’s last two “cubicle hotels,” unique for their room ceilings made of wire fencing. Mark Brown / Sun-Times

Just three years after Chicago’s last two “cubicle hotels” survived an aldermanic push to close them down, one of them is up for sale and again facing an uncertain future.

The Wilson Men’s Hotel, at 1124 W. Wilson in Uptown, notified the city in November of its search for a buyer.

The notice triggered renewed concerns about what will happen to the bedraggled hotel’s 180 residents, who rely on it for some of the lowest unsubsidized rents on the North Side and for its permissive admission policy.

Happily, what the notice didn’t trigger is the panic and other drama that had become the norm at similar residential buildings before the city’s SRO Preservation Ordinance took effect last year.

Instead of aggressively pushing out residents in preparation for a sale to market-rate developers, owner Jay Bomberg has been accepting new tenants and promising to try to find a buyer who will preserve the Wilson Men’s Hotel for low-income housing. Bomberg says he’s conducting “business as usual.”

Meanwhile, Ald. James Cappleman (46th), one of the prime movers behind a 2013 effort to shutter the cubicle hotels, has told residents he supports efforts to keep the facility affordable.

Under the SRO ordinance, affordable housing developers are given a six-month window to try to purchase any single-room occupancy building before it goes on the market. Residents displaced by an eventual sale can be eligible for $2,000 relocation payments, a further disincentive to a market-rate buyer.

But the outcome is still far from certain. Which is why the community group ONE Northside has been organizing tenants in preparation for whatever comes next.

Maurice Shaw, 60, has lived at the Wilson Men’s Hotel for 16 years, supporting himself doing odd jobs for a contractor friend.

Shaw, a graduate of Lakeview High School with a sociology degree from the University of Hawaii-Hilo, said he wants to make sure that “when all is said and done,” he and his fellow tenants have a place to live.

“Rent is so high around here now,” Shaw said. “Where will they find a residence?”

It’s those sorts of concerns that led the City Council to enact the SRO ordinance, which is designed to at least slow some of the displacement that had been occurring.

Cubicle hotels are a unique subset of the single-room occupancy world. Their defining characteristic: tiny cubicle-style rooms with walls topped by wire fencing in place of a ceiling.

The fencing allows for ventilation, fire safety and a semblance of security but also is the reason Cappleman and others have described the rooms as “cages.” Noise and cigarette smoke travels unrestrained.

“It’s not the Ritz, but it’s been that way for 80-plus years,” Bomberg said.

True. I just don’t want to see it become the New Ritz, a cubicle hotel in the South Loop that was shuttered and evacuated in emergency fashion by the Daley administration to make way for luxury condos.

David Hoover, 68, said he landed at the Wilson not long after moving here from Kansas and taking a job as a cook. That was 38 years ago.

Why does he stay there: “Because it’s cheap.”

Rooms rent from $85 to $95 a week. There’s also a monthly rate — $300, scheduled to increase to $320 on March 1 — for longer-tenured tenants like Shaw and Hoover.

The hotel is also very convenient, located next to the Wilson Avenue L stop, within walking distance of Uptown’s many social service agencies.

Except for a policy against renting to sex offenders, the Wilson’s only rental requirements are that you have to have a state ID and a source of income.

Most of the residents are on Social Security, SSI or SSDI, said Daniel Meloy, a case manager with Inspiration Corp. who tries to help the men move forward in their lives.

“I worry about what would happen if this place shuts down,” Meloy said.

Bomberg said that’s not an immediate concern and that it’s still possible the building will be sold to a buyer who would continue to operate it as a cubicle hotel.

“I’ve talked to people who have been interested in keeping it exactly the same way,” Bomberg said.

Exactly the same way might be a problem. I’m pretty sure everyone involved from the tenants to the alderman would like to see somebody invest in improvements.

The CTA is pouring $203 million next door into its Wilson Station reconstruction project — a major investment that has the potential to transform the neighborhood.

It has long been suspected that the CTA project would serve as an impetus to get rid of the hotel entirely. But there’s now some hope the city’s new emphasis on transit-oriented development could free up a subsidy for the hotel rehab.

Hoover might not stick around long enough to find out. He said he’s thinking of finally moving on and finding a subsidized apartment for seniors.

For those who will come next, Hoover recommends not staying as long as he did.

“It’s not really healthy,” he said.

Yet he’s still alive.