Sun-Times, Mark Brown: North Side residents rattled by take over of North Side (SRO) apartment building

By Mark Brown, columnist

You’re going to think I’ve written this story previously, and in a way I have.

But that’s an indication of how often this same scenario is cropping up these days.

Astor House, another of the dwindling North Side apartment buildings that once catered to low-income residents, is rapidly being emptied out — to the consternation of its remaining tenants.

The 14-story building at 1246 W. Pratt housed nearly 150 people when it was taken over last November by BJB Properties, one of several companies currently specializing in rehabbing Chicago’s old single room occupancy hotels into more upscale housing.

As of Friday when I visited, only about 22 units at Astor House remain occupied, tenants told me.

Those tenants complain of heavy-handed tactics to force them to move, similar to those described by residents of other properties purchased in the past year by BJB.

That includes allegations of management failing to make timely repairs and serving eviction notices after refusing to accept rent.

You may remember my columns about the Abbott Hotel, 721 W. Belmont, where BJB had shut off the heat and water and dismantled the fire safety systems with some tenants still living in the building, prompting an emergency city response.

Nothing that extreme is happening at Astor House, where the rehab has been less extensive. To my mind, though, that makes this an even better time to put the property under a microscope before we ever reach that stage.

What we’ve got right now is closer to what happened at the Chateau Hotel, 3838 N. Broadway, where BJB recently won a court order to get rid of the last remaining tenant in the 138-room SRO.

That was the culmination of a months-long battle with tenants, their lawyers and community groups, who complained that BJB created hostile living conditions to induce residents to leave.

In the end, many of those who had stuck it out for months accepted modest cash settlements to finally move. In addition, the community groups eased up after they say BJB principal Jamie Purcell indicated a willingness to consider using government subsidies to keep a portion of the former SRO units available as affordable housing.

Astor House residents who spoke with me Friday say they want Ald. Joe Moore (49th) to broker a meeting with Purcell to help negotiate similar arrangements for them.

Moore told me he is trying to work individually with any tenants who come to him for help but is not inclined to intervene on behalf of the entire group without knowing the details of each one’s circumstances.

Like the Chateau in Lakeview, Astor House under prior owners was generally regarded as one of the worst buildings in its East Rogers Park neighborhood because of an abundance of police activity and tenant complaints — including heating problems, faulty elevators and bedbugs.

The prospect of new ownership investing in improvements, therefore, was viewed as a big plus by Moore, who said he has experienced no problems with BJB at its other properties in the ward.

“It was a really horrible building,” Moore told me Friday. “Nobody should live there. It needs to be fixed up. My hope will be they will fix it up.”

The tenants would be the first to tell you how crummy the Astor House is, and some of them showed me around Friday to see for myself. I can confirm: the place is a dump.

But it’s in a good location. And as in all these situations, we’re talking about a group of people who are at the bottom of the housing food chain and don’t have a lot of other options, especially if they want to remain on the North Side.

After sprucing up some of the apartments a floor at a time, BJB has recently started marketing the building to college students at rents comparable to what it is currently charging the tenants being ousted.

The company has applied for permits to make more extensive electrical and plumbing improvements, Moore said. Tenants predict a much higher rent increase when that work is completed.

Having witnessed a few of these battles now, I’m well aware that some of the tenants in these matters are trying to work the system to their advantage. Some have been through prior evictions.

Still, I find that the little people generally get bulldozed in these situations, and there’s never any harm in bringing attention to their cause.

On Monday, city inspectors are scheduled to pay a visit to Astor House, which was a beehive of activity Friday in preparation.

Damaged and missing fire hoses might be a good place for the inspectors to start.