Chicago Sun-Times, Mark Brown: SRO tenants get an assist from mayor

By Mark Brown, columnist

In a case of better late than never, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration on Tuesday called for a six-month moratorium on the conversion or demolition of Single Room Occupancy housing and residential hotels.

The moratorium comes more than a year after low-income housing advocates began raising alarms about the rapid disappearance of affordable SRO units, regarded as the housing option of last resort for thousands of Chicagoans.

The phenomenon has been driven by a group of savvy developers who figured out they could buy up the buildings, throw out the old tenants, then remodel the tiny apartments and rent them out at higher prices to a more upscale clientele. Most of the conversions have taken place on the North Side, where the poor are fast becoming an endangered species.

The moratorium also comes just months after a coalition of advocacy groups began pushing its own ordinance to deal with the problem by requiring owners of SRO buildings to keep the apartments priced affordably or pay a hefty fee into a special SRO preservation fund if they convert them.

Before that effort could get out of City Hall’s control, the mayor’s office jumped in to see if it could work out a compromise solution with the neighborhood groups and aldermen who had taken up their cause.

Still without an agreement on a long-term solution, the mayor’s office announced Tuesday the city would impose the moratorium while negotiations continue on a broader ordinance that “balances the need for economic growth with affordable housing options.”

That was obviously a nod to building owners and developers who no doubt will be none too pleased with the mayor for doing anything that threatens their property values by interfering with the normal laws of supply and demand in the real estate market.

Just the same, most of them were apoplectic about the draft ordinance originally circulated, and this approach at least offers the possibility of finding an agreement more to their liking.

Of course, Emanuel already is the darling of the development community, and recent political polls have shown he might benefit from more evidence he’s looking out for the little people as well.

The Chicago for All Coalition, which has been leading the fight to save the SROs, indicated its support for the moratorium, as did Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) and Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th), who have been supporting them. Burnett said he “reluctantly” agreed to hold back the coalition’s proposed ordinance while talks continue.

“They showed us in good faith they want to work with us,” Burnett said of Emanuel’s team.

Mary Tarullo, a senior organizer at ONE Northside and a coalition leader, refused to bite when I observed Emanuel’s move fell in the better-late-than-never category.

“We’ve tried to get the attention of the city on this, and we’re excited they’re coming on board at this point,” she said. “I think this is a very strong action on their part.”

“Short term, [a moratorium] is definitely the strongest thing they could have done,” Tarullo said. There had been concern that if talks continued to move slowly, pressure would mount on SRO owners to sell their properties quickly to avoid falling under the new ordinance.

The moratorium ordinance will be introduced at Wednesday’s City Council meeting with hopes of getting final approval next month, city officials said. A broader solution could be ready by September, they said.

Instead of just being punitive to SRO owners who convert, the Emanuel administration is trying to identify financial incentives and resources that would encourage them to continue serving the low-income tenants who rely on this type of housing while also improving the properties.

Michael Negron, the mayor’s chief of policy, deftly sidestepped my question about whether the mayor was a little late with his moratorium.

“This is a good time to address this,” said Negron, noting that the city is currently engaged in development planning for the Uptown neighborhood, where many of the surviving SROs are located.

Some 2,200 SRO units have been lost to market rate developers in just the last three years, according to the Chicago for All Coalition. But heck, if Emanuel can play a role in preserving the estimated 6,000 units that remain, then that would be an accomplishment worth touting in his re-election campaign.

Some of the homeless guys might even put in a good word for him.