CHICAGO — Those who came to Chicago at the turn of the 20th century usually didn't rent an apartment. Or buy a house. There wasn't even such a thing as a condo.
The thousands who migrated here during the Gilded Age instead found shelter in single room occupancy hotels, or SROs.
In 1915, there were 3,700 of them in the city. These days, advocates say there are fewer than 150, many operating under the radar, and that number is dwindling.
"There's always been a need for these places," said Eric Rubenstein, director of the Single Room Housing Assistance Coalition. “They were all different — some were really high-class. Some were just shelter.”
While SROs are no longer the housing choice for newcomers to the city, Rubenstein said they provide another valuable service.
"They're the housing of last resort. Either if you're coming from the street and you don't have much money to work with, or maybe you've lost your home, maybe your job,” said Rubenstein. “You have a roof of your head — legit housing."
What's leading to the demise of these buildings?
It's a combination of things, said Charles Hoch, professor of urban planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who wrote a book on SROs.
One factor is the change in the way we think of housing — the push toward homeownership and suburbanization. When the majority of SROs were built, between the late 1800s and the 1920s, people moved to the city for jobs, but also for the excitement of urban living. SROs, with their small furnished rooms often with a community bathroom down the hall, provided affordable space in a desirable location.
"You didn't live in your room. There wasn't anything to do in your room," said Hoch. "You lived in the city. You just slept in your room."
Of the 85 SRO licenses issued by the city in 2012, 15 are in the 60640 zip code, which encompasses the neighborhoods of Uptown and Ravenswood.
The area was a main railroad hub at the turn of the century and a booming residential area, said Hoch. The SROs that survive there today were the upscale variety, while the more working-class SROs were found Downtown and in clusters on the South and West sides, particularly along Madison Street.
Most of those buildings were either demolished during the 1950s and '60s or have been bought up by developers to be transformed into apartments or condos. A few have been purchased by nonprofits like Mercy Housing Lakefront or the Heartland Alliance to be rehabbed and remain as affordable housing.
Harvest Commons, an 89-unit building near Ashland Avenue and Madison Street, replaced the former Viceroy SRO, opening in April of this year. The Heartland Alliance purchased the building from the city for $1 and spent $22.3 million to rehab it. The building was in terrible shape — the scene of neighborhood crime for years and a target for looting vandals after it was shut down in 2005, says Hume An, director of real estate development for Heartland. Despite that, the group felt it was worth saving.
"We think it's a great building. It was opened in 1930s, in the art deco style. There are beautiful historic details with terra cotta on the exterior," said An. “It has a lot of strong points."
Harvest Common offers supportive housing to people making less than the area median income, as well as an urban farm next door, a professional-grade teaching kitchen, a green roof, a geothermal heating system and a social enterprise cafe on the ground floor, operated by St. Leonard's Ministries. The Chicago Housing Authority offers rent subsidies to its residents, and the building received both federal and state low-income housing tax credits.
But those financial incentives are tough to come by, said An, making the rehab of other SROs like the Viceroy difficult.
"There's a lot more need for this kind of housing than there is financing," said An.
But SRO advocates like Rubenstein and Hoch said preserving these buildings is vital to keeping Chicago's housing market healthy and available to all renters on the economic spectrum.
"If there were no SROs, then a lot of the poor wouldn't be able to remain in Chicago," said Rubenstein. "I guess a lot of people would consider that a victory."