Little Village residents welcome diversity, fear rising rents

Little Village
The entryway to the Little Village business district on West 26th Street. (Harry Huggins/MEDILL)

By Harry Huggins

Residents of Chicago’s largely Hispanic Little Village neighborhood are excited to greet their increasingly diverse neighbors, but the area’s popularity comes at the expense of long-time tenants who grew up in a community with more affordable housing.

Jesus Zamudio was born and raised in Little Village, which is just west of Pilsen on the city’s Southwest Side.

“I noticed that little by little, Asians, African-Americans and white people have been joining our community,” Zamudio said. “I like that, because I don’t want to be a part of only Mexicans, but I want to see other cultures around here.”

Zamudio and his six family members have lived in the same apartment on South Sacramento Avenue for 16 years. Their landlord increased their rent last year, and now Zamudio, his brother and sister work to help their father pay rent. Zamudio works at La Catedral, a coffee shop at South Christiana Avenue and West 25th Street.

Zamudio said he feels the stress of appreciating home values in the area, saying, “I’m afraid right now; it’s just too much.”

In fact, according to real estate data from Zillow, home values are increasing in Little Village faster than in Chicago as a whole. The median price of homes sold in the neighborhood has increased 7.6 percent since January of last year, up to $128,000, which is moving at a 1 percent faster rate than home prices in Chicago overall.

For Rent
Rent prices and home values in Little Village are increasing faster than in Chicago overall. (Harry Huggins/MEDILL)

The most recent citywide data show that about a third of Little Village households live below the poverty level. The community also ranks second worst among Chicago neighborhoods in both most crowded housing and per capita income.

Cristina Puzio is an assistant at the Erie Neighborhood House’s Buen Hogar program, which connects residents of Little Village and other Latino communities to housing and rental assistance through the Chicago Housing Authority.

Puzio sees more clients seeking housing affordability, especially with emergency rental assistance, than in any of her four years working at Buen Hogar. She said many families she works with suffer a loss of income or a family member. They then face the triangular problem of either living in an apartment they can’t pay for, hunting for one of the disappearing affordable options near them or eating the cost of moving to a cheaper neighborhood.

“Families are struggling,” Puzio said.

Puzio said families are stressed as more investors from outside Little Village are buying property there than in recent memory.

“These new property owners are not aware that we need affordable housing if they’re just thinking about making a profit,” Puzio said. “I’m hoping that they are just aware of what they can and can’t do. That’s why we’re here, to educate people on their rights.”

Little Village residents see similarities between what’s happening to them now and recent gentrification in neighboring Pilsen.

“I feel like we’re going to go through the same changes that Pilsen is going through,” Puzio said. “Compared to Pilsen, Little Village is affordable, but still, people can’t afford to pay the rent. They’re still struggling.”

“It’s a very close-knit community, but I really think we are headed to becoming the next Pilsen,” said Cynthia Guerra, an agent with Roman Realty Group. “As Pilsen has gotten very expensive, it’s starting to push slowly into Little Village.”

New Home
Property owners cite home improvements and new construction to justify rent increases. (Harry Huggins/MEDILL)

Judith Salazar manages properties for First Capitol Realtors, including Zamudio’s apartment.

Salazar argued that landlords are increasing rents in Little Village to pay for higher property taxes and water bills, greater upkeep costs in overcrowded buildings and overdue infrastructure updates like new heating systems.

Despite the mounting financial pressures that come with higher property values, some long-time residents like Zamudio said they welcome the increasing attention to Little Village and the new residents coming into the community.

“People know each other around here,” Zamudio said. “Kids grew up playing together in the street, tossing the ball around like a Boys and Girls Club and everything. But it’s actually nice to see people from different places come here.”

Michel Quiles works with Zamudio at La Catedral. He said he enjoys meeting new people and likes that his old high school, Community Links, is becoming more diverse.

“It doesn’t worry me,” Quiles said. “It’s a new change. It’s a better change. It’s not going to be just one kind of race. I’m excited to see that.”

Alejandra Alvarez is the housing resource coordinator at Enlace Chicago, a community organizing nonprofit in Little Village. She grew up in the neighborhood. Now, she helps residents fight unlawful evictions and find rental assistance through Buen Hogar.

“When I walk around Little Village, I still feel that it’s Little Village,” Alvarez said. But she added that change is slowly coming, despite long-time residents’ complicated relationship with the transformation. “It’s resisted and welcomed.”

Photo at top: Mexican flags flutter in the entryway to the Little Village business district on West 26th Street. (Harry Huggins/MEDILL)