Chicago Tribune: Single-room occupancy hotels disappearing across Chicago

August 31, 2011

Closings hurt low-income workers, people with disabilities, elderly retirees

by Rex W. Hupple, Tribune reporter

Bob Covel has been a fixture at the Belair Hotel for 36 years. Blind and living on a fixed income, Covel always found the single-room occupancy building a good fit, even as it fell into disrepair and became home in recent years to a more itinerant clientele.

But soon, Covel and the other Belair residents — a diverse mix of low-income workers, people with disabilities and elderly retirees — will be gone. Tenants are being evicted from the building and from another single-room occupancy hotel in Lakeview, the Sheffield House, forcing dozens of people with limited resources to quickly relocate in a city where day-to-day or month-to-month housing is increasingly hard to find.

“It’s taking away a home, basically,” said Covel, who is one of the few residents so far able to line up a new place to live. “There’s not a damn thing I can do about it.”

That’s largely true. Chicago was once home to many residential hotels like the Belair, places where people living on fixed incomes or working low-paying jobs could stay without having to put up security deposits or sign leases. The tiny, sparse rooms were, in essence, a last line of defense for folks who might otherwise be homeless.

But gentrification has consumed a majority of these single-room occupancy buildings. And while groups that advocate for the homeless don’t like to lose any resources, many say that money is better spent on newer low-income housing solutions than on maintaining decrepit buildings like the Belair and the Sheffield House.

“The model we use now is supportive housing,” said Julie Dworkin, director of policy for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. “The rent is subsidized so people who have little income can pay maybe 30 percent of their income for rent, and then there are services for them on site. If they have mental health or substance-abuse issues or if they need help finding jobs, they’ve got services right there. It has been shown that this type of housing is what can really get people out of chronic homelessness.”

Bennett Lawson, the 44th Ward’s deputy alderman under Tom Tunney, said the loss of the two residential hotels is concerning for the Lakeview neighborhood, but not unexpected.

“What we’re doing as a city and a system is moving away from this (single-room occupancy) style housing,” Lawson said. “What we want to do, ideally, is move everyone into a more stable housing situation. Studios, efficiencies, but not this residence hotel model, where some have been good and some have been awful.”

Inside the Belair, workers have already started clearing out vacated rooms, carrying ragged mattresses and busted-up furniture to a large blue trash container in front of the building. Near Covel’s third-floor apartment on a recent afternoon, the hallway was hot and dirty, littered with chairs and bookcases ready to be hauled away.

A peek inside the small rooms revealed cracked ceilings and worn, stained carpets covered in dust and paint chips. The building smelled musty, and the lobby where residents once gathered to chat had been stripped nearly bare.

Despite the conditions at the Belair and the Sheffield House — the latter of which had so many city code violations that it faced an order to vacate if the violations weren’t corrected by October — Lakeview activists have rallied around the residents of the two hotels. The Legal Assistance Foundation has also intervened, raising questions about whether the tenants at both properties received proper eviction notifications.

Residents of the Sheffield House received a form letter July 28 saying they had to be out by 1 p.m. the next day. At the Belair, tenants were notified by form letter July 13 that they would have to vacate by Aug. 15, but Legal Assistance Foundation attorney Julie Harcum said each resident should have been served an individual notice.

“These are obviously people in vulnerable populations,” Harcum said. “Getting a 24-hour notice and not really knowing what that means causes a lot of stress.”

Brian White, 53, moved into the Sheffield House in April 2010, shortly after getting a job as a chef at a hospital. He had been homeless before that and was just happy to have a roof over his head.

White said he has plans to move in with a co-worker, but it has been hard for him to see other residents struggling.

“A lot of people scattered,” he said. “There were actually people that just walked away and left a lot of their stuff behind. Some of these were people who had mental problems. They didn’t know where to go or what to do. They were scared.”

Bob Zuley of the Lakeview Action Coalition said he knows of several residents who fled the Sheffield House abruptly, and he expects many at both buildings will have trouble finding new housing.

“There just aren’t that many places anymore,” Zuley said. “And for so many of these folks, you’re talking about people on disability, people with mental health problems and limited money, they just can’t afford a security deposit or anything like that. Where are they supposed to go?”

Residents at the Belair often paid close to market rates for efficiencies. Covel said his rent was $530 a month for a room with a bathroom but no kitchen.

While not cheap, the advantage was that people could come and go as they needed — if money was tight, for example, some might move to a shelter for a while — and there were no deposits, leases or utility costs.

Leandrew Johnson, 64, is another longtime resident of the Belair. A Vietnam veteran on disability, he said he has no idea where he’ll wind up once the hotel closes for good.

“I’ve been going to other places, but they want me to pay a security deposit and one month’s rent,” Johnson said. “I can’t do that. You can’t just put people out on the street.”

Lawson said the alderman’s office has been working directly with the buildings’ new owner, James Purcell, a principal of the real estate company BJB Partners LLC. Lawson said Purcell has been cooperative and promised that no residents will be forcibly evicted.

Purcell could not be reached for comment. Lawson said the buildings will be rehabbed and will remain residential.

Dworkin, of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said that even though there are more favorable approaches for helping people on the edge of homelessness, losing places like the Belair and the Sheffield House will likely leave some on the streets.

“Particularly in a community like Lakeview, it’s probably really the only place that some people can stay,” she said. “We’re losing a lot of our housing of last resort. I’m sure there’s a direct correlation between the rise of street homelessness and the loss of these buildings.”