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Hundreds to be displaced as Lakeview hotels close
by Kate Sosin, Windy City Times
2011-08-10

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Hundreds of residents in the 44th Ward are scrambling to find housing after two single-room occupancy hotels (SROs) served up notices to vacate late last month. The closings impact an estimated 350 tenants, some of whom have HIV, mental illnesses and other disabilities.

Both The Sheffield House hotel, 3834 N. Sheffield Ave., and The Belair Hotel, 424 W. Diversey Ave., have been sold.

The Belair, which houses approximately 250 tenants, served notice on July 13 that the hotel would close Monday, Aug. 15. The Sheffield notified its estimated 105 residents on July 28 and 29 that the premises had been "closed effective immediately for repairs" and that residents were to leave.

"The trauma that this has caused is evident," said Lori Cannon, a food program coordinator with Vital Bridges, which provides food to HIV-positive clients.

Cannon was on the way out to the Sheffield Aug. 5 in the morning to deliver shampoo, toothpaste and underwear to a client who had panicked and thrown out his belongings earlier in the week.

The man, who is HIV-positive and gay, was to talk with Windy City Times about how the closing is impacting him. He is among an estimated 20-40 who have remained in the building. However, when Cannon arrived, she said, she found the man had been hospitalized the night before after an apparent nervous breakdown.

"This is the result of a lot of stress and panic and fear," Cannon said.

The Sheffield, predating its recent purchase by Sheffield I LLC, was found to have violated 53 city codes earlier in the year. Violations included failure to provide working smoke and carbon monoxide detectors; maintaining potable water; repairing broken and peeling walls; and fixing a host of electrical and plumbing problems.

A circuit court ruled in May that the violations be corrected by Oct. 1 or be vacated.

The building, however, had not been condemned.

Buildings that are condemned can be vacated immediately for safety reasons. Assuming they are not condemned, code mandates that residents be allowed between a week to 30 days to vacate, depending on the length of tenancy. Consequently, some have questioned the legality of the Sheffield notices.

Bennett Lawson, a spokesperson for 44th Ward Ald. Tom Tunney, speculated that the Sheffield vacate notices were "not exactly legal."

Rumors have also swirled that a term of the sale to Sheffield I LLC was that the building be vacated. Windy City Times could not confirm this. Sheffield I LLC did not return requests to comment in time for publication, some of which were made over the weekend.

Elizabeth Rosenthal, a housing attorney for Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago, also questions the legality of the Belair notice.

While the notice from the building's manager, W.H. Windmiller and Associates, asserts that the "notice constitutes the necessary 30 days termination notice for all rental units," the letters issued July 13 may not constitute a full month for tenants who pay rent on the first of the month.

Rosenthal believes that notices may have been given to people who pay rent on the first of each month and not the 15th. If that is the case, some tenants in the Belair might be able to stay until Sept. 1.

A person who picked up the phone at the Belair but refused to give his name said that rent is generally collected on the first of the month for month-to-month renters. Management could not be reached by the time of publication.

The Belair's connection to Chicago's LGBT community is deep, if not for its location near Lakeview than for one famous former tenant. For 18 years, room 317 was home of Jon-Henri Damski, the celebrated LGBT journalist who was instrumental in passing the city's human-rights ordinance in 1988.

Both hotels, Cannon said, are home to people her organization has served for years.

Cannon said that at least five of her clients remained in the Sheffield hotel. She criticized its immediate closing as "inexcusable and shameful."

"Can you imagine if this was the winter? There would have been deaths," she said. "This is affecting the gay community and the AIDS community."

Evictions in both buildings could take as long as two months. Landlords cannot forcibly remove tenants, lock them out, stop providing utilities or remove their belongings without filing and winning evictions in court. In those cases it is up to police, not landlords, to remove tenants.

Jennifer Ritter, executive director of Lakeview Action Coalition (LAC), which has been fighting to preserve SROs, said that the closures could lead to homelessness for many residents.

While rent for SROs can sometimes match those of market-rate apartments, many who live in SROs cannot afford security deposits on apartments or have been rejected by potential landlords for bad credit or criminal records, said Ritter.

"These folks have jobs," she said. "There's just something that makes it hard for them to get through this incredibly tight housing market."

SROs have been disappearing over the past few decades. Originally conceived for temporary Chicago workers in the late 1800s, SRO hotels in Chicago have often suffered from bad reputations and lack of adequate management. As such, their demise has been expedited by political pressure.

"There are some rough criminal issues at some of these SROs," said Lawson, adding that if the alderman supported SRO housing it would not be in current terms. "We've had some safety issues," he said. Among them, Lawson said were crimes, drugs and prostitution.

Lawson said that his office was interested in "more stable" affordable housing in the ward, including government-subsidized buildings where occupants pay 30 percent of their incomes in rent.

Still he said, figuring out where to immediately house people who have been displaced by the two recent SRO closings, presents a challenge. Lawson informed LAC of the Belair closing and asked the organization to help residents find new housing.

"It's hard to do in Lakeview," he said.

For now, LAC might aim pressure new managers at the Sheffield to shell out money for security deposits and first month's rent. That way, she said, people who can't afford the deposits will be able to relocate. That however, may not fix situations for all.

Some who stay at SROs live in shelters half of the month, saving enough money for an SRO room to sleep in for the other half, Ritter said.

Cannon said that other local groups were mobilizing to help SRO residents cope. She remained hopeful that her client who spent the weekend in the hospital would recover.

"This guy's had more comebacks than Liz Taylor," she said. "He'll survive."


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