Moratorium on SRO conversion while long-term solution is crafted

Alderman Walter Burnett, Jr. underlines his and his colleagues' support for the SRO conversion moratorium and efforts to find a more permanent solution. [Photo by Rosalie Chan]

Alderman Walter Burnett, Jr. underlines his and his colleagues' support for the SRO conversion moratorium and efforts to find a more permanent solution. [Photo by Rosalie Chan]

Low-income residents, seniors and people with disabilities are running out of places to live in Chicago as more and more single-room occupancy buildings are being converted into high-value housing.

An SRO preservation ordinance — which has plenty of support, but plenty of details to iron out — was put on hold last month. In the interim, the city, aldermen and activist groups today introduced an ordinance that would place a six-month moratorium on SRO conversions, preventing a possible spate of development and additional evictions until the preservation ordinance is passed.

The ban prohibits the issuance of city permits for conversion and demolition, as well as any action that reduces the number of units.

Meanwhile, several stakeholders, including city officials, property owners, developers, nonprofits and advocates are working on a more permanent solution.

“Over the next six months, we’ll have a lot of discussion with our partners,” Department of Buildings Commissioner Felicia Davis said. “None of us want to live in a city where it’s OK to discard residents.”

The intent of the SRO Stabilization Ordinance is to create requirements for conversion permits and give residents, preservation developers and the city the right to purchase a building if an owner intends to convert, demolish, sell or dispose of the building.

“The hope for the moratorium is to be able to work on negotiations within the six-month time frame and look at the ordinance,” Voice of the People organizer D’Angelo Boyland said. “Right now, we’re trying to sift through some of the policy and legal issues that we’re ironing out the wrinkles to.”

For many low-income and vulnerable residents, SROs and residential hotels are housing of last resort. The number of units has declined rapidly the last three years. According to the Chicago for All Coalition, the city has lost 2,100 units since 2011, and only about 5,000-6,000 units in 73 licensed SROs remain. “They’d be in parks and on our streets and in the back of our houses,” 27th Ward Alderman Walter Burnett, Jr. said. “We don’t want them to be homeless.”

Elizabeth Rauba, a supporter of ONE Northside and an advocate for persons with mental illness, is concerned about how the conversion of SROs would affect seniors and people with mental or physical illness.

“Housing isn’t opening quick enough to match the numbers of people being released from nursing homes,” Rauba said. “The ordinance can allow for more resources for people seeking a place to stay.”

A survey conducted by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless found that two-thirds of SRO tenants are 50 or older, nearly half are disabled and one-fourth are military veterans. Nearly half of the tenants reported they would be homeless if they lost their housing in SROs, the report said.

“The private supply of affordable housing is dwindling,” said Eithne McMenamin, the organization’s associate director of policy. “Chicago needs to increase, not diminish, its supply of low income housing for those at risk of homelessness.”

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