Longtime Pilsen residents worry about rising rents, gentrification, and future
December 5, 2015

Rising rents in existing buildings in Pilsen, along with new condominium developments, are causing gentrification concerns.

Rising rents in existing buildings in Pilsen, along with new condominium developments, are causing gentrification concerns.

By Miriam Y. Cintrón

As new condominium developments crop up around Pilsen, longtime residents worry that an influx of new, higher income residents along with rising rents in existing buildings will force them out of their homes.

Many factors have contributed to rising rents in the area for longer term residents. Byron Sigcho of the Pilsen Alliance pointed to the “aggressive entrance of developers” as well as the increase in singles with higher incomes moving into the area, driving the average income in Pilsen from about $20,000 five years ago to $80,000 to $90,000 today.

“Gentrification is a major concern in the community,” Lauren Nolan, economic development planner at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) Nathalie P. Voorhees Center for Neighborhood and Community Improvement, said. “Since 2000, median gross rents for the Lower West Side (which is comprised mostly of the Pilsen neighborhood) have increased roughly 20% when adjusting for inflation, which outpaces city-wide increases.”

Nolan went on to explain that “the area has also seen a decrease in its proportion of Latino residents, which peaked at 89% in 2000 and has since decreased to 82%. Shifting racial and ethnic composition is also an indicator of neighborhood change, and loss of minority residents is a symptom of gentrification.”

The Rev. Julio Loza of St. Matthew Lutheran Church, 2108 W. 21st St., has heard from many parishioners just how difficult life has become due to rising rents.

“It’s causing financial problems for low-income families, many who are undocumented,” Rev. Loza said. “Rising rents are causing a lot of pain.”

While most residents in the area are renters, homeowners also have felt the pressure. Rosemary Sierra, who has lived in the area for 57 years, is a renter but notes that her 88-year-old mother is a homeowner who often receives letters from realtors to gauge her interest in selling her property on Bishop Street between 18th Street and Blue Island Avenue.

‘They just want the land’

“Developers don’t want the house,” Sierra said. “They’ve never asked to come inside. They just want the land.”

Five years ago, St. Matthew Lutheran Church faced expensive fines and repairs stemming from more than 20 City citations for building code violations. The church has since resolved the issues, but Rev. Loza said he suspected the parish was being targeted for its land.

Pilsen businesses also could feel the effects of change. “While I can’t speak to the specific experiences of Pilsen business owners, increases in commercial rents often go hand in hand with increases to residential rents,” Nolan explained. “It is common for gentrifying neighborhoods to not only struggle with residential displacement but commercial displacement as commercial rents increase rapidly. It’s the ‘mom and pop’ type establishments that tend to be most vulnerable.”

Sierra, who has rented a separate apartment for the past 15 years, said that, in that time, her rent has increased from $500 to $800, and she is concerned about rent going up even more because of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s recently passed property tax increase and garbage pickup fees. The $589 million property tax hike phased in over four years is the largest in Chicago history, and building owners will likely pass on the increase to tenants in the form of higher rents.

Alderman Danny Solis of the 25th Ward countered that the tax increase eventually will benefit all city neighborhoods. “The city’s finances will be stronger now, and hence more investment will come to the city’s neighborhoods like Pilsen,” he said. “Pilsen can both respect its traditions and grow more prosperous if we work together,” Solis said.

City’s land use plan for Pilsen

The City’s Department of Planning and Development is conducting a land use study for the Pilsen and Little Village communities to help guide future decisions about using open spaces as well as housing and commercial and industrial development.

At public forums held over the summer, the issue of “affordability came out loud and clear” from residents, said Evy Zwiebach, an associate planner with the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, an independent unit of local government providing technical planning support to the City’s Pilsen land use project through its Local Technical Assistance program.

“The plan will address a variety of property owners’ and tenants’ concerns about housing issues in the community,” said Peter Strazzabosco, deputy commissioner of the City’s Department of Planning and Development.

“Ongoing efforts include a housing fair being planned for the spring to address issues being expressed by residents, including affordability and home improvement resources,” he added. Zwiebach said the plan will address the affordability challenge.

“One of the best land use strategies for maintaining affordability in a neighborhood is to preserve the existing housing stock,” Zwiebach said. “Through our community outreach, we learned that residents are especially concerned about the adverse affordability effects of teardowns,” she explained, referring to developers tear down existing residential two- and three-flat buildings and replace them with new housing that often is more expensive and offers fewer units.

She noted that historic preservation could help maintain affordability and prevent teardowns by protecting existing buildings as well as providing financial benefits to property owners through incentives such as tax credits and tax assessment freezes.

Officials expect to complete the land use plan in spring 2016, but Sigcho explained that residents currently are dealing with the major problem of not having an opportunity to provide input on plans for some of the largest condo developments now underway and supported by Alderman Solis.

According to Pilsen Alliance, those developments include land at Peoria and 18th Streets that could accommodate as many as 500 units and another at Sangamon and 19th Streets that would feature 111 units.

“We are not just concerned about aesthetics,” said Sigcho, noting the City’s plan for more green spaces and amenities for families mentioned at a recent meeting. “We care about who will be able to enjoy those things.”

Community plans next steps

“Change in many ways is inevitable, and the market and nonmarket forces that produce gentrification pressures are real, powerful, and challenging to address,” Nolan explained. “However, communities can work to mitigate displacement resulting from gentrification by pursing strategies to address housing affordability… Renters are particularly vulnerable to displacement as rents increase. Thus, as a first step, it is important for renters to know their rights regarding eviction and other housing laws.”

Nolan said strategies to mitigate displacement at different stages of gentrification include strengthened rental protections, inclusionary zoning, community land trusts, and tax abatement programs.

The Pilsen Alliance will continue pushing for residents to be part of the conversation when it comes to new developments and zoning changes in the area.

The alliance has partnered with community organizations from other parts of the city, including Humboldt Park and Logan Square, which also are undergoing population changes. “We need a citywide coalition because this is not unique to Pilsen,” said Sigcho. “There are alternatives, and silence is not an option.”

At community meetings hosted by the group, residents have offered suggestions, such as asking the City Council to create a rent control ordinance. Also, in conjunction with researchers from DePaul University and UIC, the Pilsen Alliance developed its own set of recommendations aimed at “regulating gentrification…by diminishing the profitability of property speculation and indiscriminate development and by adding more affordable units to the Pilsen mix,” according to the group’s draft proposal.

Its recommendations include making developers of new multiunit buildings set aside 30% of units to be affordable; creating tax incentives or a tax freeze for long-term homeowners whose property values may be affected by high-density, market rate construction; and placing City-owned lots in a community land trust, which would “keep the land affordable in perpetuity” and use the land to build more affordable housing, among many other recommendations. Pilsen Alliance members and a group of about 15 residents attempted to deliver their recommendations to Solis, but the alderman’s staff turned them away from Solis’s office, saying the Internet was down and the office was closed.

Issue of humanity

Rev. Loza would like to see a coalition of religious entities of all denominations in the area work together to shed light on this and other issues. He said that, while it is within the law for people to buy property wherever they want, it is the duty of religious organizations to bring up the issue of the humanity of allowing people to be pushed out of their homes.

Rev. Loza, who has lived in the area since the 1960s, remembers well when the neighborhood consisted of a mix of Latino, Polish, and Italian residents before it was predominantly Latino. “Our community has been very diverse by race,” Loza said. “I think it would be wonderful if people of other races would move in but without pushing out families.”

Although he did not directly address the gentrification issue, Solis said he wants to update the area’s Quality of Life plan created in May 2005.

“To continue building on Pilsen’s renaissance and preserve its character, the alderman’s office is working with over 20 reputable organizations to create a new Quality of Life plan for the neighborhood,” according to a Solis spokesperson. The plan calls for working with community-based organizations, such as the Resurrection Project, Alivio Medical Center, Pilsen Neighbors, the National Museum of Mexican Art, and Mujeres Latinas en Accion, as well as the UIC Great Cities Institute, which will help collect data, do analysis, and conduct focus groups with residents to develop plans and recommendations to improve the neighborhood.

Sigcho and others in the community with whom he works have little hope in what the updated plan will accomplish. The original plan fell short of its goal of creating 1,000 affordable housing units, he said.

He cited data from the Department of Planning and Development indicating Pilsen has seen the highest rate of cost-burdened owners and renters compared with the city as a whole, with at least 50% of owners and renters spending more than 30% of their income on housing and at least 25% spending more than 50% of their income on housing.

“There’s been a plan; the problem is the plan has not worked,” Sigcho said. “They need to stop promising plans and give us something concrete.” He added that “promising to do something and actually doing something are two separate things.”

Sigcho said the Pilsen Alliance will continue holding public forums for both longtime residents and newer, more affluent residents to educate them about the issue in order to “keep Pilsen affordable, inclusive, and diverse.”