Chicago Sun-Times, Mark Brown: Proposed ordinance encourages building owners to preserve affordable housing

Editor’s Note: CCH is a partner on the SRO campaign led by ONE Northside

By Mark Brown, columnist

Tired of watching the city’s scarce supply of single room occupancy buildings and residential hotels dwindle away, somebody is finally stepping up to do something about it.

A coalition led by the community group ONE Northside has developed a proposed ordinance to encourage building owners to preserve the properties as affordable housing instead of converting them into more upscale apartments — which has been the trend.

The ordinance could be introduced as early as this week’s City Council meeting, although that may be delayed by late-breaking negotiations with Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration, which has shown interest in joining the effort.

At least 2,285 units of SRO housing in the city have been lost since 2011, says Mary Tarullo, an organizer with ONE Northside.

Gone are the Abbott, Ambers, Belair, Chateau, Julian, New Jackson, Rosemoor and Sheffield House, to name a few.

Their one-room units had been a refuge for the city’s working poor, disabled and elderly, particularly on the North Side, and their disappearance has left former residents with few options standing between them and the homeless shelters.

Indeed, many of those residents have moved from one doomed building to the next, rarely more than a half-step ahead of developers who have found a profitable niche in sprucing up the properties and doubling the rents.

The ordinance is intended to help people like Denice Williams, 52, who along with her husband, James, 61, a disabled Vietnam veteran, is one of the last 16 residents remaining at Lawrence House, 1020 W. Lawrence. The 12-story building is being emptied out in anticipation of an upscale makeover, just like the last place the Williams lived, the Magnolia, 4875 N. Magnolia.

In fact, in their 15 years of marriage, the couple has lived in five SRO’s, all of them now effectively closed to individuals in their income bracket.

Many displaced Lawrence House residents even moved to a building nearby on Sheridan Road that is said to be next on the hit list, Williams said.

“They don’t put anybody in stable places,” said Williams, who expects to finally escape this cycle with a housing voucher for which her husband qualified through the VA.

In my reporting on this issue over the past year, I have found the Williams’ experience to be the norm, not the exception.

Some 60 such at-risk SRO buildings remain in the city, accounting for more than 6,000 living units — each of them with no more than 250 square feet of floor space, 320 square feet if they have a kitchen.

“This stock of affordable housing has not been a priority of the city to preserve,” said Tarulllo of ONE Northside, which was formed from last year’s merger of the Lakeview Action Council and Organization of the Northeast, both serving neighborhoods on the frontlines of the SRO crisis.

The ordinance attempts to address the problem by requiring any owner of an SRO or residential hotel proposing to convert, demolish, sell or dispose of their building to obtain a special permit.

To qualify for the permit, they would have to commit to keep the building as affordable housing for 30 years or pay a fee into an SRO Improvement and Preservation Fund. The fee would be prohibitive: equal to 75 percent of the building’s replacement cost.

“That’s our starting point,” said Tarullo, aware the proposal may not sit well with current SRO owners who will see the limitations as a threat to their property values.

Even SRO owners who are committed to serving their current clientele are concerned the ordinance is overly punitive instead of offering financial incentives to keep them in business and allow them to improve their properties.

Aldermen Ameya Pawar (47th), Walter Burnett Jr. (27th), Will Burns (4th) and Pat Dowell (3rd) have tentatively signed on as lead sponsors of the ordinance.

Pawar, Burnett and ONE Northside are scheduled to meet Tuesday with the Emanuel administration to discuss its concerns with the ordinance before deciding how to proceed.

“This is the start of the conversation,” said Pawar, who believes the city “needs to put some skin in the game to help these building owners.”

Burnett, who has been as forceful as any alderman about preserving and creating affordable housing, said he believes the Emanuel administration wants to help the effort, not defeat it, despite objections to the current version of the ordinance.

While “invisible” to most city residents, those who live in SRO housing “are real people” who deserve a chance to stay in the city, Burnett emphasized.

“We don’t have enough housing for these people,” he said.

That’s why it’s so important to save what little we do have.