What’s happening at the Rosemoor Hotel follows a familiar script in Chicago in recent years. Like the Chateau Hotel, the New Jackson Hotel and many other single-room-occupancy hotels, or SROs, the Rosemoor has been bought by a developer who has grander plans than providing low-income housing.
SRO tenants have protested, marched and held vigils in an attempt to persuade the new owners to maintain and offer more affordable housing, give them more time to move out or offer them financial assistance to relocate. But few tenants have been successful in these efforts.
So the residents of the Rosemoor Hotel are trying a different approach: They’ve organized a tenants association.
In January, Joe Perillo, the owner of Perillo Automotive Group, which runs several luxury car dealerships in Chicago and Downers Grove, purchased the Rosemoor Hotel, located near the University Village neighborhood. Four months later, a group of Rosemoor residents formed the Rosemoor Tenants Union.
Between rent increases and 30-day notices to vacate the property, some residents were concerned that Perillo was trying to push them out. Many residents have lived at the Rosemoor for up to two years, and few could find a new place to live in only a matter of weeks. The tenants association also sought to stop what it saw as retaliation by management and demand repairs to the aging and deteriorating building. It also wanted to persuade new management to meet with the tenants and consider keeping some units affordable.
Historically, tenants associations have been credited with the establishment of rent control in notoriously overpriced New York City. In Chicago, tenants in foreclosed buildings or Chicago Housing Authority’s subsidized housing programs have also created tenants associations to fight on their behalf.
An association provides legal protection for tenants to organize because retaliation against a member of a tenants organization is illegal, said Susan Ritacca and Victoria Ogunsanya, who represent the Rosemoor Tenants Union. They work for the Lawyers Committee on Better Housing, a local housing rights group.
By calling themselves a tenants association, the Rosemoor residents secured a “legal standing,” allowing them to bring the building’s new owner into court, Ritacca and Ogunsanya said. The Lawyers Committee for Better Housing is considering legal action on the association’s behalf to buy time to keep tenants in their homes.
Elce Redmond, a South Austin Coalition Community Council organizer who helped create the tenants association, said management had retaliated against tenants by raising the rent after they complained about illegal construction. The rehab on some units was being done without a city permit. At that point, Redmond said, he knew the tenants needed some protection.
“A lot of the folks [who] live at the Rosemoor—they live on the edge,” he said. “And people don’t know what their rights are. The only way we are going to have a voice is people have to come together.”
Perillo denied that he was retaliating against any of the tenants, or that his actions had anything to do with their decision to form an association. For tenants to stay in the building, “all they have to do is pay the current rent and not do anything illegal or immoral,” he said.
Longtime residents paid $550 a month for a studio apartment holding little more than a bed and bathroom. The new rent is $850 a month.
Perillo said it wasn’t possible to continue running a business on the low rates paid by the hotel’s original tenants. “I am not running a nonprofit,” he said. “It’s just a matter of economics.”
In October, a Cook County judge found that the building’s management had retaliated against the tenants association and granted tenants a temporary reprieve from evictions and rent hikes. The management company unsuccessfully appealed the decision.
A key part of the court’s findings in the case centered on the vulnerability of Rosemoor’s population. Most are low-income, some are elderly and others are disabled. The union’s win not only helps the residents, it also sets a precedent. The case marks the first time that the Lawyers Committee for Better Housing had tried to create an SRO tenants association before taking on developers.
Kerry Carter, a steward of the association and three-year resident of the Rosemoor, thinks it’s worth staying and fighting until the end.
Carter, a technician at the nearby University of Illinois at Chicago hospital, has the means to move to another place. But he knows that many of his neighbors don’t.
“I really do feel for [tenants]. It’s not right, I feel, what [the management is] doing,” he said. “The fight is real, and I believe in it. If it comes to the court challenge as far as we have to move, I will do it. But I will fight to the end.”