Well, it’s official. 30,000 CPS students will be moved around in September as 61 buildings close and even more are turned over to private operators. And in Uptown and the City’s northeast, thousands of units of low-income housing are being lost. These are our two big stories this week.
Thom Clark, President of the Community Media Workshop, takes issue with the process that CPS used in deciding about school closures.
“One of the challenges is that the decisions have been made, as you listen to parents an other school activists, in a somewhat cookie-cutter style, and have not accommodated special education classrooms that have natural smaller classroom size because of the special needs,” he explains. “There’s a lot of concern that the receiving schools are not ready to deal with special needs kids, so there are all sorts of complications. And when you talk about the scale – not 6, not 12, but 50 or 60 schools, not counting turnarounds and new charters that are gonna come on line – This is sort of a planning mess.”
Writer and recent Studs Terkel Award winner Megan Cottrell, also on this week’s panel, raises concerns about the receiving schools. “Think about those ‘welcoming schools’, she says. “This idea that, ‘oh, well, this school is doing well, so we can just push more kids in here’, not understanding that this school is a delicate eco-system. If it’s doing well, it’s because the right resources have been put into the right places, that the teachers and the parents and the kids are working together to make this happen.”
Megan has written several articles recently about the changing housing situation on Chicago’s north side. Many former single-room occupancy buildings, particularly in the 46th Ward, have been recently purchased and closed, undergoing radical renovation to accommodate more upscale tenants. It’s becoming a serious problem for people who earn too little money to afford a regular apartment. “That little stretch of Lakeview has lost 700 units within the last two years of SRO housing,” she explains. “The northeast side of Chicago, the numbers I’ve seen is 2,000 units of low-income housing, and that’s a significant number, especially when you’re talking about a market that’s very small. Finding these places is very difficult. They are few and far between.”
Jean Butzen also joins our panel. Today she heads Mission Plus Strategy consulting, but for many years she developed and managed single-room occupancy residences all over Chicago. She says it’s critical that Chicago preserves this unique style of housing. “If you think of all of our housing being represented by a ladder,” she says, “and every rung of that ladder you go up economically, SROs are the bottom ring of that ladder. And when we remove that rung of the ladder, people don’t have anywhere to go except to be homeless and to our shelter system.”
“When we ran Lakefront SRO,” Butzen adds, “we were great operators of housing. People welcomed us into the neighborhood. Property values actually increased, because we took dilapidated properties, we renovated them and managed them really well and kept them as single-room occupancy housing…When people are homeless, they cost society a lot more money than when people are housed in permanent housing and have a roof over their heads. So it’s just as simple as that.”
Cottrell tells us that, in her reporting, especially regarding the Chateau Hotel in Uptown, she encountered dozens of tenants – about to be evicted – who live at the building simply because the recession has crushed them financially. There are few, if any alternatives after the Chateau other than the City shelter system.
Alderman James Cappleman has been the target of severe criticism for his perceived policy of allowing – some might say encouraging – the destruction of these SROs. But buildings like the Chateau have been operating for decades, Butzen says, and serving a need for a growing number of citizens.
“…and to tear it down or to significantly renovate it so that it can’t be low-income housing…really is fundamentally changing the nature of the community from what it’s been for a long time. And I think that’s what the Alderman is not really understanding about the history of the community.”
“A complicating factor,” adds Thom Clark, “is that around the northeast side we’ve had a lot of rental housing that has been converted to condo. Those are now creating a significant short-sale dynamic in those same neighborhoods. They have not returned to rental. The market values of those under-water condos don’t speak to affordable rental, even if an owner wanted to go to one.”
“The problem is management,” Cottrell concludes. “It’s not that these buildings are inherently troublesome, but when you have someone who’s not particularly invested in that building, who isn’t making the physical upgrades or investing in the social work that needs to be done to make sure this building works, that’s what needs to change. These buildings can be problematic, but they don’t have to be. I think the idea right now is, well, we’ll just get rid of the building and you’ll get rid of the problems.”
And Butzen ends the program with a plea to Mayor Emanuel. “We did a lot of work to change the zoning code and the building code to protect single-room occupancy housing, and Mayor Emanuel needs to learn this lesson as well. We cannot lose these units. They are valuable assets to the whole city.”