In the midst of gentrified Greektown, New Jackson Hotel endures
06/13/2012 10:00 PM
The corner of Halsted Street and Jackson Boulevard is the heart of Greektown. Surrounded by a mix of Gyro joints, restaurants, bars and Greek-kitsch emporiums, it attracts tourists and locals alike.
But what many visitors don’t realize is that the building at the northeast corner of the intersection houses something that has been a source of contention for local residents for years — the single room occupancy building known as the New Jackson Hotel.
For as long as anyone can remember, the New Jackson Hotel was notorious for dismal living conditions and unsavory tenants. Even as other single room occupancy hotels (or SROs) closed throughout Chicago, it remained open.
In 2009, it was acquired by Mark IV Realty Group, a West Loop-based developer that specializes in rehabbing derelict historical buildings. But since then, the company has made no attempt to change anything. In fact, the employee accounts suggest that things may have gotten worse.
SROs are one of the cheapest forms of rental housing in Chicago. Tenants rent small-studio style rooms that may or may not feature individual bathrooms or kitchens. Rent is paid on either per-day or per-month basis, and all tenants need to check in is a valid government-issued ID. Those factors make SROs the housing of last resort for people who have a hard time getting housing elsewhere.
R.E. Moody has been working at New Jackson Hotel’s front desk since 2004. While he readily agreed that the hotel’s reputation is deserved, he insisted that most of the trouble was caused by a small group.
“I’d say about 5 percent of the guests are troublemakers,” he said. “Most guests … they just made some bad choices, got some bad breaks, and they’re trying to change. A lot of them just sit in their rooms and wait for their luck to change.”
The hotel lobby is fairly well-maintained. But anyone who walks further in would start seeing decades of wear and tear. Chicago Journal was allowed to see inside the “honeymoon suite,” which, according to Moody, was one of the better rooms. Indeed, at first glance, the room looks comfortable, with a wide bed and heavy curtains. But a look inside the bathroom reveals peeling paint in the bathtub and along the walls.
Moody feels that the conditions could be easily improved if the owners paid attention and were willing to invest a little money. But he believes that the current owners are, if anything, even less responsive than their predecessors.
“This used to be a family-owned business,” Moody said. “The owners would come by every week and knock on doors, just to ask the guests if they had any problems. The new guys just come to collect rent.”
As it stands, most tenants hesitate to approach management on their own. According to Kate Walz, Director of Housing Justice at Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, they have little legal recourse against retaliatory evictions. The Chicago Residential Landlord Tenant ordinance would only protect residents if they stay at the hotel for more than 31 days and pay rent on a monthly basis. While the former is the case for many tenants, the same can’t be said for the latter.
Moody said that most of the problems come from the transients, the tenants that stay in the building for a few days at the time. According to information from the City of Chicago, when Mark IV Realty took over the New Jackson Hotel, it obtained a Class I SRO license. Under the terms of the license, the SRO was only allowed to rent to tenants who stayed for longer than a month. However, this aspect of the license was never enforced.
Mark IV Realty has the record of buying neglected buildings and improving them. It redeveloped Marina City and transformed the Loop’s landmark Carbide & Carbon building into the Hard Rock Hotel. But if the developer has any plans for New Jackson Hotel, neither Moody nor any other employees are aware of them.
It isn’t as if the developer isn’t aware of the community concerns about the hotel. Mark IV Reality Group’s CEO, John L. Marks, is no stranger to Greektown. He’s a member of the National Hellenic Museum’s Executive Committee, as well as one of its founding members. And, according to the Chicago City Clerk’s office, Marks has worked with one of Greektown’s most prominent advocacy groups — he served on the Greektown/Halsted Street Special Service Area Committee between 2003 and the end of 2010.
Mark IV Realty didn’t respond to requests for comment.
For now, Moody and other employees are trying their best to do right by the residents. They are trying to fix up units and generally make the New Jackson Hotel more hospitable. And, as Moody readily said, getting rid of the “troublemakers” would go a long way toward improving the situation.
“We’re in the West Loop,” said Moody. “We should act like it.”