On June 6, 1968, the Sycamore Commercial Development Corp. had a full-page ad in the Daily Chronicle, touting its new project, St. Albans Green.
“Living at its Finest!” the ad promised in fancy cursive script. The apartments were to be opened for a formal showing the next day.
“One glance will tell you that St. Albans Green is truly your own ‘personal Paradise’ in upper-echelon living in the Sycamore area,” the ad copy boasted.
That was more than 50 years ago, during a boom time for building multiunit apartment buildings in DeKalb and Sycamore. A few years earlier, a building featuring new, two-bedroom, air-conditioned apartments called the Carriage House had opened on East State Street. A couple of years later in 1970, a senior citizen high-rise would go up near downtown Sycamore.
Apartment buildings were going up around DeKalb, too, as builders worked to provide off-campus housing for a burgeoning student population.
The market for apartments has changed since then. Most new apartment units you see today are built above stores in downtown areas, and dubbed “executive suites” or some such.
But many of those buildings from decades ago have remained, and after years of hosting tenants, are now in the “affordable housing” category.
Affordable housing is rarely built new in our area – it often generates resistance from neighbors. At St. Albans, property owner Jim Mason said he plans to raze the destroyed building and replace it with townhomes, which people like better.
Generally, the preferred method of providing affordable housing seems to be waiting for buildings to get old. Such is the way of the free market. However, in July we saw three apartment buildings catch fire.
In DeKalb, fires at the Ridge Brook Apartments (built in 1969) and an apartment building at 930 Greenbrier Road (built in 1977) led to hundreds of people being forced from their homes. At St. Albans Green, a 40-unit building and most of its residents’ belongings were destroyed.
Fires at the two DeKalb buildings appear to have been intentionally set, but even so, city officials said they found problems, including with smoke alarms.
The one in Sycamore appears to have been accidental, but once it began and spread to the attic of the building, it could not be stopped.
All of the buildings in question are decades old. They were built before smoke detectors were a requirement, before lead paint was outlawed, before building codes required use of methods and materials to impede the spread of fire.
Some of those things, such as smoke alarms, were supposed to have been added long ago. But bringing the buildings up to modern building codes would require knocking them down completely in some cases, and if they were, it’s a near certainty that what replaced them would not be affordable housing.
Building owners have made updates at their properties to varying degrees. DeKalb is embroiled in a court battle with Hunter Properties, which is the city’s largest landlord and which the city has cited almost 500 times for code violations.
In Sycamore, the Carriage House apartments on State were purchased and extensively renovated in 2018. More buildings in the community could benefit from this kind of rejuvenation.
So far, although there has been a tremendous amount of property damage caused by recent fires, no one has died.
Our communities and landlords should view this not just as a close call, but a wake-up call. The high-density housing in our communities is aging, and ensuring these buildings are as safe as they can be – and if possible, finding investors who want them to be better than they are – will make a big difference in people’s quality of life.
• Eric Olson is general manager of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841 ext. 2257, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.