One hundred and 47 men reside at the Wilson Men’s Hotel — for decades one of the lowest cost housing options for Chicago’s down-and-out.
On Tuesday, the Uptown building was sold to a developer who plans to remove the tenants and remodel the decrepit flophouse to appeal to a more upscale clientele.
The problem, as always, is what will become of those who live there, some who are fighting an uphill battle to preserve the building as affordable housing.
“I don’t want to move,” said Dave Hadamik, 63, a Wilson resident of 17 years. “If I had more money, I wouldn’t be there. But I don’t. I can’t do shelters any more. I can’t sleep in the bushes any more.”
If any of this sounds familiar, it should. I first went to bat more than four years ago to save the Wilson, located at 1124 W. Wilson next to the Uptown CTA station, itself in the midst of a major rehab.
The Wilson is one of the city’s last two “cubicle hotels,” along with The Ewing Annex, 422-26 S. Clark.
Cubicle hotels are distinguishable from other single-room-occupancy, or SRO, buildings by their tiny rooms separated by divider walls topped with wire fencing.
Because of the fencing, some refer to the facilities as “cage” hotels. Indeed, their cage-like appearance lends to an overall bleak existence for residents, a tradeoff for a liberal admission policy and rents that at the Wilson range from $340 to $380 a month.
The tenants include individuals with mental health and substance abuse problems and criminal backgrounds and others who are just alone and down on their luck. Many are elderly. Some have lived there more than 20 years.
Back in 2013, Ald. James Cappleman (46th) and Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) argued it was time to end the anachronistic facilities as inhumane.
But cubicle hotel residents had other ideas. Realizing better than aldermen the shortage of housing options for people in their circumstances, they fought back with help from the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. The aldermen backed down.
Now, a rising real estate market has accomplished what the proposed ordinance couldn’t.
Jay Bomberg, the Wilson’s previous owner, strongly advocated saving the cubicle hotels in 2013. But now, he told me, he needs to sell because the business has become “unsustainable,” with too few tenants to break even.
To the residents’ disappointment, Bomberg rejected a bid from a nonprofit team that wanted to keep the building 100 percent affordable, explaining he could not come to terms with Interfaith Housing Development Corp. and Trilogy Inc.
Interfaith president Perry Vietti said price wasn’t an issue as much as the long lead time nonprofit developers like him require to obtain financing, usually by piecing together various government programs.
“He wanted it done in 60 days. I need six to nine months,” Vietti said. “He knows, in my world, I can’t do that.”
Vietti said he hoped to turn the building into 120 SRO apartments of 300 square feet by adding an additional floor to the four-story building.
“To me, it’s perfect for preservation,” he said. “I think we definitely would have gotten funding.”
Instead, Bomberg sold to Andy Ahitow, manager of City Pads LLC, which specializes in market-rate rentals for young professionals.
Ahitow plans to remodel the property into 75 to 82 studio apartments, with 20 percent of them set aside as affordable — for individuals with annual incomes of up to about $33,000. That’s just 16 spots in a place that currently shelters 10 times that many on a cold winter’s night.
Bomberg would not disclose the sales price except to say it was less than the $3,450,000 he paid in 2007.
Cappleman said he would have preferred a buyer who would have improved the building and allowed tenants to remain. But he said City Pads promises to relocate all Wilson residents into real housing, not homeless shelters.
Resident Tommie Hannah, 43, is doubtful and plans to keep fighting.
“It may be a rat hole in the wall,” Hannah said. “But, guess what, it’s our rat hole in the wall because that’s all we have.”