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06.24.2013
The Last Stop
Transient hotels increasingly endangered in Chicago.
The Chateau Hotel in Chicago.
Chicago Crime Scenes / Flickr

The Chateau Hotel, an 85-year-old, single-room-occupancy hotel located on Chicago’s North Side, is currently in line for a renovation project that will likely price out its present clientele. Following a county court hearing held to address a series of fire and safety violations at the building earlier this year, guests of the Chateau encircled 46th Ward Alderman James Cappleman, whose territory includes the hotel, to glean some insight as to the future of their home. “I have gone into apartment buildings that you wouldn’t believe how bad they are, and this is worse than I’ve ever seen,” said Cappleman, a social worker. “Just out of respect for humanity, we cannot allow residents to live in these unsafe conditions.”

“I’m going to be homeless because of your humanity,” one man returned.

For many, single-room-occupancy hotels (SROs) have long stood as a final way station before stepping off into the abyss of homelessness. The minimal-service, mostly privately-owned hotels provide customers with a bed and a door, and little else. Guests pay by the day, week, or month, and background checks are usually passed over. Bathrooms are down the hall, and a kitchen is rare.

In Chicago, the stock of available SROs has steadily depleted over roughly the past thirty years, driven down by mismanagement, urban renewal, and the malaise of neighbors. According to a recent survey by Chicago Public Media, the number of operating SROs in the city has dropped from 106 to 81 licenses since 2008.

First appearing in Chicago around the turn of the 20th century, in step with the industrial growth and progressive reform movements seen during that period, SROs existed alongside philanthropic ventures like the iconic Jane Addams Hull-House. Beneath the SROs were the “cage hotels,” in which clients stayed in rooms partitioned off by chicken wire (as seen in the Wilson Men’s Club, still in operation today), and flophouse dives, where intoxicated customers slept on the floor for the price of a drink. Though they offered few services aside from a closed door, the hotels gave occupants the luxury of privacy, a provision absent from any of the city’s faith-based or state shelters. Even in rooms where the chicken wire stopped short of the ceiling, guests had relative control over access.

With its concentration of railroads and a push for public works projects, Chicago was quickly becoming one of the busiest labor exchanges in the nation. As such, the often privately owned SROs were marketed as bunks for working men.

The Starr Hotel was a model for this type of dwelling. Built in the years preceding World War I, the hotel’s elaborate facade bore terra cotta depictions of heroic laborers with hands rested atop shovels. “There was considerable writing about those buildings as trying to be the best and most dignified accommodations possible for working people, transient hotel guests, and even permanent guests,” said Tim Samuelson, cultural historian for the City of Chicago.

The dissolution of the Works Progress Administration in 1943 and the end of the war-time manufacturing industry lowered the demand for casual labor in Chicago and elsewhere, and by the early 1950s the Starr—now bookended by liquor stores—had gradually become home to the denizens of Chicago’s Skid Row.

In 1982, the Starr was demolished to make way for Presidential Towers, a massive four-building development that would mark the rebirth of the city’s Near West Side from a vice district to a residential destination for professionals. The project raised some stir among affordable housing advocates, who warned that dissolving the city’s SRO stock would increase homelessness among the low- and fixed-income residents who now frequented the hotels.

Others lauded the Starr’s demise. “They were called ‘fleabag hotels,’” said Doug Dobmeyer, a long-time housing activist in Chicago. Around this time, Dobmeyer, then a shelter supervisor in Uptown, formed the Lakefront SRO Corporation, a redevelopment firm bent on re-establishing the SRO as a feasible alternative to homelessness.

Lakefront’s first target was the Moreland Hotel. Built in 1916, the three-story SRO was said to have once been home to Charlie Chaplin. Upon purchasing the hotel in 1987 with a combination of state and federal funding, Lakefront rehabbed the Moreland’s 69 rooms into permanent supportive housing units, providing guests with case management, workforce, and health services. The organization went on to develop 1,000 such units of supportive SRO housing before merging with Colorado-based Mercy House in 2006.

Dobmeyer, now retired, said that public assistance was the linchpin to making the reinvention of the Moreland—now called the Harold Washington Apartments—a reality. “The truth is these projects would never work without those subsidies,” he said.

When asked if there was a future in for-profit, standalone SROs like the Chateau, Dobmeyer said that it all depended on the will of the client. “We felt that [supportive services] were an important part of what had to happen,” he said. “But there are some who would rather sleep outside than in a shelter. Some people just won’t be put under the cookie cutter.”

Ian Fullerton