Affordable housing on the North Side? Aldermen hold the keys

Hotel Chateau protest, March 2013

Tenants and community members gathered last March to demand action be taken by either Alderman James Cappleman or the new owner of Hotel Chateau to protect residents from possible homelessness. [File photo by Jonathan Gibby]

With low-income housing in single-room-occupancy hotels around the city threatened by gentrification, the redevelopment of the Diplomat Hotel in Lakeview as supportive housing offers a viable model for the preservation of affordable housing, advocates say.

A crucial element for the project’s success — one which seems to be missing in other North Side wards facing SRO loss — was support from the alderman.

The Diplomat is now Fred and Pamela Buffet Place. Located at Belmont and Sheffield, it features 51 furnished studio apartments — a little more than half of the original SRO units — and amenities such as a fitness center, computer lab and rooftop and courtyard gardens. It is owned and operated by Thresholds, which provides mental health services for residents and other community members, as well as employment and independent living counseling.

The building is open to individuals with disabilities and with incomes less than 60 percent of the area’s median. Many residents come from the Chicago Housing Authority’s waiting list, Thresholds spokesperson Emily Moen said.

“We would love to replicate” the model of transforming SROs into supportive housing, Moen said. “We think this shows it can work.”

“There’s definitely a huge need in Chicago” for additional supportive housing, said Al Eldridge Sr. of the Supportive Housing Providers Association of Illinois. Added Moen: “The CHA has a very long waiting list, and our own waiting list is long.”

Chicago currently has about 7,000 units of supportive housing, where health and social services are offered on-site for residents who need them. One recent survey of SROs estimates that over 5,000 units in 70 buildings across the city are at risk.

With alternatives dwindling, loss of that housing could mean homelessness for many current residents.

A critical piece of redeveloping the Diplomat was the support of 44th Ward Ald. Tom Tunny, Moen said. With Tunney’s backing, the city took ownership of the Diplomat after fines for building and fire code violations exceeded the building’s value and then sold it to Thresholds for one dollar.

“Over the years our group worked with Ald. Tunney, and he increasingly became supportive of our point of view” that the Diplomat should remain affordable for low-income residents, said Norman Groetzinger, former executive director of the Counseling Center of Lakeview. Groetzinger worked with the Lakeview Action Council (now part of ONE Northside) for two decades to improve the management of the Diplomat or facilitate its transfer to an affordable housing provider.

LAC proposed a similar approach — leveraging building code fines to preserve affordability — when the 150-unit Chateau Hotel was in housing court two years ago. In that case, however, Ald. James Cappleman (46th Ward) was not responsive. The building, located at Broadway and Sheridan in Lakeview, was vacated last June and is being redeveloped by new owners as a market-rate rental property.

“I think it was pretty clear Ald. Cappleman found the people living in the Chateau to be the major problem,” Groetzinger said. “Originally he was saying that businesses and neighbors were complaining about the residents. Later he changed to saying the building wasn’t a decent place for people to live — a position in some ways not as hostile. But his real interest I think was to clear the neighborhood of the type of people who lived there.”

Cappleman, who attracted attention last year with his efforts to remove a Salvation Army soup truck from Uptown and ban cubicle hotels, has suggested his ward contains too much low-income housing. In fact, according to ONE Northside, the area from Lincoln Park to Uptown has lost well over 2,000 units of SRO housing in recent years, and nearly a dozen SROs in Cappleman’s ward — with over 1,000 units — are considered at risk. Several of them are currently for sale.

In Rogers Park, Ald. Joe Moore has reacted to other low-income resident efforts to save their homes by taking offense to their tactics. The residents orchestrated a (traditional Chicago-style) protest outside the home of a partner of the rehab firm that bought their building as well as five area SROs, including the Chateau.

Groetzinger frames the need to preserve low-income housing in terms of protecting the economic and racial diversity of the North Side.

“Unfortunately there’s definitely a racial component in terms of hostility to the residents that’s part of the dynamic,” said Groetzinger. “I think when you have low-income African-American males on the street, that in and of itself is viewed as a problem, especially to some of our newer residents, who are not in many cases originally city people.”

That’s one big thing that sets Buffett Place apart — support from its neighbors.

“We spent a lot of time at the front end meeting neighbors and business groups to explain what our intention was,” Moen said. “We made a promise to the community that this will be a well-maintained property. The reception was really very positive.”

Perhaps the aldermen could take note.

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