Ordinance safeguarding SROs approved by City Council

Activist Alexandra Keels attended the City Council meeting to support the passing of the Single-Room Occupancy Preservation Ordinance.
Activist Alexandra Keels attended the City Council meeting to support passage of the Single-Room Occupancy Preservation Ordinance.

By Evan Garcia

A law passed by the Chicago City Council Wednesday will make it harder for owners of single-room-occupancy units to convert their properties to market-rate apartments.

SROs provide low-rent housing for Chicagoans earning little income. Advocates say these apartments keep the city’s elderly, disabled and fixed-income recipients from ending up on the streets, but they have been disappearing at a rapid rate.

The ordinance gives building owners 180 days to negotiate with potential buyers but the affordable SRO status must be maintained for 15 years after the purchase. If an agreement is not struck within those 180 days, the property owner will have 120 days to sell it to any buyer. If the building still hasn’t been acquired, then the owner must re-commit to finding a buyer who will keep the building affordable for 15 years.

Owners who sell will have to contribute to an SRO preservation fund to help any residents who have lived in SRO housing for more than 31 consecutive days. Tenants moving out would receive a one-time payment of $2,000 to $8,600 to assist with the cost of relocation.

The North Side has lost more than 2,000 units since 2012, which is creating an overflow at homeless shelters, Julie Dworkin, policy director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said recently in published reports. There are about 6,000 units left, she said.

In June, the City Council passed a six-month moratorium on the conversion or demolition of SROs so aldermen, activists and building owners could reach a compromise.

“A lot of people doubted that we’d use the moratorium,” the mayor said Wednesday. “The time was well-used and today is a recognition of that.”

Supporters from Organization Neighborhoods for Equality attended the council meeting and erupted into applause when the ordinance was approved.

“This is the last step before homelessness,” said volunteer Alexandra Keels. “SROs are the gray area that so many of our community members live in. Passing this ordinance gives them a safety net.”

Not everyone was sold on the feasibility of the new law, however.

Executive Director Eric Rubenstein of the Single Room Housing Assistance Corporation said the ordinance means well but doesn’t provide a hardship clause, which would protect property buyers and operators from emergencies.

“In the city of Chicago, you have looming taxes and a pension crisis,” Rubenstein said. “What if the ends don’t meet or a fire breaks out and a building can’t be sold?”

Still, Rubenstein said the ordinance is a step in the right direction. The pressing issue for Chicago’s low-income earners is keeping existing SROs open, he said.