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The City of Chicago and the destruction of Lakeview’s Single Residence Occupancy Hotels

By Scott Ellingson, section editor: bloc[k] beat (selling2@uic.edu)

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The official doves of the Abbott Hotel Single Residency Occupancy building in Lakeview on west Belmont clash with the strict official rules for human residents. The City of Chicago’s failure to adequately regulate the Single Room Occupancy hotels that it licenses along with the continued gentrification of already affluent areas of the North Side of Chicago threatens the safety of Chicago’s most vulnerable citizens and it shows that the City is failing to act to provide any kind of effective affordable housing policy in the face of the interests of private capital.

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Created in the late 19th century to house seasonal workers for the west side garment factories, Single Residence Occupancy buildings have provided affordable housing for a hundred years. They were once comfortable and clean temporary living spaces for industrial workers, displaced single men, and naval trainees during both World Wars. After World War II however, this once vital part of the housing stock was deteriorating as middle class families were leaving the city for the suburbs. Without maintenance, the hotels fell into the hands of slum lords, whose neglect led them to grow into blights on the urban fabric, centers of drug abuse, prostitution, and sub-human living spaces for the indigent who could not afford any other accommodations.

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The Diplomat Hotel was condemned by building inspectors in March of 2009. The Judge who ordered the condemnation put the onus on the city to relocate residents: “This is a very serious order I am entering today, and I really think the city is going to have to stay on top of relocating the tenants.” To the right is Trader Todd’s and Lena Cyrus Salon.

This process is at work currently on the North Side of the city in Lakeview, where the owners of the SROs are responding to criticisms of the crime and vagrancy that residents say is encouraged by the hotels by closing them down and evicting the residents. The process of eliminating the last vestiges of affordable housing on the North Side for the most vulnerable citizens began with the condemnation of the Diplomat hotel on north Sheffield.

The Bel Air Hotel was shut down last August, displacing hundreds of at-risk residents.

The Ambers hotel at 1632 W Belmont ave was purchased for 1.7 million dollars last November, displacing 61 residents with little notice. The Pony Inn at 1634 W Ashland is a popular boutique sports bar.

Unlike the residents of the Bel Air hotel on west Diversey and the Ambers Hotel on west Belmont, the residents of the Diplomat had the right to monetary compensation for their relocation because it was caused by a condemnation. After the Diplomat was closed, the Bel Air and the Amber hotel were sold and vacated illegally, residents reporting that they were not given advanced notice of legally eviction but rather the owners tricked them into leaving by the story of a renovation of the sites.

The Chateau Hotel at 3939 N. Broadway ave is the border between the affluent and 97.5% white Lakeview neighborhood and multi-cultural but depressed Uptown, where whites are only 50% of the population, Blacks 20%, Hispanics 14%, and Asians 11%.

Beside architectural significance, the people that live in SROs like the Abbott Hotel frequently have no other alternative. Many residents live in city shelters before they can save up enough money to pay for an SRO room. The hotel’s neon sign is an icon of the neighborhood, along with the hotel’s seedy reputation.

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The Abbott Hotel on west Belmont at Halsted was in fact sold in August of 2012 for 4.3 million dollars. It’s unclear at this time what the developer plans to do with the property.

Along with the Abbott, The Chateau Hotel on north Broadway on the border of Lakeview and the Uptown neighborhood are still operational, but if property values begin to fall, the slum lords will be motivated to cash out their investment and make the estimated 1.7 million that was the sum for the Ambers Hotel building.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the demolition of SROs in San Francisco troubled community activists, so they organized and pushed through the 1981 of the Residential Hotel Demolition and Conversion Ordinance. The law meant that the owners of SROs would be required to pay a fee into the city government’s affordable housing fund for every unit they converted from SRO to full occupancy. In 1990, the fee was increased and the ordinance strengthened so that community organizations could enforce the ordinance through civil litigation rather than the city suing the owners directly.

In Chicago we need an ordinance to protect our dwindling affordable housing stock.The next target for this new round of SRO renovation and demolitions are The Chateau hotel and the Abbott hotel. Residents have been complaining and warning their children about both hotels for decades. The Abbott hotel is infamous for being the home of men on the sex offender watch list, which residents say puts the elementary school children that go to school at the Mount Carmel Academy across the street on Belmont at risk. The Chateau was in the news last year when three residents overdosed after being sold heroin cut with fentanyl, a dangerous medical opiate. Residents of the area say the Chateau is a hot spot of panhandling and casual violence and open air crack and marijuana sales.

The illegal displacement of these residences by brazen slum lords puts into focus the failure of the City of Chicago to develop affordable housing for its most vulnerable citizens and to regulate it’s SRO hotels effectively, as they all operate under licenses by the city. The solution to the SRO problems of vagrancy and crime aren’t solved by the wrecking ball, that simply displaces the residents who are overwhelmingly law abiding.

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