Affordable housing struggles felt deeply in Pilsen, where popularity pressures families to move

Thursday, January 23, 2020
Pilsen's popularity pressures families to move
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Pilsen has been named one of the coolest neighborhoods in the world, but it is also at the heart of Chicago's affordable housing struggle as long-time residents fight off gentrification.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Pilsen, at its roots, is about community, culture, and especially families. But there is a price to popularity, and long-time families are feeling the pressure as Pilsen's hip vibe attracts development, growth and change.

"Pilsen has always been a community of families," said Teresa Fraga, who has lived on Cullerton Street for 54 years. "What we need is our family history and roots to continue to be in Pilsen."

Fraga, 77, and her husband, 83, arrived in Pilsen on March 26, 1966. Her godmother convinced them to move to Chicago to work in the factories.

Even today, Fraga can walk her block and talk about other Mexican families who have lived in the area for several years.

"Mr. Reyes lived right here," said Fraga, shuffling past her neighbors' homes. "He passed away a few years back. His sons had to sell it, and there are condos here now, three condos."

And that's the challenge Pilsen families are facing. It's a neighborhood in transition, and long-time families are selling their properties for various reasons.

So do you stay or sell?

For Fraga and her husband, it's a tough question. They purchased their home in 1979 for $22,500. Today, their home could sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars, but there is one critical issue.

"The biggest challenge is if I sell this property, I will be displacing my own family. My own blood," Fraga said.

The Fragas live on two floors, but they also have a rear house on their property. Five relatives live in that home, and another relative lives in their basement unit.

"The only reason they can live in Pilsen is because they live on our property," she said.

As new condos and housing are built, families are concerned they will get pushed out of what's been called one of the "coolest neighborhoods in the world" by Forbes magazine.

The worldwide publicity and designation has proven difficult for the working class people in the community, including veterans and the working poor who rent single rooms, also known as SROs, or single room occupancy.

"I can no longer live in Pilsen in an apartment. I'm living in an SRO...and this is the last SRO in Pilsen," said Anthony Ramos, a veteran and renter at Casa del Sol, formerly known as the Lugo Hotel.

In 2016, The Resurrection Project, which focuses on affordable housing, purchased the hotel, upgrading the bathrooms, kitchen and living room. Residents rent one room and share all the other facilities.

The Resurrection Project is also moving forward with an affordable housing project called Casa Durango at 1850 S. Racine. Casa Durango will be a five-story building with 37 units. The organization plans to start leasing units, including one, two and three bedrooms, in spring of 2022.

"We are at a tipping point, and we're not going to let investors and developers who don't want to work with the community chase us out of the community," said Raul Raymundo, The Resurrection Project's CEO and co-founder.

One battleground is 18th and Peoria, the largest piece of undeveloped property in the community. The 25th Ward alderman said what happens at that location is critical. He said the city and developer are currently locked in a legal battle.

"Of course we need development, but we also need affordable housing. I do think we can create a balance," said Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez, who is also working on an ordinance that would require developers to include affordable housing and not opt out by paying extra fees.

Ultimately, the Fragas do not want to sell their property.

"I'm not considering selling," Fraga said, "but being realistic - a 77-year-old and an 83-year-old - we know it's getting harder to go up the stairs to our bedroom."

In their bedroom, the Fragas have a wall covered with family photos. Their pictures tell a story of their Pilsen past and what they hope for in the future.

"I want to leave this community or this earth comfortable knowing that our kids can continue to live in a community where they grew up," Fraga said. "Pilsen is a community of families."