A shifting SRO scene: When the housing of last resort disappears

Adelaide Meyers, left, and Porscha R. Gayfield were neighbors for about five years in the Norman Hotel, a single-room occupancy building. [Photo by Michelle Kanaar]

Adelaide Meyers, left, and Porscha R. Gayfield were neighbors for about five years in the Norman Hotel, a single-room occupancy building. [Photo by Michelle Kanaar]

As housing demand accelerates on Chicago’s North Side, another trend has emerged: Single-room occupancy units are being converted into upscale hotels and apartments, pushing out longtime low-income residents who have few other housing options.

ONE Northside, an Uptown community-organizing group, estimates that 14 North Side buildings that once provided affordable housing to low-income people have been sold since 2011. That’s a net loss of around 2,205 affordable units, which are designed to cost low-income renters no more than 30 percent of their income.

The list of converted buildings describes a disappearing Chicago — Norman Hotel, Chateau Hotel, Bachelor Apartments, Abbott Hotel, Sheffield House, to name a few.

The difficulty former residents have in new finding new housing, especially on the North Side, fuels the urgency of activists who are organizing to keep the area affordable.

Norman Kaeseberg, an organizer with ONE Northside, has lived in several SROs and worked to keep them open and available for low-income residents. Many who live in SROs can’t overcome the financial barriers that could get them in market-rate housing, Kaeseberg said.

“Many of the people who lived at the Chateau had jobs in the area. Why should they have to travel on a bus for two or three hours a day for a job that pays eight bucks?” asked Kaeseberg, who sees economic diversity on the North Side being destroyed along with the availability of SRO housing.

Against this backdrop of change in Chicago’s housing scene, the Reporter interviewed three former SRO residents.

Robert Rohdenburg

Six months ago, Robert Rohdenburg put his personal papers and clothes in plastic bags and carried them out of the Chateau Hotel for the final time. He was one of the last residents to move out of the building, a single room occupancy hotel in Lakeview, following a months-long court battle with its new owners.

The low-income tenants of the Chateau had hoped that the new owner would keep some housing affordable instead of turning the entire building into upscale rentals. In the end, they lost.

The closure is estimated to have removed another 138 affordable units from the rolls.

In the months since leaving the Chateau, Rohdenburg still does not have a steady place to live. He is staying with a friend who locks him out of the house most of the day. With the little money he has, he rents a small storage unit not far from the Chateau Hotel to store his belongings.

Rohdenburg, a tall, heavyset man in his early 50s, is missing one of the lens in his eyeglasses. His mild manner belies the decades-long struggles that have left him with few stable housing options.

After losing his job working in distribution in the publishing industry, Rohdenburg cycled between homeless shelters and single room occupancy hotels, living off his Social Security disability checks and $16 a month in food stamps. All the while, he was applying for jobs, despite his lack of computer access, a permanent address, or even a suit that he could wear to an interview.

Being able to stay in the Lakeview area helped mitigate some of the difficulties, even if only slightly. “I lived in the area, I walked and knew these blocks,” he said. “I could still look for jobs at the workforce center, some of my therapy I could get to.”

At 2 p.m. on July 7, Rohdenburg’s housing in Lakeview came to an end when the last of the Chateau residents left the building.

He is now being considered for supportive housing with Thresholds, a social services agency that helps people with mental illness. But until then, his housing is tenuous.

It’s “still very day to day,” Rohdenburg said.

The friend with whom he stays sometimes exhibits outbursts of anger. “He has put me out at night before, and threatens to kick me out almost daily now.” Rohdenburg fears he might without a home—again.

Porscha R. Gayfield and Adelaide Meyers

Porscha R. Gayfield and Adelaide Meyers had been next door neighbors for five years at the Norman Hotel when they found out, in the summer of 2012, that the building would be sold. They’d helped each other through rats, bed bugs, and weeks in the winter cold without heat. In fact, when a heat wave came through one summer, Meyers used a recent check she had received as a gift to buy Gayfield a fan.

“I didn’t want her to die of heatstroke,” said Meyers, 47. By that time, they had developed a strong friendship, she said.

But one of their biggest challenges was yet to come — finding a new place to live when the Norman was converted into upscale apartments. And they would go through that together, too.

Their rent at the Norman Hotel was $475 a month each for studio apartments, which they had both found through social service agencies. But when the time came to move, neither could find an affordable apartment to rent on their own.

And so, after four months of looking for an apartment, they moved in together. The two now live in a two-bedroom apartment in Rogers Park. The rent is $895 a month. Gayfield, who is in her 60s, and Meyers each contribute a third, and Meyers’ father, who co-signed the lease to help provide a good credit score, pays the rest.

Both Meyers and Gayfield see themselves as lucky now, partially because they’ve both been on the wrong side of lucky in the past. Gayfield, originally from St. Louis, left home as a teenager and has been pretty much on her own since then. During her time in Chicago, she has lived in a string of SROs, including the Diplomat Hotel, which had a portion of its redeveloped building given over to housing the mentally ill – and made money doing odd jobs like collecting cans. In between, she endured periods of homelessness.

Meyers, originally from Jackson, Miss., suffers from schizoaffective disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, and has in the past also experienced periods of homelessness.

They’re both looking at better days ahead, Meyers said. But she worries about their other neighbors from the Norman and former residents of the other newly renovated SROs.

“We are losing a lot of affordable housing in the city,” said Meyers. “I just don’t want to see a lot of people being homeless. Especially being mentally ill myself, I don’t want to see mentally ill people out on the street.”

Kenae Martin

Kenae Martin loves skylines. His studio apartment at the Lawrence House is split in two by a room divider. Images of the Chicago skyline are everywhere. One is above his computer. In another image are Uptown rooftops taken from his 11th floor window as the afternoon winter sun sets over them. On the windowsill is a small model of the El train. 

Martin, 38, loves skylines so much that he only wants to live in high rises. But that’s becoming increasingly difficult as the few high-rises he can afford are being snapped up by developers who see their potential as hotels or luxury apartments. Until August, Martin lived at the Astor House. Though the Astor House isn’t technically a Single Room Occupancy hotel, some housing activists and lawyers have identified it as part of the ongoing SRO turnover, because it served as a low-income building in an area with rising rents.

The Lawrence House sold for $7.5 million when. It’s now being marketed by FLATS Chicago, a developer that bought at least six other deteriorating SROs on the North Side, according to the advocacy group ONE Northside.

Like many other Lawrence House residents, Martin has fallen onto hard times. The 39-year-old had a stroke in 2008, and now lives off Social Security, with help from the friend he shares his studio apartment. He used to make a living as a DJ at nightclubs and as a production assistant at a local radio station. But with one of his arms partially unusable, neither of those jobs are an option any longer.

Looking south over the city from his studio window, he often spots buildings in which he’d like to live. But, he said, he mostly sees “more buildings that we can’t afford.”

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