Chicago Sun-Times, Mark Brown: Closing single room occupany hotel Ald. Cappleman’s plan to ‘help’ the poor

By Mark Brown, columnist

Brenda Smith’s parents brought her to Chicago from Tennessee when she was a youngster.

Her mom soon abandoned the family, leaving her with an alcoholic father. The way Smith remembers it, when the police finally came to take away her and her siblings, her father was drunk in bed and never got up.

Life never got much better from there, a childhood diagnosis of Smith being educably mentally handicapped not helping matters.

On Tuesday, I met Smith, now 64, in the snow outside the Chateau Hotel, 3838 N. Broadway, a troubled single room occupancy residence in Lakeview that is just the latest of many such places that Smith has called home between periods of homelessness.

Now Ald. James Cappleman (46th) is working to close the Chateau in cooperation with a new owner who is intent on vacating the building and rehabbing it into more upscale housing.

Later Tuesday, the hotel’s tenants received a bit of a reprieve when city inspectors informed Cook County Judge William Pileggi in Housing Court that the Chateau is safe enough to inhabit.

Until then, they were worried Pileggi would order the building vacated immediately for building code violations. Now the new owner will have to go through the process of evicting each of them individually, which has already started.

Still, Pileggi made it sound like only a matter of time, even though a community group, the Lakeview Action Coalition, has organized the tenants in an effort to force Cappleman to keep the building affordable.

Cappleman’s concerns about the Chateau are easier to understand than some of the other matters on which I have been dogging him this past week.

The Chateau is a problem building, no doubt about it, a fact nobody understands better than the residents themselves.

They can tell you about the bugs and vermin, falling plaster, garbage chutes that don’t work, substandard electrical, lack of hot water, drug dealing and drug use, and the unresponsive landlord who ignored it all while collecting the rent.

Many of the residents have mental health issues — some of them wearing it on their sleeves and others more subtly.

Yet this is the best place each could find to live, given their individual circumstances — whether it be lack of income, poor credit, a prior eviction or a criminal background.

So here again we have Cappleman taking action that makes perfect sense from the viewpoint of “cleaning up the neighborhood” and improving quality of life and property values for those who blame the Chateau’s residents for crime on the block (which I should note requires painting with a broad brush.)

But instead of owning up to that being his motivation, Cappleman has cast this as a matter of his concern for the safety of the Chateau’s tenants: the old nobody-should-have-to-live-like-that argument. And, as with the Wilson Men’s Hotel, Cappleman insists all the Chateau’s tenants will be able to find housing if they just work with the appropriate city agencies.

All the while, he has stonewalled the groups who tried to get him to work with them to keep people like Brenda Smith in the building.

Smith, for one, says she has no idea where she will go.

“I don’t want to be homeless,” she says. “I’ve been through that.”

There is a dwindling supply of these SROs, dramatically so on the North Side where the economics of the real estate market have suddenly made SROs a hot commodity for rehabbers who want to turn them into small apartments.

Four SROs have been shut down in Lakeview alone in the past two years.

Smith ticks off the names of several in which she has stayed: the Ambers, Sheffield House, the Abbott.

Closing the six-story, 138-room Chateau will make a total of 700 SRO units taken out of the low-income housing stock in the neighborhood in that time.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel is committed to ending homelessness in Chicago, we are told, and I have heard good things on the street about the work of his Department of Family and Support Services.

I asked the mayor’s office Tuesday how that plan to end homelessness squares with what Cappleman is doing.

“While we understand the alderman has specific concerns regarding the number of homeless in his ward we cannot abandon those who are most in need,” was the only part of the response that seemed on point.

We’ll have to wait to see what that means.