Debating affordable housing in Chicago: an alderman and an advocate talk it out

The end of single room occupancy hotels on Chicago’s North Side no doubt will affect the area’s economic diversity, other housing around former SROs, and the dwindling housing options for low-income Chicagoans.


Housing advocates and public officials are among the groups of players in the unfolding story around SROs, which are steadily disappearing. One such is Ald. James Cappleman, whose 46th Ward includes Uptown. He commented recently on the Reporter’s recent web story about low-income Chicagoans who struggled to find housing when they had to move out of an SRO. His comments spoke to how affordable housing is judged, referring to some individual cases in Uptown, and the responsibility of advocates.

In light of this, The Chicago Reporter facilitated an email exchange between Cappleman and one of these advocates, the Rev. Monte Johnson, president of the board of directors of ONE Northside, an advocacy group that has worked extensively with former SRO residents, about preserving affordable housing in the city. 

Johnson:  “Most of us agree that the market can’t dictate all decisions: we have values and priorities that we agree to as a community.  …This community [Northeast side of the city] has consistently been clear that it supports income diversity, and affordable housing is necessary to make this a reality.  That means that the alderman must use all means available to ensure that affordable housing is built and preserved.”

Cappleman: “The market doesn’t dictate all decisions about real estate. It’s the ARO [Affordable Requirements Ordinance] that provides the tool needed to require developers to provide more affordable housing. The problem, however, is that the ARO is not strong enough.

“The issue at hand is that we had three buildings in terrible disrepair before I was elected alderman, and these buildings had high vacancy rates due to their poor living conditions. These were all market-rate buildings. I will continue to advocate that we stop using the definition of affordable housing to describe buildings that are actually substandard housing in horrible disrepair.”

Johnson: “It has been our experience that prospective buyers pressure current owners to empty their buildings of tenants in order to complete the sale.  This has led to incredibly dangerous, irresponsible and even illegal removal of tenants in some buildings.  As this removal is happening, the cycle that Ald. Cappleman refers to is happening – fewer tenants, less income, fewer repairs. This typically happens when an owner is planning to sell or otherwise divest from the property. This is one of the factors that makes affordable housing preservation so complex, and why we need all the players at the table – to develop a safe and feasible preservation plan. But, as we know, this is still much less expensive than building affordable housing from the ground up, and that savings is good for everyone.”

Cappleman: “We have seen no evidence that a prospective buyer provided pressure to a previous owner to empty their building of tenants in order to complete a sale.  The Lawrence House was in receivership due to a court mandate, which provided additional oversight to make sure the remaining residents were safe. At the time I was elected alderman, the Norman was already in foreclosure and many of the residents had stopped paying their rent.”

“For affordable housing advocates out there…. you need to advocate for safe living conditions for the current SRO’s we currently have. Speaking up after hundreds of code violations are already in place and after a building is sold is simply too late. It’s too late because when a building is sold, the ball is already in motion about what the law allows (and doesn’t allow) for affordable housing.”  

Johnson: “We do advocate for improved living conditions, and have been doing so for decades. But we recognize that the answer is not simply to close buildings [like the Lawrence House, or the Chateau Hotel] down, as Ald. Cappleman proposed in his Cubicle Hotel Ordinance. Our aim is to make sure people have safe and affordable places to live, and simply shutting buildings down only makes that goal harder to fulfill.  And we agree that we need to take action before buildings are sold, which is why we hope the alderman will support the ordinance that we are drafting to preserve and improve this vital resource.”

Cappleman: “I will continue to look for creative ways and help pass new legislation that makes building affordable housing easier and provide incentives to do so.”

This transcript has been edited and condensed.

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