On her way home from work, Maricela Garcia passes vibrant, historical murals, lively food trucks blasting boléro music and bars with authentic Mexican cuisine along Pilsen’s 18th Street.
However, further down the same road, Garcia notices how quickly the block changes.
For-sale signs litter the fronts of dejected buildings and abandoned businesses. One by one, homeowners in the Chicago neighborhood seem to disappear.
Garcia, who lives in Edgewater, said the neighborhood has become increasingly empty in the eight years since she began working in Pilsen.
“You don’t see the residents because a lot of the workers don’t live here,” Garcia said. “They are not the ones eating at the restaurants or patrons at the bars— and they used to. It was their community, it was their neighborhood. People came to have dinner with their families.”
Almost 16,000 of those employed in the neighborhood live outside of Pilsen, as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau‘s 2014 Origin-Destination Employment Statistics.
As the CEO of Gads Hill Center, which provides educational and professional resources for communities, Garcia said she is aware of how gentrification continues to drive people out of their homes.
“It’s at the cost of families having to leave, because they cannot pay the rent, [and] taxes have become so high that they cannot afford them,” Garcia said.
In Pilsen, the effective tax rate is 1.31%, which is slightly higher than the national average, and the median household income is $37,000 per year, according to the Cook County Assessor’s Office.
During 2018, the city of Chicago proposed several initiatives to ease the rapid cycle of gentrification in Pilsen and preserve its cultural character.
One such initiative, the Pilsen and Little Village Preservation Strategy, went into effect last year.
A pilot version of the Affordable Requirements Ordinance, the strategy mandates that all developers building 10 or more new units for rent must designate at least 20% of them as affordable housing or face a fine.
However, many in Pilsen, including Moises Moreno, co-director of the Pilsen Alliance, believe this plan is too “watered down” and allows developers to buy their way out of providing affordable housing through the Affordable Housing Opportunity Fund.
“The big developers put money into that pot, and the little developers take that money,” Moreno said. “And they’re not building anything family-size, they’re building more studios.”
To fight for more comprehensive legislation, the Chicago Housing Initiative, along with Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez, 25th Ward, and 17 other aldermen, introduced the Development for All Ordinance.
The ordinance, which still needs two more votes to be passed through city council, would call for lower income requirements and a new mandate of 30% of units to be affordable, with 60% of affordable housing designated as family units on site.
Through simplified explanations of the ARO, community meetings and pressuring smaller developers to do the right thing with the funds they receive, Moreno said the Pilsen Alliance is rallying residents to take part in efforts to stop gentrification in the neighborhood.
“We’re trying to fight the false narrative that ARO is really what’s going to help,” Moreno said. “It goes back to funding housing programs [and] low income trust funds. There are other options on the table that we’re looking at.”
As part of the Gads Hill Center’s community outreach, Garcia said they form alliances with other organizations and encourage families to contact their elected officials to oppose negative changes in the city.
The center, a 121-year-old pillar of Pilsen’s community, also hosts annual voter registration drives and sponsors political candidate forums.
”Our niche is education,” Garcia said. “ We have a very strong civic engagement component in our programs because we believe that our programs would be [un]sustainable if we don’t build the leadership and the confidence of the families to advocate for themselves.”
Alex Esparza, executive director of the Economic Strategies Development Corporation, said they provide small business owners in Pilsen with access to financing programs, training, permit applications, marketing plans and other resources to assist with local industrial retention.
“It’s our job to have strong businesses, give people a peace of mind, create that sustainable community and be able to have a workforce that is strong,” Esparza said.
Miriam Zuk, co-founder of the research center Urban Displacement Project, said a couple ways to prevent gentrification are preserving affordability, community organizing and producing more subsidized units within the neighborhood.
Ultimately, while people in Pilsen aren’t completely against the city’s ideas to lower displacement rates, they are unsure of how these initiatives will work to improve their futures, Garcia said.
“I think what [residents] need are concrete proposals from the city. The character of the buildings should not be maintained without the people.”