By Sydney Boles
A dark, wood-paneled hallway leads into the interior of the Wilson Men’s Hotel. An elderly man named James watches Rachel Ray on a boxy computer at the front desk. A tenant of the hotel, James is paid by getting a discount in his rent. James takes his responsibility seriously: anyone who comes in has to go through him.
Since the 1950s, this three-story building has housed hundreds of the city’s poorest men in cubicle-room units with shared bathrooms and a shared kitchen. The men who stayed here came to Chicago from Appalachia looking for a job, or from the street, having scraped together enough money for a night’s sleep indoors.
In the 1950s, there were roughly 18,000 SRO units in the city of Chicago. In the 1960s and 1970s, when many of Chicago’s mental institutions closed and thousands of patients were turned out to fend for themselves, many of them wound up in the Wilson or places like it. People with addictions and criminal backgrounds found shelter there. SROs don’t do background checks. Nor are they bothered by your credit score. As long as you paid your rent, nobody asked questions.
But SROs never turned much profit, and over time, many of them were abandoned, destroyed or sold to developers.
Today, the Wilson is in disrepair. Citing city records, DNAinfo reported in July of last year that the building had failed dozens of building inspections since the 1990s, with four consecutive failures in 2016 and 2017. Today, you can hear the hum of the fluorescent lighting that fails to push back the gloom. In the kitchen, a plump rat sniffs the air and skitters beneath the sink. The stairwells are so dimly lit and echoey; they feel like they exist in another world. The hallways smell like nicotine and dust. Handprints smear every door.
Each man lives in a room that barely fits a cot and a dresser. The walls are made of plywood and don’t extend to the remarkably high ceilings. Instead, chicken wire spans the space between plywood wall and ceiling, making them feel like cages. The chicken wire was meant to keep tenants from tossing things into one anothers’ rooms, but the side effect was that many men hang clothes and decorations from the chicken wire, giving their rooms a claustrophobic feel. Moreover, there’s little privacy. No matter the hour, someone is coughing or vomiting or cursing loudly to himself.
Now, there’s an additional noise: the hammering and drilling of construction crews.
This building, long a home for Chicago’s forgotten men, is under new ownership. The new owner, Chicago-based developer City Pads, has given tenants a deadline of April 1 to find somewhere to go — unless, that is, a determined group of tenants wins their fight to keep the Wilson as it is.
Sherri Kranz is a small woman with a sharp gray bob, heavy eyeliner and precise lipstick. A relocation specialist with City Pads, she told me she’s relocated over 900 people during her career. Her job is to find housing for all the remaining tenants so that her bosses can turn the Wilson into a market-rate housing development with a rooftop bar – and a few affordable units, of course. Later, City Pads would commit to making 30 percent of its units affordable, to be divvied among current tenants by a lottery system.
“The single greatest limiting factor to rehousing here,” Sherri told me in the lobby, “is not people who have limiting factors such as evictions or criminal backgrounds or low income. The single biggest limiting factor is the outside tenants’ organizing entities who actively encourage an adversarial relationship and encourage tenants not to cooperate.”
The outside organizing entity was of a tenants’ association that had been around since 2012, but was speaking out strongly against City Pads. Sherri was bewildered that the tenants were making such a fuss. “There’s never been any pressure. We present options based on their income and any limiting factors to rehousing, and their neighborhood preference. … We’re able to rehouse everyone, they just have to come and work with us.” The way Sherri saw it, Uptown was really in dire straits. It was developers like City Pads that would give the neighborhood the boost it desperately needed.
Sherri allowed me to sit in on a case management meeting with a tenant and his sister. They asked that I refer to them only by their first initials to protect their privacy.
City Pads’ rehousing office has two doors: one for City Pads staff and one for tenants and their advocates. “You can come through the staff door,” Sherri told me.
Unlike the rest of the building, the City Pads rehousing shop was freshly painted and brightly lit. Two other rehousing specialists worked quietly at tidy desks. Sherri asked me to put my jacket and backpack into a plastic crate so they wouldn’t get bedbugs.
The tenant, E., was a black man in his 50s or 60s, but his gentle demeanor made him seem much younger. I’d met him before when another tenant had given me a tour of the building. When he learned my name, he assumed I was British and asked if I knew Kate Middleton. Today he wore slacks which stopped short of his ankles and a bright purple sweater with a small pink ribbon pinned to the chest. Each time he spoke, he turned to his sister, D., for approval.
D. said her brother didn’t like any of the places Sherri had offered last time, but the most recent one seemed okay. It was the Emerald, a development down the street that had some subsidized apartments for people with income like E.’s.
“I don’t want that,” E. told his sister, grimacing as though he had smelled something unpleasant. “I want to go to Vegas.”
I gathered that D. had plenty of practice redirecting E.’s attention, so she let him talk about Las Vegas, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s log cabins, and his thoughts on the city of London. Then she suggested that he take an apartment in Chicago for now, and go to Las Vegas after that. This seemed to make sense to E.
Sherri suggested that they set up a time to view the units at the Emerald. It would be in the same neighborhood, she assured them, and it would cost a third of his income. City Pads would pay for the move, too, and give him $2,000, minus any back rent he owed. There was a waiting list, Sherri admitted, but City Pads would help E. find a temporary place to stay while he waited for a room to open up.
Later, Daly Donnellan, the director of the company that owns the Emerald, said there is already a waiting list of eight to ten people, and subsidized units at the Emerald come up at the Emerald once a year at most. E. could be waiting a very long time.
Sherri told me that as of March 2, there were 87 tenants left to place by March 31. She could not provide me with the number of men she had successfully rehoused.
Presence Is Power
Tommie Hannah almost spit out his orange juice when the opened the termination of tenancy notice. “’Bout damn time,” he said to himself.
Tommie, 44, is a short man with a bald head and a well-groomed goatee. He writes a blog called “Informed Black Man,” where he muses on the political polarization in Washington.
In 2016, a series of bad turns derailed Tommie’s life. His brother was shot twelve times and had a lengthy recovery; he lost his job at a moving company; a car accident left him unable to work or even attend the IT classes he’d been taking. He moved into the Wilson, figuring he’d save money on rent until he got back on his feet. That was two years ago.
Tommie was recovering from his injuries in his second-floor unit while the Wilson’s then-manager, Jay Bomberg, was trying to sell the building. According to the City of Chicago’s 2014 SRO Preservation Ordinance, Bomberg was required to spend six months looking for buyers who would preserve the building as an SRO. But Bomberg rejected a bid submitted by two nonprofit housing groups Later it would be revealed that Bomberg raised the price from $2 million to $3 million when for-profit developer City Pads came into the picture, potentially in violation of the SRO Preservation Ordinance. Once City Pads purchased the building, there was talk the city would sue them because of its failure to file a sufficient relocation plan with the city.
City Pads took ownership this past July. For a while, Tommie saw no real changes. There were still cockroaches; the heat still went out; showers still broke and nobody fixed them. In November, City Pads opened a relocation office in a room behind the communal kitchen. Tenants saw the writing on the wall and began moving out of their own accord. The man in the cubicle next to Tommie’s died of an overdose; Tommie and some friends hung an American flag on the door of his room, and residents signed it. Vacant rooms went unfilled Little by little, the building emptied out.
And then, this past Jan. 30th the rolled-up termination of tenancy notice showed up in Tommie’s mailbox. He knew what he had to do.
In 2012, residents of the Wilson formed a tenants association with the help of local advocacy group ONE Northside. The tenants’ association successfully lobbied against 46th Ward Alderman James Cappleman’s attempt to prohibit SROs in the entire city. They rallied behind the 2014 SRO Preservation Ordinance, and they mobilized tenants when both the former and current owners failed to fix what was broken. When ONE Northside’s tenant organizer Noah Moskowitz approached Tommie about joining the association, Tommie didn’t just join: he became the chairman. It gave him a sense of agency at a time when he felt without it.
The tenants felt that City Pads was offering them housing that was neither affordable or long-term, places that would end up bought and redeveloped just like the Wilson as gentrification spread through Uptown. Most tenants were on fixed incomes from disability or social security checks. City Pads, they said, wasn’t finding them the subsidies they’d need to stay housed.
Through the tenant’s association, Tommie became one of three named plaintiffs in a lawsuit against City Pads, alleging that the company violated the SRO Preservation Ordinance, the Residential Landlord and Tenant Association, and a few other items of common law. That suit, and an additional one from the City of Chicago alleging that City Pads failed to meet housing decency standards, began with an injunction to keep tenants from eviction until the cases go forward. For now, the tenants have some sense of stability.
All James Guirey needed when he moved into the Wilson in 2016 was $100. “Eighty-five dollars for my first week’s rent,” he told me, “and fifteen dollars for my key.” He got a room on the third floor, where, he alleged, management put all the “crazies.”
James, 44, resented being grouped with the men on the third floor, but he soon began to feel protective of them. James’ parents had abused him as a kid, he told me. These men were the first family he ever had. He knocked on their doors, offered cigarettes and ran errands, and in exchange, the men passed him a few dollars here or there.
At 45, James is a quiet man. Rail-thin and gaunt-cheeked, he slouched when he walked. On February 8th, he wore a trench coat, a bucket hat, a crystal necklace and several bulky silver rings.
James wasn’t interested in the growing conflict between the tenants’ association and City Pads. He stayed away from the Wilson this day, when the tenants’ association called a press conference to tell the media about their fight for affordable housing.
But when the cameramen began to fold up their equipment and the journalists turned off their recorders, James ventured back into the hallway that led into the heart of the Wilson Men’s Hotel.
He meant to slink upstairs to his room, but his curiosity got the better of him.
The fight between the tenants and the developers was playing out right before his eyes. He leaned against the wood-paneled wall across from the front desk. He clutched a shopping bag in his bony hands. He observed the fight escalating.
“Mr. Burnett,” said Sherri calmly, “Mr. Burnett, you’re out of line.”
The Mr. Burnett in question was 51-year-old Lamont Burnett, a short black man in a heavy overcoat and a tenant of the Wilson Men’s Hotel.
“Mr. Burnet, your expectations are out of touch with reality,” Sherri said.
Lamont paced back and forth. “Are you telling me that affordable, long-term housing is out of line with reality?” he yelled.
“How can I find you housing if you won’t even meet with me?” Sherri asked, throwing up her arms.
“I’ll meet with you, but the places you’re offering me are crack houses!”
“They’re not crack houses, Mr. Burnett. You’re not making any sense.”
Lamont was getting angrier, and James decided it was time to step in. He sidled up behind Lamont, laid a hand on the man’s shoulder. “Calm down, man,” he whispered. Lamont nodded and allowed James to guide him down the hallway and out into the February chill.
James came back in and slumped into a chair in the kitchen. A cockroach scurried across the table; he knocked it to the floor with the sleeve of his trench coat. “I just don’t understand why we have to move so some rich man can get richer?”
Long one of Chicago’s most diverse neighborhoods, Uptown has been getting whiter since 2000. Developers have been buying up low income housing and turning them into market-rate or luxury apartments, displacing the urban poor.
In the 1920s, the neighborhood of Uptown was home to upscale theaters and restaurants. Since it was right on the lake and the last stop on the El at the time, rich families kept summer homes in the area’s brownstones.
In just 30 years, suburbanization, the GI bill and the extension of the elevated train turned Uptown from an elite playground to one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. By 1951, journalist and playwright Jack Lait, along with co-author Lee Mortimer, called Wilson Avenue the first spot a young man might go to find “shops, burlesque bars, theatrical rooming houses, pickpockets, pimps and dope peddlers,” and “loose women”.
In 1973, a photography student at Northwestern University was riding the train from Evanston to the city when saw a sign that piqued his interest: “The Wilson Men’s Club Hotel.” The student, Bob Rehak, got off the train and began documenting the neighborhood around the SRO.
He photographed a black man whose scarred face told a story of being set on fire by white teenagers as he slept on a park bench. He photographed a young Hispanic couple, visibly in love, dancing on a pile of rubble. He photographed a black store owner hugging a little white girl who had come to the store. “Poverty is a great fraternity, Rehak told me. “When you’re hungry and destitute, somehow issues like race become less important. You do what you have to do survive.”
Featured photo: A hallway at the Wilson Men’s Hotel. Photo credit: Sydney Boles