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Boarding Houses Are Back, Baby

A once-ubiquitous living arrangement is getting a makeover for the pandemic era.

Staged living space in a one-bedroom at The Neighborhood Hotel in Lincoln Park   Photo: Courtesy of VHT Studios

The Neighborhood Hotel, now leasing in Lincoln Park, is a hotel no longer. Or, at least, half of it isn’t.

As COVID-19 began to upend travel in the spring, a local developer pivoted away from plans to turn the former Wrightwood Hotel rooming house at 2616 North Clark Street into a boutique hotel. The name stuck, but six of the 14 units in the stately German Renaissance building — originally built to house visitors to the relocated 1893 World’s Fair Ferris wheel — have become furnished apartments available for one-year leases.

Jonathan Gordon, a real estate investment executive at the Experiential Capital Group, thinks that The Neighborhood Hotel and projects like it — which he’s dubbed “apartels” — offer the best of both worlds.

“It’s like an Airbnb in terms of experiencing a real neighborhood, but it has a hotel license and is professionally managed,” he says.

Indeed, these new rentals are shaping up to be a major player in the city’s housing market in the coming fiscal year, but no one can agree on what, exactly, they are. Developments leasing $1,000-a-month private bedrooms in shared apartments — such as Common’s new Addams building on the Near West Side, or Quarters in the West Loop — have been tossed into squishy categories like “micro,” “co-living,” or, more colloquially, “college dorms for adults.”

Meanwhile, one of the developers of The Flats’ latest, The Duncan, has no term to classify the sprawling 260-unit apartment complex located at the former Duncan YMCA in the West Loop.

“I don’t think this can be pigeonholed,” says Mark Heffron, a managing partner and chief development officer at Cedar Street Companies. “It’s like we’re creating our own market here.”

No one, it seems, wants to use the B-word — as in boarding house, in which tenants share common areas, like dining halls, and property owners provide some hospitality services. Forgotten Chicago editor and writer Daniel Pogorzelski points out that developers are essentially rebranding the common 19th- and 20th-century living arrangement under other names.

“As housing prices have gotten out of reach for people, these remedies which existed are being reinvented in a way that’s palatable to modern folks,” Pogorzelski says. “The term ‘boarding house’ has fallen so out of fashion that many people may not even know what that term means. We might be familiar with it only through reading literature that describes it, like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.”

Or, for those of us who slept through high school English lit, picture the cramped confines of the flophouse that Elwood and Jake squeezed into 40 years ago in The Blues Brothers. That men’s hotel was a fleeting example of what had come to be known as single-room occupancy hotels (SROs). We tend to associate SROs with grimy dives, but “boarding house” was more of an umbrella term, describing furnished rentals of all stripes: barrelhouses, lodging houses, rooming houses, and, on the lower end, flops.

Urban scholar Paul Groth has estimated that a third to a half of city-dwelling Americans either boarded or took boarders at some point during the turn of the century. To rent a room in someone’s house wasn’t a lifestyle choice as much as a necessity. Chicago’s population exploded exponentially from 500,000 in 1880 to 2.2 million in 1910; at the time, the housing supply simply couldn’t keep up with demand.

That meant boarding in places that ranged in quality from ritzy residential hotels like the Ambassador to dingy cubicles with wire mesh ceilings, commonly found in Chicago’s “Hobohemia” neighborhood along West Madison Street. One-third of the city’s hotel dwellers — like those who would have stayed at the Wrightwood Hotel a century ago — landed somewhere in between. These middle classes, many of them immigrants or young transient workers new to Chicago, shacked up in varying kinds of multitenant rooming houses. Renters typically had their own bedrooms but communal bathrooms, with two or three daily meals included with rent.

The facade of the Wrightwood Hotel, as pictured in 1956, and pictured now, as The Neighborhood Hotel    Photos: Provided; VHT Studios

Boarding houses began disappearing after World War II, killed by the postwar economic boom, suburbanization, white flight, and the emergence of the nuclear family. The people that remained in SROs were overwhelmingly poor, homeless, or transient. As a result, they became associated with urban decay and Skid Rows.

“A lot of the negative connotations came out of class prejudices,” Pogorzelski says.

New York City banned the construction of SROs in the 1950s, while other cities targeted SRO districts for urban renewal demolitions. In Chicago, more than 80 percent of the city’s SRO buildings vanished between 1960 and 1980. Many of their former residents became homeless.

The recent return of SRO-like spaces coincides with a broader reversal of housing trends from the past 50 years. Downtown living is hot again, and gentrification has driven up prices in adjacent neighborhoods, a problem exacerbated by the economic strains of COVID-19. To address the new crisis, affordable housing advocates have pushed for measures like rent control and a change in zoning ordinances to allow new coach houses and granny flats, a reform which recently stalled in City Council.

The boarding house model could stand alongside them. Currently, however, many of the offerings on the market are more upscale, located in red-hot ’hoods like the West Loop, Logan Square, and Pilsen. The $1,100- to $1,400-a-month prices at The Duncan may not sound like a bargain, but they are compared to the average rent in the West Loop — $2,307 a month, according to RentCafe. The developers claim it is one of the few new projects, and possibly the only one in the West Loop, to satisfy the City’s ARO program, which requires 20 percent affordable units onsite.

“If you look at what people in the city can afford long-term, we feel this is a wise, responsible way to do real estate. A number of people always need housing at these price points,” Heffron says.

The YMCA/YWCA complex that preceded The Duncan offers a glimpse into Chicago’s boarding house history. The YMCA first established its West Monroe Street location at a converted residence in 1889. At the time, the organization was booming, offering classes to scores of young European immigrants seeking work. Most crucially, it offered them places to live during the housing crunch. Initially, the West Side YMCA only had the capacity for a dozen residents, but it raised enough money to build several new dormitory buildings at 1513–1515 West Monroe between 1907 and 1929. Another structure was added in the ’30s after the YMCA and YWCA merged.

A 1940s postcard advertising the Joseph S. Duncan YMCA
Photo: The City of Chicago via Lake County Discovery Museum, Illinois Digital Archives

By 1941, more than 500 young single men and 120 women called the Duncan YMCA home. It wasn’t the only one: Around the same time, the YMCA Hotel in the South Loop advertised that it had “1,800 rooms for transient men.”

As the neighborhood changed, so did the YMCA’s mission. It began serving more Black men arriving from the South during the Great Migration, then, decades later, opened their doors to younger boys. In 1968, part of the facility became the Duncan Way Community Center, Illinois’ first state-operated halfway house. Between when the West Side YMCA shut its doors in 1976 and 2015, when Cedar Street Companies bought the buildings, the facility served as the Salvation Army’s Harbor Light Center, offering aid to addicts.

Now, The Duncan is a Millennial-friendly version of its Roaring Twenties past. You’ll be able to enter the vintage brick building’s grand lobby and grab a cup of Heritage coffee, or get a stiff drink at a lower-level bar called Bunker. Renters will also be able to watch movies from a roof deck, take yoga classes, swim in the remodeled indoor pool, or play pickup basketball in the former YMCA gymnasium, complete with an upper-level track. (And yes, they’ve even kept the old locker rooms.)

A model layout in The Duncan     Photo: Courtesy of CEDAR st/ FLATS

The 260 studio and one-bedroom rentals are large by 1920s standards but not modern ones. That means they’ll likely attract young singles, just as they did a century ago.

“It’s the kind of thing geared, once again, to transients, but of a different kind of quality,” says Paul Durica, a historian and the Newberry Library’s Director of Exhibitions. “Instead of manual labor, the new transient workforce is doing intellectual and corporate work. They’re living in these weird spaces where the emphasis is on affordability.”

Spaces, in other words, that work a lot like the boarding houses of old — even if no one wants to admit it.

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