Tag Archives: housing

Lakeview shedding affordable housing units: an interview with reporter and activist Bob Zuley

16 Nov

Chicago Muckrakers is taking a look at affordable housing in the Lakeview neighborhood, specifically single room occupancy buildings or hotels that often function as the housing of last resort for working-poor in the area. The neighborhood has seen these SRO buildings closed and transformed into high-end housing one-by-one for the past few years. Now, only one remains. Reporter Bob Zuley with the Inside-Booster has been covering this problem for the last few years. He sat down with me to discuss the issue. 

Megan: Why did you start covering affordable housing in Lakeview?

Bob Zuley: I’ve been here in Lakeview since 2001. I’m a lifelong Chicagoan, born and raised in hillside. After high school went in the army, and I moved back to Chicago in 1980. Last year, I approached the editor at the Inside Booster about  the closing of the Bellair and Sheffield house hotels. He said, “That story has legs. Run with it.”

I write a lot about development and housing. I think it’s important to raise awareness – to shame our elected leaders into being more proactively engaged.

Megan: What are SRO hotels? Who lives there and why are they important?

Bob: SROs are single room occupancy buildings. Most of them here are old hotels that now operate as private rental buildings. It’s housing. It’s affordable and accessible housing stock that maintains diversity in the community.  People can pay a certain amount per week or per month to live there. They’re paying for it. They’re not getting anything for free. The people who live there are mostly local workforce – people who work at hospitals, security guards, food stores, baristas, streetwise vendors, taxi drivers. The local service industry. It’s where they can afford to live that’s close to their jobs.

One of the benefits for the tenants is that you can move in right away. You don’t need furniture. There are no utility bills. Some people stay there for 30 years and some are there for three weeks.

It’s a very viable and recognized housing stock . Other cities have taken concrete steps to preserve and improve SRO housing stock. Chicago’s not a very proactive city in that regard. The developers have the inside track,  and the city isn’t lifting a finger.

Megan: What have been the problems with SRO housing stock in Chicago?
Bob: The owners who have had SROs haven’t always looked out for the best interest of the residents. There have been a lot of code violations and building problems. The folks who live in these buildings, they’re not complaining about it. They’re very accepting of where they live. They want to keep them.

The problem is management and upkeep. None of us want to live in an area where if there’s an SRO that’s not well managed. We don’t want vagrants, trash, people urinating, and drinking. It’s up to the building management to run responsible operations. People living around SROs in Lakeview have complained about them, but what they’re really complaining about is bad management and upkeep. That doesn’t have to be the case.

There’s a tremendous stigma about it. None of the public officials have any real understanding of why SROs are important. These buildings have been in the community for years and years and years. The neighbors seem to accept it until it’s in the news. There’s no one defending them.

Megan: How many SROs are still open in Lakeview?

Bob: We’re just losing everything. Many have been closed down, bought out. There’s one hotel left up here. The Chateau, and there’s so much public pressure to close it.  We know the owner is already selling his other properties to Jamie Purcell, who owns BJB properties. He has properties in properties Millennium Park Plaza downtown, 5,000 rental units in the Gold Coast, Lincoln Park and Lakeview. He also owns the Beyond the Ivy Rooftop club.

Megan: How many SROs has Purcell bought? What is he doing with them?
Bob: He’s bought four buildings – the Belair, the Ambers, the Abbot and Sheffield House.  He’s putting a lot of money into them. All of his properties are existing buildings – existing rental unit buildings that he gut rehabs.

He pulled one over on us. We were pushing for the buildings to stay SROs, and he did re-license them as SROs. But he’s gut rehabbing them, and they’re going to be like boutique SROs with wood floors and granite counter tops. The former residents will never be able to afford to stay there. It’ll probably be rented to young urban professionals, people just out of school with good jobs.

Megan:What has been done with some of the other SROs that have been vacated in the last few years?

Bob: Some of them have been turned into condos, and some given to social service agencies to use for their causes.

The Diplomat, at Belmont and Sheffield, was given to Thresholds, and it’ll be reopened as 51 units of housing for the severely mentally ill. That’s a good thing, but it doesn’t replace the independent housing that was lost.  People who lived in SROs didn’t have to meet any existing criteria or in a program.

There was another big one, the Viceroy hotel at Ashland and Washington. It’s a big building, built int he 1920s. It was sold to a local church and now the building is being renovated with a grant. I understand it’s going to be housing for women released from the department of corrections. Again, a good use, but it’s still a loss of independent housing.
Megan: You said the Chateau Hotel is the only one left. What’s going to happen to it?

Bob: There are a lot of neighborhood complaints about people hanging out in front of the buildings. Some people say that it became sort of a dumping ground for a social service agency – that they put people there without support who had mental health or substance abuse issues. There’s been a bunch of community meetings, and the alderman, [46th ward alderman James] Cappellman, the perception was that he was going to come in and close it down. But he’s stated outright that it’s not his intention to close down the Chateau. He says he wants to see it improved.

But we got a notice that the building is going to housing court this month. What will happen? We just don’t know.

This post was originally published on Nov. 16, 2012 on Chicago Muckrakers.

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The Cabrini kids: families still living in Cabrini-Green struggle to find child care

14 Jan

At the end of every month, Chalonda McIntosh pays her bills. First, rent, then her car loan, then child care for her son.
“Then, if I have enough left over, I put food in the house,” she said.

But most months, she doesn’t get there. She often can’t pay child care on time and racks up late fees. McIntosh said she’s lucky to have a spot for her son at St. Vincent DePaul’s child care center on North Halsted Street in Lincoln Park, even though the $226 a month she pays after the state’s contribution toward child care is more than what she can often afford. While she’d like to send her youngest son somewhere in the neighborhood, affordable options are limited.

“In the Cabrini-Green community, we have no reliable daycare,” McIntosh said. “They do not accept vouchers. You have to go out of your community to find adequate child care, but none of it’s affordable.”

It’s not only McIntosh who is struggling. A local group called Cabrini Mothers in Power has been working for more than three years to bring an affordable child care and early learning facility to the neighborhood. An analysis by The Chicago Reporter shows that a significant number of children live in the community even though the last of the high-rise public housing buildings was demolished in March.

Despite the perception that children are gone from the neighborhood, the Reporter’s analysis shows that more than 1,100 children under the age of 5 still live in the area, according to the 2009 American Community Survey. Of them, 74 percent are black. There are no longer any child care facilities in the Cabrini area that accept government vouchers, even though the number of young children in the area has decreased by just 20 percent, according to the analysis.

Deborah Hope, one of the leaders of Cabrini Mothers in Power, raised her two children in the Cabrini row houses and used to work as a crossing guard at Jenner Elementary School, a neighborhood school. She said she meets parents regularly who want to work but are struggling to find child care.

“One mom, she was crying her eyes out,” Hope said. “She had just been offered a job at Starbucks, but Jenner could only offer her a half-day program, and she needed a full day. There was nothing in the community.”

Hope said some parents drive their children farther, to the South or West sides, for child care providers who accept state and city vouchers. Other parents stop looking for work.

The community has seen resources for children dwindle as the Cabrini towers were demolished. According to data from Illinois Action for Children, in 2000, as the Plan for Transformation began, there were six child care centers in the census tracts that contained Cabrini that accepted Illinois child care vouchers. In 2010, there were none.

Patricia Ridings has witnessed that decline. She’s a Head Start teacher at Jenner and taught at another neighborhood school for several years before it was closed. In her first year at Jenner, the school had two full-day preschool programs. But in 2010, the school cut the program in half. Now there’s one classroom with a morning and afternoon session for 3- to 4-year-olds, both of which can accommodate only 17 children.

“When they cut the program, it hurt a lot of my families,” Ridings said. “Especially since the buildings have come down, everybody’s everywhere. They don’t have that support. They don’t have the back up, like grandma or auntie to watch the kids.”
The cuts also hurt children academically, many of whom end up not prepared to enter kindergarten, Ridings said. “That’s where the education gap starts.”

The community has tried to get the attention of city officials. Cabrini Mothers in Power has hosted forums and met with local officials, some of whom seemed sympathetic or offered promises but haven’t done much to help bring a child care center to the neighborhood, Hope said.
One of those promises came from former Chicago Housing Authority CEO Louis Jordan. Hope confronted him last year, and he promised that something would change within three years. Jordan has since resigned, and CHA spokesman Matt Aguilar could not confirm whether Jordan’s promise would be honored by new CEO Charles Woodyard.

“A working group composed of stakeholders is responsible for the redevelopment plan. It is unknown what that plan will include,” Aguilar said.

CHA refers residents who need help to Illinois Action for Children. The organization said there are seven child care centers within half a mile of Cabrini. Of them, two cater to government employees, and three have a waiting list of at least a month. Two centers did not respond to our request for information. Of the five that responded, costs ranged from $750 to $1,800 a month, not including registration fees. Even with a voucher, low-income families can end up paying up to 16 percent of their monthly income for child care, according to a recent report on child care in Cook County by Illinois Action for Children.

Cabrini Mothers in Power had also been told that the Chicago Department of Family and Supportive Services might be willing to fund a center if there were a facility willing to house it. Anne Sheahan, a spokeswoman for the department, said it wants to find a solution to the child care problem in the neighborhood, but there are challenges, including finding a space that won’t cost a lot and that is properly zoned.

As for McIntosh, she’s looking forward to next year when her youngest son goes to kindergarten, and she won’t have to pay for full-day child care. But she knows that the struggles of many of her neighbors won’t be over.

“If they had a full-day service, it’d make a lot of people get up, go to work and [have] more opportunities,” McIntosh said. “There’s not enough resources.”

This article was originally published in January 2012 in The Chicago Reporter.

Poetry and memories: From the West Side, a former Cabrini-Green resident remembers what was

19 Mar
Doreen Ambrose’s first memories of Cabrini-Green are as wholesome as any young child. Going to preschool, visiting her grandmother, playing with the neighbor kids — these are the fond, sunny memories she recalls from her early days.


It wasn’t until she was 14, in 1983, that she realized her neighborhood had changed.


“My mother and I were sitting in the living room, just talking and stuff, and we heard shooting. We looked out the window, and we saw people running and screaming,” she said.


A boy she knew — Derrick Savage — had been shot, murdered in cold blood blocks away.


“I just froze,” Ambrose recalled. “I just remember not feeling like a kid anymore.”

Although it was the only home Ambrose had ever known, the day Derrick Savage was killed was the first day she realized she wanted to leave Cabrini-Green. When gang members started threatening and chasing her older brother home from school, she and her family packed up and moved from the building at 365 W. Oak on the West Side of Chicago, where she still lives today.

Bradford Hunt, a Roosevelt University historian who has studied Chicago’s public housing said Cabrini experienced a major shift in the kinds of families that lived there while Doreen was a child.


“In the mid-1960s, the median CHA family was working-class and two-parent. By 1974, over 80 percent of family residents were dependent upon state aid in one form or another,” he said.


The Cabrini-Green that Doreen knew as a child — the good times and the scary ones — is almost gone now, razed by Chicago’s Plan for Transformation. Only four of the more than 30 high-rises that once towered over Chicago’s Near North Side remain today. It is likely the rest won’t be around much longer.


The Chicago Housing Authority has planned to close the last four buildings — 364 and 365 W. Oak, 1230 N. Burling and 1230 N. Larrabee — for the past several years, listing them in its annual plans. In the last year, CHA has closed two buildings, at 660 W. Division and 420 W. Chicago, moving residents out and slowly demolishing each site.

How long the remaining buildings will last isn’t just up to CHA.

A group of residents sued the housing authority in 2001 alleging that the rapid destruction of their home was a discriminatory act against the primarily African-American women and children who lived there. They won their case, and since then, every decision at Cabrini is carefully negotiated between the residents, their lawyers and the housing authority.

CHA spokesperson Matt Aguilar says they haven’t yet determined when the final buildings will be closed.

“Discussions are currently underway with the Cabrini LAC and its counsel regarding the timing of the closure of the four buildings,” Aguilar said. “As of this date, no specific timeline has been determined.”

Lawyer Richard Wheelock, who represents the residents, says they have recommended consolidating the remaining buildings, either by grouping residents together on lower floors or cutting down to two buildings instead of four.

“They’re all largely vacant, so our best argument is to consolidate them,” says Wheelock.

Wheelock says he and Cabrini president Carole Steele have been concerned about the process of relocating residents. The housing authority has been holding voluntary relocation fairs, giving residents the option of using a Section 8 voucher to move out of Cabrini.

“It seems like CHA is hoping that at the end of the day, there will be a handful of families left to relocate,” Wheelock said.Aguilar said the relocation fairs at Cabrini are not unique.

“CHA is offering voluntary relocation to Cabrini residents just as it has offered voluntary relocation to residents at other properties,” he said.

Ambrose will be sad to see her old building, at 365 W. Oak, be torn down, even though she knows it’s inevitable.

“As a mature adult, I know it has to go. I know I don’t want to see anybody else die here,” she said. “But I will be sad. I will cry, for sure. I’ll be sad to see it go.”

Ambrose still has family that lives in the remaining buildings, and her memories of her first home are very much alive.

Doreen remembers Cabrini as the place she discovered poetry, sitting in her third grade classroom at nearby Byrd Elementary School. She was captivated as her teacher read Dudley Randall’s “The Ballad of Birmingham,” and says she knew then that she wanted to write poetry. “I just loved the way poetry made me feel. You could just say exactly what you were feeling, and that was beautiful to me,” said Ambrose.

She went on to write two books of poetry. The Diary of a Midwestern Ghetto Girl and Raised in Da Sun are published, and a third is coming out soon. But no matter how much she writes, anytime she picks up the pen, she’s carried back in time to her home in Cabrini-Green.

“When I write, I feel like I’m 9 years old again,” says Doreen. “I feel like my mother’s cooking some pot roast. I can hear her talking to my grandmother. I can see my father watching TV, my sister toddling around. When I write, I write from here.”

Will it be harder to write once her old building is no more? “A little,” Ambrose said wistfully. “A little.”

This story was first published in Skyline Newspaper on March 31, 2010.

Making the Invisible Visible

21 Nov

IMG_2214-thumb-300x225-18814I didn’t even see her, sitting on the West side of the Michigan Avenue Bridge, but Mark did.

She was young, small, sitting with her orange tabby cat next to one of the bridges tall sculpted posts. Hundreds of people walking by almost blocked out here small, cardboard sign.

We stopped, and Mark knelt beside her. “What’s your name?” he asked. “What’s your story?”

Mark Horvath does this for a living. Well, sort of. He runs a site called Invisible People and travels the country, talking to homeless people and documenting their stories. He used to be homeless himself, 14 years ago on the streets of Hollywood after battling addiction. He now dedicates his life to helping people really see the homeless we walk by every day.

People like Sandra.

Sandra was sitting on the bridge because she lost her job. She moved here a few months ago, just her and her cat, and was doing alright until she got laid off. Now, she doesn’t have any money and no place to stay. She’s trying to save up enough to get back home to Seattle, but it’s hard to save money living on the street. She panhandles to raise $40 for a hotel room every night, but there isn’t much extra to save for a ticket home.

“It’s hard. If it weren’t for him,” she says, pointing to her cat, “I don’t know what I’d do.”

Mark gave her a pair of new, clean socks, and we moved on.

He stopped in Chicago for two days on his tour around the U.S. He’s been to Vegas, Phoenix, Albuquerque, Cleveland, Detroit, New York and many more cities, just over the last two months. He let me follow him on Saturday on his journey to meet the homeless in Chicago.

It’s barely 20 feet, just the other side of the bridge, before we meet the next person.

Reggie’s been homeless for years, since his mother and brother died. After their death, his grief deadened him, making it hard for him to do anything. He lives on the street now, and he says he doesn’t even want to be here.

His pain was so visible. He’s wounded he could barely raise his head to talk to us.

I held his hand for a minute. Maybe a little longer than you should hold a stranger’s hand.

When I got on the train that morning to go down and meet Mark, I had a song stuck in my head. It was an odd song, sort of came in out of the blue. Cheery and sunny, I imagined Doris Day waltzing around a bedroom, putting her little boy to sleep.

I still had it stuck in my head when we went to meet AnnMarie. Mark had connected with AnnMarie over Twitter.Even though she’s homeless, she uses twitter and facebook to keep up with friends and family, to express herself and her frustration with a lonely world.

We sat and ate together, and AnnMarie told me about the abuse in her past that caused her PTSD and how it keeps her from holding down a job and making a more normal life for herself. She has two kids, 15 and 9, who she almost never sees.
She has a picture of them on her phone from a few years ago – smiling and waving at her. She’s applied at several supportive housing places, but they’ve turned her down because of her PTSD. She’s working on getting a place to stay and getting good health care to deal with her problems, but it isn’t easy. She takes the bus and the train for hours and hours each day, looking for someone who will be able to help her.

Often times, she comes downtown, just to spend the day, like today. She walks around and looks at things. Says hi to a few homeless people she’s made friends with.

Living on the street has been hard on her, especially because of the way men often treat her. Homeless men can be aggressive when they see a woman alone, she says, and their advances often trigger her most violent and hurtful memories from her childhood.

Mark and I walked back, he to his hotel, me to the train. He had given Annmarie a little money, something he doesn’t normally do. He does this for a living, talking to people day-in, day-out, but AnnMarie really got to him.

It’s hard to know what to do, we both thought. Do you help people individually? I wanted to get Sandra a ticket home, Reggie a warm place to stay and AnnMarie the help she wants and needs.

But helping one person doesn’t seem like enough. There are a million homeless people sleeping on America’s streets tonight. Do you give money or help to one – to try and reach one human being because every person is deserving of dignity? Or should we be giving money to places that can help more, that can even change the societal structures which push people into homelessness?

Mark calls them “invisible people” because so often, they lurk unnoticed on the edges of society. We walk by them on the street, not seeing them or too busy or uncomfortable to stop. Do we give money? Do we buy them a sandwich? We don’t know, and so we pretend we don’t see them because there’s no easy answer.

We distance ourselves mentally, too. The homeless are drug addicts. The mentally-ill. Not us. Not like us. They’re homeless because they want to be, many say. They’re too lazy to do anything but ask for spare change. Not like us. It couldn’t happen to us.

Sitting next to AnnMarie, Doris Day kept singing in my brain.

“I asked my mother what would I be? Will I be pretty? Will I be rich? Here’s what she said to me….”

It didn’t sound so sweet this time. Whatever will be will be? What kind of answer is that? Here I was, sitting next to someone who felt so like me. And Sandra, and Reggie. They felt like me too. Why was I the one asking the questions while they asked for change?

It seems so cruel. AnnMarie and I were both little girls long ago, wondering what we would grow up to be. Did she ever imagine she would be sleeping in an empty lot, depending on the kindness of strangers?

Doris Day has no answers and neither does her mother. Neither do I.

This story was originally published at One Story Up on Nov. 21, 2009.