SROs and socialists

1. Chicago aldermen introduced an ordinance this week to protect Single Room Occupancy, or SRO, buildings, which are bare-bones micro-apartments that have traditionally been a kind of housing safety net for the very low-income. Over the last several years, SROs on the North Side have been converting to regular-sized apartments and condos, and thus eliminating this safety net. Just last week, one of the last SROs on the Northwest Side – the Milshire Hotel in central Logan Square – announced it was following that path.

SROs are definitely worth protecting, but I’m leery about whether this will work. It seems to be modeled on Chicago’s affordable housing ordinance, in that property owners can opt out of providing affordable housing (or, in this case, preserving their SROs) by paying a fee to the city. In the case of the affordable housing ordinance, that fee is lower than the cost of providing below-market-rate units, meaning there is virtually no incentive for developers in high-demand neighborhoods to actually include those units. Instead, they pay into the city’s affordable housing fund, which is then used to build subsidized housing in neighborhoods that already have a high concentration of poverty.

Similarly, this ordinance will only work if the fee is higher than the extra money SRO owners can make by kicking everyone out and turning to the mainstream housing market. Will it be? I have no idea, but the affordable housing ordinance doesn’t set a good precedent.

2. Somewhat relatedly, a developer is proposing to build a 66-unit SRO on California in Logan Square, except that the units would be furnished with high-end appliances and rented for $1,000 a month. In other words, it’s really not an SRO at all – it’s a high-end studio building. But, at 320 square feet, they qualify as SRO units under the zoning code. I’m actually somewhat excited about this as a precedent for potentially low-cost, high-density residential construction, since Chicago allows a good deal more SRO units to be built than regular apartments in the same sized lot. (That is, assuming any apartments are allowed at all – in most of the city, of course, SROs are just as illegal as every other multi-unit building.)

This SRO building, in addition to providing some much-needed housing supply, is also ugly as sin.

Then again, 320 square feet is actually really small, and the words “single room occupancy” are likely to stir a good deal of vitriol from neighbors who (usually successfully) lobby the government to keep lower-income people segregated elsewhere, so it’s not really clear how much potential this has. But Chicago – like most cities – has fewer one-bedroom and studio apartments than people who only need one bed, so I’ll take as much as they’ll give.

3. Inspired by the victory of self-described socialist Kshama Sawant, who won a seat on Seattle’s city council last year, Chicago socialists are running a candidate of their own in 2015: Jorge Mújica, against Danny Solis, in the 25th ward. The 25th encompasses a number of neighborhoods, but one of the main ones is Pilsen, a mostly Mexican area a few miles southwest of the Loop that looks to be only a few years away from full-blown gentrification.

There are a lot of things to say about Mújica’s candidacy, and this interview he gave to In These Times magazine (where, full disclosure, I once interned), but in the interest of being predictable I will pick out this part:

Gentrification has meant, under the sitting alderman, that development comes by allowing people on the outside to come in and build new housing. But, of course, if this new housing is not accessible to the current residents of the ward, then that displaces them. Many people have suffered the displacement of their families. They feel it. They resent it.

We would like to start a program that says: “Okay, you live in Pilsen? Then we will make sure you have the chance to buy the building that you are renting in now.”

Opposing the displacement of people who don’t want to move is great, but it’s simply not the case that what gentrification has already occurred in Pilsen has happened because “people on the outside come in and build new housing.” In fact, Pilsen has lost housing units since 2000, while rents there have increased more than 60%.

Since Mújica is a socialist, I don’t expect him to be excited about the standard urbanist affordable housing proposal of allowing the market to build as many new units as demand will support. But he should at least have a coherent explanation of what’s going on, and it’s not too much construction. I would actually be quite excited to see him latch on to the less popular (among American urbanists), but begrudgingly acknowledged, alternative model of housing affordability, which is just to take massive quantities of housing off of the private market altogether. (Of course, you then need to supplement that with a massive government housing construction program, lest you end up with relatively cheap housing that has a waiting list that’s half a decade long.) The article I linked to talks about Singapore as such a utopian vision, but in the U.S., only about half of New York City’s housing stock is totally unregulated; the rest is either public, subsidized, or under some kind of rent control. New York’s system definitely leaves something to be desired – they have a bit of the affordable-units-no-one-can-actually-get problem, and the regulated units cut into the market-rate supply, pushing up prices there – but there’s a lot for a socialist to like, and the huge number of non-market units actually do successfully keep some measure of economic integration in neighborhoods that would otherwise be completely overrun.

11 thoughts on “SROs and socialists

  1. Man, that building is ugly. Considering how sensitive these types of things tend to be in low-density neighborhoods, you’d think they’d at least want to try and make it blend in a bit better, or have some appealing outside facade.

    My initial reaction to the proposal for more government-owned housing was negative, but it actually makes sense if what you fundamentally want is low-income housing and can’t muster the political consensus to allow more construction and density. Of course, public housing hasn’t expanded a ton in the US in decades, so I’m not confident you can build up a lot of support for that either.

    If you don’t want the cities to run the projects directly, you could always structure them as non-profit coops I guess, or go the utility model and have them privately owned and operated with their rental rates and fees set by commission to ensure a small profit while being affordable.

    1. All SROs require one space per 10 units, and I don’t believe this falls within the ridiculously short radius from the nearby Blue Line stop specified by our “TOD” ordinance that would allow them to void that requirement. So seven spaces, probably.

  2. Roosevelt Island off of Manhattan, somewhat follows the Singapore Model of government owned housing. Buildings look rather project like, the older ones are a distinctive Brutalist style.

    The island is owned by a government agency, the buildings sound like they’re private using these rules and government subsidization:

    or have a labor union set up a development corporation and build project-like housing co-operatives (residents own a share in the building). A couple of their buildings are named are socialists.

    1. Sounds great. Have you read Gail Radford’s “Modern Housing for America”? It’s about the fight over what public housing would look like in the 20s-40s, and the people who wanted a broader, more cooperative and socialistic role for it to house the working and middle classes in addition to the poor. It’s really fantastic – you should track down a copy if you haven’t read it.

  3. Daniel,

    I don’t live in Chicago (California – would love to relocate one day) but follow city trends, planning, and the politics of the city. How much of an advocacy role does the MPC and CMAP play in addressing, policy-making and lobbying for a housing safety net?

    1. To be honest, I’m not totally sure. MPC is definitely involved to some extent, but I wouldn’t say the “safety net” is one of their main issues – more like housing-jobs mismatch.

  4. What does Mujica’s plan to combat gentrification exactly look like? Would it be a rent-to-own program for current renters, would it consist of subsidized units, or would it consist of units with income restrictions? Anyway, the idea of increasing homeownership rates to fight gentrification is definitely interesting. Do you know if gentrification has proceeded differently in cities wish higher homeownership rates (such as Atlanta)?

    1. Homeownership makes displacement less of an issue – it’s explored some in “There Goes the Hood” by Lance Freeman. But property taxes can be a problem, and some folks are still wary about the culture of the neighborhood changing. But also not everyone can own their own home, and it doesn’t help newcomers – of any income level or ethnic background – at all. Sometimes I think people forget that lots of people move all the time, and shutting the door on them can’t really be part of any good solution.

      I dunno what exactly Mujica has in mind – I don’t know that he’s released a white paper or anything. It would be kind of intense if he had, since he was just nominated.

      1. I definitely agree with your point at the end of the first paragraph. Too much of the current anti-gentrification rhetoric is focused on protecting long-time residents and not about creating an economically diverse neighborhood in the long run.

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