Chicago Sun-Times, Mark Brown: Hard work of many led to single room occupancy ordinance

By Mark Brown, columnist

Just two years ago, a group of Chicago community activists weren’t sure they could find a single alderman to champion the cause of saving the city’s disappearing stock of single-room occupancy housing.

With SROs more often viewed as problem buildings than a precious last chance affordable housing option for the poor, aldermen were less likely to want to save SROs in their wards than to actively get rid of them.

Even a year ago when those same activists started talking about using the 2015 city elections to force the issue, I thought to myself: fat chance.

But at Wednesday’s City Council meeting, one alderman after another took the microphone to praise the city’s new SRO preservation ordinance amid a general recognition that these properties are vital assets of a diverse city.

It took hundreds of hours of work by those activists, several thousand people losing their homes and one Chicago mayor in need of a little love to cause that rather remarkable turnaround.

The first step, though, was recognizing the problem, which fell to a group of North Side organizations that found themselves on the frontlines of an unfolding social disaster.

SRO buildings were being bought up and converted by real estate developers who spotted a niche opportunity in the market. They could take these unusual properties with undersized rooms, fix them up and lease them at higher rents to a younger, more upscale clientele.

The problem was that the existing SRO tenants — most of them poor, disabled, elderly or a combination thereof — were left with fewer and fewer options of places to live in the city.

Often thrown out of their longtime homes on short notice with no compensation and few legal niceties, the tenants were set adrift into an already overburdened social service network. Some landed in homeless shelters or on the streets.

Mary Tarullo, an organizer with ONE Northside, recalls getting just 13 hours notice on the closing of Sheffield House, one of the first of the SRO dominoes to fall.

ONE Northside, formed by the merger of the Lakeview Action Council and Organization of the Northeast, became the lead group in the SRO preservation effort along with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Shriver National Center on Poverty Law and numerous other organizations.

Tarullo said activists had seen the problem developing as early as 2011 and started trying to develop an ordinance.

But the pace of the closures suddenly accelerated to the point the community groups were forced to devote all their energies to helping the displaced tenants — organizing them to go to court and fight for their rights.

They also started educating Chicago journalists to the crisis under our noses, and some of us in turn started putting the issue in front of the public.

When shifts in the real estate market caused a pause in the SRO closures, the community groups decided it was time to go on the offensive and enlisted Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) and Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) to sponsor an ordinance.

The aldermen were on the verge of introducing that ordinance to the City Council in the spring when the activists received a most surprising invitation.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel had heard about their efforts and invited them to City Hall to talk about how he might help.

Whether it was from a soft spot in his heart or a soft spot in his polling numbers, I’d guess a little of both, Emanuel became the champion of the effort to save SROs.

“That was a pivotal moment for us,” Tarullo said Wednesday of that meeting with the mayor as organizers basked in the glow of a 47-2 affirmative Council vote.

The next pivotal moment came this summer when Emanuel decided to impose a six-month moratorium on SRO closures or conversions while negotiations with building owners and developers played out.

“It was just a real signal to us that they were serious about this,” said Tarullo, who figured the mayor wouldn’t want to have the moratorium pass without something to show for it.

The ordinance isn’t everything the activists wanted, and it isn’t everything the property owners feared. And it looks to me like it could make a difference.

It imposes financial disincentives on SRO owners who want to convert their buildings to market rate housing and effectively forces them to negotiate first with developers of affordable housing.

“We were grateful for the mayor’s help,” said Adelaide Meyers, who got involved with the issue after being displaced from the Norman Hotel. “When the mayor got involved, it really took off.”

Ed Shurna, executive director of the Chicago Coalition of the Homeless, also praised Emanuel but emphasized this won’t solve the city’s larger affordable housing crisis.

No, but it’s an important step in the right direction.