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When low-income housing is converted into luxury apartments
A six-story building on Chicago's North Side once housed some of the city's poorest residents. Now it has been remodeled with granite countertops, stainless appliances and is marketed to young professionals with its "vintage" appeal. - photo by Madeleine Openshaw,

A high-rise near Wrigley Field in Chicago had tiny rooms with peeling paint, but it offered a home to those who were too poor to pass a credit check, save up first and last month's rent, or make the other stiff qualifications that make it difficult to get into housing in an urban market.

Now the six-story building has a remodeled entry with elaborate carvings. Refurbished studios boast stainless steel countertops and granite countertops, and rents are over $1,000.

The Washington Post reports that the Hotel Carlos, which once offered a cheap place to stay for poor residents, is just one of many in Chicago's North Side that are being snapped up by developers and converted from small, humble spaces for low-income residents, to upscale, "vintage" spaces for single, young professionals.

Gentrification often pushes people out slowly as rents and property taxes rise, but Chicago's disappearing low-income housing is much more direct as whole buildings are emptied out. Since 2011, more than 2,000 units have been converted into upscale apartments, according to The Washington Post report.

But as of last week, city councilmen passed an ordinance that would preserve single resident occupant housing. The move is an acknowledgment that these properties are a key asset in affordable housing, a shift from a few years ago, when councilmen were just as happy to get rid of them.

Ed Shurna, director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, told the Chicago Sun-Times that preserving SROs was vital for keeping people housed and maintaining diversity: “More people would be thrown out in the street and become homeless and, in their place, we’d have boutique hotels that are very expensive,” he said.

Still, Chicago's affordable housing stock needs 3,500 more units to meet demand, he said.

“We have to stop the bleeding," Shurna said. "We have to stop demolishing housing that’s affordable. We have to do more than that. We have to start building housing that’s affordable. We need more affordable housing for people who are working, but can’t afford a place to live."

Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City and other U.S. metros also face affordable housing crises, especially as young professionals flood into cities. New York lost much of its SRO stock, as many as 52,000 units, in the 1980s.

SRO owners in Chicago argue that affordable housing is a city-wide problem and not one that they should be forced to bear.

The new ordinance would prevent them from quickly selling properties and require them to contribute to a preservation fund that asks $20,000 per unit. Those set on selling would have to spend six months searching for a buyer committed to providing affordable housing for the next 15 years.

Owners would also have to provide for displaced tenants with $2,000 to $8,000 in compensation and relocation.

Since the 1980s, New York has battled the affordable housing problem by renovating rundown buildings, subsidizing rents and incentivizing developers to include affordable units in new construction.

This has provided hundreds of thousands of low- and medium-income apartments, but it's still not enough to meet demand.
SROs are often criticized for being rundown and offering substandard, and sometimes illegal, conditions, but housing advocates say that they are one of the last options for the poorest of the poor to stay off the streets.

New York City is experimenting with building more "micro-units" from scratch, some as small as 250 or 370 square feet, such as a new pre-fabricated modular tower at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. However, that housing, like the newly remodeled hotels in Chicago's North Side, are aimed at millennials, not the urban poor.