Chicago Sun-Times, Mark Brown: Sale of North Side SROs tests new city preservation law

By Mark Brown, columnist

Residents of three single-room occupancy hotels on the North Side have been informed the properties are for sale in what shapes up as the first major test of the city’s new SRO preservation ordinance.

The Dolins family, owners of the vintage Marshall Hotel, 1232 N. LaSalle, Carling Hotel, 1512 N. LaSalle and Darlington Hotel, 4700 N. Racine, gave official notice to the city Jan. 28 of their intent to sell and followed up with letters to the tenants.

The notices triggered a six-month window in which not-for-profit developers can to try to negotiate the purchase of the buildings to keep them as affordable housing.

If they can’t reach a deal, the owners would then be allowed to negotiate a sale to market-rate developers.

The outcome of those negotiations should go far toward showing us whether the ordinance pushed through the City Council last fall by Mayor Rahm Emanuel Administration will help preserve Chicago’s affordable housing stock as intended — or serve as little more than a speed bump to buyers eager to upgrade such properties to appeal to more affluent renters.

The Dolins’ three residential hotels account for nearly 400 housing units, although more than half of those are currently unoccupied because they stopped accepting new long-term tenants in anticipation of a sale.

The sale notices have caused alarm among building residents concerned they may lose their homes in a continuation of the displacement pattern that has decimated the housing options for North Side low-income renters in recent years.

With help from community organizers, residents of the three buildings have formed a tenants association to try to protect themselves during the sales process.

We feel insecure. We feel afraid. We don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Cynthia Gaines, 52, leader of the tenants at the Darlington in Uptown.

“We are hoping a low-income developer will buy the property and let us stay here,” said Gaines, who works as a certified nursing assistant.

Most of the building’s 42 remaining residents are on fixed incomes, she said. They include veterans, senior citizens and people with physical and mental disabilities.

A room at the Darlington with a bathroom rents for $475 a month.

The story is similar at the Marshall and Carling, which I would expect to be particular plums for developers because of their attractive locations just west of the Gold Coast.

Nicole Bell, 43, who has lived at the Marshall nearly four years since a divorce forced her to “start over,” has taken a lead in organizing the 61 residents who remain in the 173-unit building.

Bell said she just wants to “make sure no one loses their housing and is left out on the bricks.”

The nearly century-old hotels have been owned by the Dolins family for more than 50 years and have been better maintained than many similar properties, although less so since the decision to sell.

Why sell now?

“I’m in my 90’s. It’s time to retire, isn’t it?” owner Max Dolins told me Friday.

Dolins said his company has yet to identify a buyer.

“Brokers have been calling us, but nothing’s happened,” he said.

Lawrence Adelson, a lawyer for the Dolins, said his clients had decided to put the properties on the market before the SRO ordinance was adopted. The family was rebuffed in an attempt to get a special exemption in the ordinance, Adelson confirmed.

The lawyer said it’s “too early to say” whether the hotels will end up in the hands of non-profit or for-profit developers. Both have made inquiries, he said.

“Ideally, there will be something for all the different constituencies, but the economics have to work as well,” Adelson said.

“I think there’s a lot of will on the part of the city to make this happen in a positive way,” he added. A spokesman for the city said it has not been approached yet by any potential buyer seeking city financial assistance to help preserve the SROs.

I have to say that even the letters sent to the tenants — factual and non-threatening — were a big improvement on the typical process we have seen in other SRO buildings where the residents were kept in the dark before being bullied to move.

Leon Irby, 65, a retiree who has lived at the Marshall for 10 years, told me he doesn’t blame the Dolins for trying to get full value for their property and gives them “credit for being on the humane side.”

“Ain’t been no palace of luxury, but it’s been a place you could lay your head, call your own,” Irby said.

The question is where Irby and others will be laying their heads a year from now.

Steve Ruffin listens to Nicole Bell talk of living conditions in the Marshall Hotel Friday, Feb.13, 2015 in Chicago.| Kevin Tanaka/For Sun-Times Media