Chicago Sun-Times, Mark Brown: Future of affordable housing unclear after SRO tenant deals

By Mark Brown, columnist

In a bid to preserve his home in Logan Square’s bug-infested Milshire Hotel, Fred Bartels testified before the City Council just last month in favor of a city moratorium on converting or demolishing single-room occupancy and residential hotels.

On Friday, Bartels was making plans for what he could do with the $4,000 he will receive in exchange for moving out of the Milshire by Sept. 2 as part of a settlement between tenants and the building owner.

“We’re talking about getting out of Dodge,” said Bartels, explaining that he and one of his neighbors have discussed “buying a vehicle and going cross country.”

The settlement that will pay Bartels his small grubstake is one of two reached separately in recent weeks between SRO residents and owners to settle lawsuits brought by tenants unions responding to redevelopment efforts.

In both cases, the settlements were embraced as good deals by tenants happy to accept the cash and move on with their lives instead of clinging to substandard dwellings where they weren’t wanted.

But the outcome is more ambiguous for the larger cause of preserving Chicago’s dwindling supply of affordable housing, which both buildings represented.

As I’ve been writing for the last couple years now, these SRO buildings are fast disappearing across the city, leaving few options for the people who used to live there.

In the case of the Rosemoor Hotel, 1622 .W. Jackson, owner Joe Perillo said he will now move ahead rapidly with his plans to turn the former “flophouse” into a more upscale extended-stay Hotel Chicago catering to medical school students and others needing easy access to the city’s near West Side hospitals.

Perillo said his building will offer “affordable” rents, just not by the standards of most of the low-income residents who used to live there.

Taking care of homeless people is up to the government, not private developers like him, the luxury car dealer told me, and I can’t argue the point, but the end result is still more homeless people.

In the case of the Milshire, 2525 N. Milwaukee, the city’s six-month moratorium will temporarily block what had been expected to be an effort by a new buyer to take the property upscale.

Community groups such as the Logan Square Neighborhood Association remain hopeful a non-profit developer can be found in the interim to step in and keep the rents within reach of the building’s current clientele.

Once the Milshire is vacated, though, that may prove more difficult. I wouldn’t expect much to happen either way until for-profit developers see the shape of whatever SRO preservation ordinance Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago aldermen put together.

The Rosemoor and Milshire hotels are examples of a new strategy by the Lawyers Committee for Better Housing to pro-actively organize SRO tenants to strengthen their legal position when new owners take over with plans to kick them out.

Instead of sitting back and waiting for the usual eviction gamesmanship, individuals living at the Rosemoor and Milshire formed tenant unions and took the building owners to court, alleging retaliatory tactics at the Rosemoor and unsafe living conditions at the Milshire.

Everyone usually starts out hoping the buildings will be fixed up. In the end, however, tenants at both hotels agreed to go away for the cash and a dismissal of claims.

Because of a confidentiality agreement, details of the Rosemoor settlement were not disclosed but apparently were similar to the Milshire deal.

“I’m very comfortable and very satisfied,” said Kerry Carter, a 50-year-old hospital worker who had lived at the Rosemoor four years before moving to a Washington Park apartment two weeks ago. He said the standoff with the hotel’s owners “was wearing thin on everybody,” prompting the tenants to take the deal.

Rosemoor resident Wesley Maxey, who I have encountered at two SRO closings and lost his home at a third, now lives in CHA senior housing and said he’s taking life “day by day.”

“That’s the only thing you can do in this world,” said Maxey, who added his settlement money goes into an account overseen by a family member.

I tried to gently suggest to Bartels over at the Milshire that using his $4,000 for a down payment on housing might be a better approach than a road trip, but the 53-year-old Jefferson Park native wasn’t ready to have his dreams dashed so fast.

“We’re both getting old,” he said of his would-be traveling companion, suggesting they might be able to find “a little job here and there” to make the money stretch.

I wish Bartels well with whatever decision he makes. I’d just hate to find him living under one of these highway viaducts a year from now.