By Adeshina Emmanuel
UPTOWN — After saying months ago he supported the crafting of a law to help save the city’s dwindling single-room-occupancy hotels, 46th Ward Ald. James Cappleman’s current stance is less clear to community activists and advocates for homeless people who thought they had his backing.
Cappleman said in a statement to DNAinfo Chicago in May that, “I believe that well-run SRO housing is a viable housing option for many in the community. I would like to see these buildings continue for people throughout the City of Chicago.”
But at a City Council housing committee last week, Cappleman spoke in opposition to SROs and worried that the city is “promoting a failed model” with efforts to keep them, according to accounts from attendees and the Sun-Times.
The committee was discussing a temporary moratorium on demolitions and conversions of single-room-occupancy hotels for six months, which was approved by the committee and forwarded to City Council despite Cappleman’s opposition.
The entire City Council is slated to vote on the moratorium Wednesday, and after that low-income housing advocates, aldermen and developers said they will get to work on creating a law to save the city’s remaining SROs, a form of housing often considered as some folks’ first step out of homelessness — and last resort in the face of it.
In the eyes of Uptown-based community group ONE Northside, one of the driving forces behind the “Chicago for All” SRO preservation effort, Cappleman “made it clear he is not supportive of our effort,” according to an email the group sent constituents this week.
Cappleman has faced accusations in recent years that he hasn’t done enough to preserve SROs and other forms of cheap housing in his ward.
Yet ONE Northside said Cappleman had previously promised to be a co-sponsor of the preservation ordinance. But an organizer with ONE Northside, Mary Tarullo, told DNAinfo Chicago on Tuesday “we expect him to vote no” on Wednesday “based on his recent remarks.”
He declined this week to answer questions about both his support of the moratorium and the SRO preservation efforts.
But Cappleman’s office sent an email Friday explaining his stance to constituents in his ward, which includes most of Uptown and part of Lakeview and has a high concentration of SROs. Cappleman opposes the moratorium “because of the high number of SROs that are in terrible disrepair and in need of a rehab.”
“Had this ordinance been in place at the time the Chateau was sold,” the email said, “the building could not have gone through its desperately needed rehab in order to make it livable and up to code.”
The email was citing the Chateau Hotel, a former rundown SRO in the Lakeview side of Cappleman’s ward with an array of building code violations and safety issues that sparked controversy after a developer bought it with plans to give it a makeover and raise rents beyond what the residents there could pay.
“While [Cappleman] was working with the new owners to make sure that all residents of this building had safer housing, he helped a woman get medical care that was hospitalized due to the hundreds of bed bugs all over her body,” the email said. “This woman did not have another six months. The bed bug infestation at this property alone required the removal of the walls.”
Chicago for All’s lead sponsors were initially Ald. Walter Burnett (27th), Ald. Will Burns (4th), Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) and Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th).
The first form of the ordinance would have required SRO owners to ask the city’s permission to convert SRO buildings to market rate housing, and would only gain that permission if they agreed to keep most units at an affordable cost or pay the city a fee for the loss of affordable units.
Pawar’s chief of staff Jim Poole said that “in the process of talking about that, it became more clear that there needed to be more thought put into how that was structured.”
“The reason for the moratorium is to give us time, so there’s not over the next several months conversions happening and us continuing to lose units,” Poole said, adding that somehow incentivizing the preservation of SROs for developers could be one piece of the puzzle.
The city says that since 2008, 30 licensed SROs have closed in Chicago, leaving about 5,000 to 6,000 units between 73 remaining SROs. SRO advocates estimate that more than 2,000 SRO units have been converted into higher-priced digs since 2011, including the Chateau and Sheffield House in Lakeview.
Eithne McMenamin, associate director of policy at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, another Chicago For All proponent, called Cappleman’s comments last week “a pretty strong statement to me indicating where he might come down on the [preservation] ordinance.”
She said advocates for SRO preservation would welcome his support, “but whether he plans to do that, I don’t know.”