Alexandra Keels makes $18,000 a year as a tour guide and she is also an artist working with the Stone Soup Theatre Project on the northeast side. A rent of $500 a month is “bearable,” but increasingly, she knows other artists who pay $700. As a result, “they are looking for other options: leaving the city or moving to Indiana.”
Stone Soup focuses on community issues and presenting “affordable and relevant productions,” Keels said in a telephone interview. It performs at Senn High School, 5900 N. Glenwood Ave., and in return offers internships for public school students there.
“As soon as artists move in, and they have affordable living and workspace, it becomes a real contribution to the neighborhood and all of a sudden you see all of this money and interest,” Keels said about gentrification on the North Side lakefront.
“There is a reason why the artists were drawn to the vibrancy and the diversity of our community where we can get our inspiration; it’s part of our identity as Chicagoans,” Keels said. “But as soon as we start looking at these neighborhoods that are our own no longer becoming available to us,…we know our options are disappearing.”
Stone Soup is partnering with the Organization of the Northeast (ONE) in its campaign to preserve affordable housing along the lakefront on the North Side. ONE contends that private market development of formerly affordable apartments means the loss of nearly 2,000 units over the past three years. This number includes the pending impact of a proposed ordinance against cubicle hotels, which could eliminate 250 units alone.
The latest properties to be threatened are the Astor House and two cubicle hotels that would be closed under a proposed Chicago City Council ordinance.
Evictions are underway against 27 tenants at the Astor House, 1246 W. Pratt St., and rent increases of 57 percent have been promised to those allowed to renew their leases.
Astor House elevators don’t work half the time and there have been problems with heat: “usually the things they do when they want people to leave,” said Marc Kaplan, a member of Northside Action for Justice, in a telephone interview. Kaplan also ran for 46th ward alderman in 2011 and lost to James Cappleman, current alderman and co-sponsor of the cubicle ordinance.
New owners are not renewing leases and are evicting tenants as their leases are up, according to John Bartlett, executive director of the Metropolitan Tenants Organization. “Repair issues are getting worse as the owners are basically not making repairs and in that way constructively evicting tenants,” Bartlett wrote in an email. Besides problems with hot water, tenants have problems with bedbugs, other pests and electrical issues.
“This is happening all over the city,” Kaplan said. “These larger SROs (Single Room Occupancy hotels), this is what the real estate market is going after now. In the ’90s and 2000s, everyone was going after condos. There is a glut in that kind of housing. Then the real estate market busted. They know people are not going to buy condos. They need a new place to make money. In Uptown you have the FLATS, which bought the Norman at 1325 Wilson, almost the same exact kind of deal [to the similarly-sized Astor House].”
Alan Mills is a lawyer with the Uptown People’s Law Center who says that the proposed cubicle hotel ordinance that would outlaw both the Wilson Men’s Hotel and the Ewing Annex, 426 S. Clark St., is unconstitutional.
“The ordinance simply says what was legal yesterday is no longer legal today,” Mills said. “People have the right to rely on the law as it is written when they make investment-backed decisions.”
Now that the owner has spent “tens of thousands of dollars” to make the Wilson Men’s Hotel comply with building codes, “they are saying, ‘nice of you to fix it up, but now we are taking it away from you,’” Mills said.
Sponsored by Ald. James Cappleman (46th ward) and Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd ward) the cubicle hotel ordinance was originally scheduled to come before the Chicago City Council Zoning Committee Feb. 25; however, the ordinance has been tabled for further review by the City Council and the Mayor’s Office. Focused on hotels whose rooms do not reach the ceiling, it has the support of nine aldermen, including Alds. Joseph Moore (49th ward), Tom Tunney (44th ward) and Michele Smith (43rd ward).
“Buildings [which were] formerly affordable to working folks are being taken out of the market while our political leaders are doing nothing about it, saying it’s the private sector,” Kaplan said. “Given the fact that the Alderman really does want to close it, if there were serious violations that would be the route he would go instead of having to pass an ordinance that says the space is too small for people to live in.”
“If violations were serious, he could just shut it down.”
Tressa Feher, Cappleman’s chief of staff, said the alderman has visited the Wilson Men’s Hotel and is trying to get rid of what she called “cage hotels” because they were grandfathered into the city’s current building codes.
“The rest of the city doesn’t allow for this,” Feher said. “You cannot go in now and get a license for a cage hotel. He wants to bring all residences up to the same standard. He doesn’t feel that because someone is low in income they should be living at a lower standard than everyone else in the city, in cages.”
The Uptown People’s Law Center is also working with people who have been displaced from the Chateau Hotel.
“The vast majority of them are not going to be able to find decent housing that’s nearly as good as what they’ve got already,” Mills said. “The Chateau is certainly not anybody’s idea of ideal housing but on the other hand, it’s a whole lot better than being homeless. And that, unfortunately, is where most of these people are going to end up.”
Mills summarized his feelings in a quote from a friend: “The city in its infinite wisdom has decided it will save people from less than ideal housing by making them homeless.”
Chateau residents received varied notices of eviction; they were not given a formal 30 days notice but were told to pay rent on a weekly basis. The notice nevertheless made the new landlord legally compliant, according to Sreya Sarkar, director of education and advocacy at the Lakeview Pantry.
Lakeview Action Coalition met with Chateau residents Feb. 21. Officials said they had a sense that people were moving out, based on flyers left untouched at people’s doors.
In the past year, Chicago has seen a spike in the rental housing market. Rents in class B housing, or less expensive, older housing, rose by 7.2 percent to an all-time high between summer 2011 and summer 2012, according to a report by Appraisal Research Counselors. Ron DeVries, the vice president of Appraisal Research, estimated for the Chicago Tribune that rental prices would increase another 4 to 5 percent in the next year, particularly downtown. The reason is that since the housing meltdown, people prefer no-risk rentals to mortgages.
Developers could add more than 7,000 rental units downtown by 2014, according to Appraisal Research Counselors in Crain’s Chicago Business online.
Keels said she hopes for creative solutions to facilitate diversified city housing. “I think mixed income housing is a wonderful idea. It isn’t something that is practiced enough.
“We love our neighborhoods. We want to celebrate them, but we would also like to stay here, too,” Keels said.
- Ellen Garrison contributing
By Suzanne Hanney & Ethan Ross
StreetWise Editor-In-Chief & Editorial Intern