Flickr user David Wilson (cc)
The Rosemoor Hotel is one of Chicago's many Single Room Occupancy buildings threatened by luxury conversion.
Earlier this year, MPC featured Eric Klinenberg at an Urban Think & Drink to share his take on the dramatic increase of people living alone. Nearly 50 years ago, only 9 percent of Americans lived alone. Today, in Chicago, 36 percent of residents live alone. This duo of posts explores how this trend has evolved in our region, what the solo lifestyle looks like and what policies might emerge to accommodate this demographic.
Eric Klinenberg, author of Going Solo, calls for a distinction between living alone and being alone. He claims solos are very social people and clarifies that a solo is not necessarily single; solos simply maintain their own living space.
In the first installment of the Metropolitan Planning Council’s “Going Solo” blog series, I introduced the trend of living alone, along with a brief description of who chooses this lifestyle and why. But, what does this lifestyle look like? To help denounce the stereotype that solos are an isolated population, Klinenberg provides examples in his book about the ways they not only interact with society, but also affect it. In an article for The New York Times, Klinenberg states, “Compared with their married counterparts, single people are more likely to spend time with friends and neighbors, go to restaurants and attend art classes and lectures.” According to the article, research shows this holds true across all ages.
Urban communities can complement the solo lifestyle by offering small apartments or condos near restaurants, shops and services as well as public transportation, which adds to personal mobility. Most single-person households are in urban areas, which suggests that places like Chicago need to preserve a range of housing options for solos that are dispersed along a wide financial spectrum.
Back in the spring, Chicago magazine released its list of the 12 best Chicago neighborhoods based on a number of metrics such as safety, diversity, ease of transportation and housing value in relation to cost. The winners included Lincoln Park, North Center, Logan Square, West Town and Near South Side. Eight of the 12 neighborhoods have median incomes between $45,000 and $60,000—fairly accommodating considering that median earnings for both men and women in Chicago falls in the mid-$40,000s. The remaining four neighborhoods boast median incomes from about $70,000 to $90,000. Affluent and middle-income solos could easily call these 12 prime locations home along with most other Chicago neighborhoods. However, those on the lower end of the financial spectrum find house-hunting to be more of a challenge.
Why? The city has lost many of its single-room occupancy units in the past few years. These units can be short-term or long-term living arrangements that usually accommodate very low-income residents. Often times, tenants have their own bedroom, but share a bathroom, kitchen space or other common areas with their fellow tenants. Such properties often have a reputation for attracting trouble and becoming neighborhood nuisances due to lack of upkeep. Though these stereotypes might hold true in some cases, it’s also true that these single rooms provide an affordable housing option for financially strapped solos who may be recently divorced, newly unemployed or turning their life around after overcoming certain circumstances.
During the past three years, over 2,200 of these single rooms were converted into higher-priced apartments. This has been controversial because while these conversions improve the quality of what some might call slum-like conditions, they have priced out previous tenants without providing relocation alternatives or assistance. Some developers have sought opportunities to provide vouchers and a portion of affordable units within their rehabbed developments, but these efforts are disproportionate to demand and cannot match the high rate of conversion that is leaving single-room tenants homeless.
Recognizing the threat for displaced residents, the City of Chicago established a six-month moratorium on single-room unit conversion and demolition to allow time to draft the Single-Room Occupancy Preservation Ordinance. The Ordinance, passed on Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2014, requires single-room occupancy building owners to make a special effort to find a buyer that will maintain affordability for at least 15 years. An alternative option requires the building owner to pay a $20,000 sum into a preservation fund. The Ordinance also outlines relocation assistance fees obligated to tenants.
The Single-Room Occupancy Preservation Ordinance offers an example of how to react to a changing market. Continuing efforts that preserve and also create equitable housing options in Chicago for households of all sizes and incomes is going to be crucial as Chicago’s demography evolves.
As Chicago's solo population continues to grow and age, there will be increasing demand for accessible and affordable housing options; governments should make sure policies and programs new and old account for our region’s demographic realities.