How three families are dealing with displacement

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Gentrification has a downside: Lower-income families often can’t afford to remain in their communities. Catalyst interviewed three families who have been affected by gentrification in West Town and Logan Square, where rising rents and housing prices have forced many families out of their homes and schools. According to the Chicago Association of Realtors, median home prices in both community areas more than doubled in the late 1990s, and the number of condominium sales tripled.

The Salazars

Sneaking in

For years the Salazar family moved from apartment to apartment in West Town, each time paying more money and getting less for it. Finally last spring they got fed up, bought a house and moved to Cicero.

Housing is cheaper in the suburb, but Ernesto, 12, and Isabela, 9, miss their old school in West Town.

So does their mother, Lucia Salazar, who served on a local school council, organized fund-raisers through a parent club, took parenting classes and worked in classrooms as a student mentor. “Here, we don’t have any of that,” she says.

Her oldest son, Jorge, refused to go to the local high school, Morton East, for safety reasons—too much gang-banging, he says. So Salazar decided to keep him enrolled, illegally, at Wells High School, where he is a senior this year. [Editor’s note: The family members’ names have been changed at their request.]

Meanwhile, Ernesto and Isabela complain that their new school in Cicero is covering material they studied last year at their school in West Town.

Lucia called West Town organizer Idida Perez, a friend and mentor, for advice on how to talk to her children’s teachers about giving them more challenging schoolwork. “How can I ask them without offending them?” she asked.

Ernesto took the switch particularly hard, says Salazar. He loved his old school and didn’t want to leave, she says. “He cried all the time. He didn’t eat. He didn’t want to go to school.”

She promised Ernesto that she would let him go back to school in Chicago next fall if he sticks it out this year in Cicero and doesn’t get into trouble. By December, he was beginning to make new friends and was doing well in school, but Salazar doesn’t think he will forget the deal she made.

He wants her to keep her promise “because he wants to graduate with his friends,” she explains.

The Salazars spend more than half of their monthly income to pay the mortgage, and Lucia says sometimes she regrets making the move. “I feel trapped, like I’m in a small room with no way out.”

The Butlers

Hanging on

My rent is high—$700,” says Elaine Butler, a single mother who is struggling to keep her Logan Square apartment so the younger of her two daughters can attend nearby Brentano Elementary. “And no, child support does not cover all that.”

Butler’s wages at K-Mart, along with a stipend from her work in the parent-mentor program at Brentano Elementary, cover most of the rent. Butler helps out in a 1st-grade classroom on weekday mornings; her daughter Joanna is in 6th grade.

“I work the night shift, and I’m at Brentano all morning,” she says. By the time Joanna and her older daughter Jessica, who attends Schurz High, get home from school, Elaine is often on her way to bed, grabbing a few hours rest before her shift.

Butler’s struggle to remain afloat in Logan Square spans nearly 10 years of gentrification. When both girls were in elementary school, the apartment building the family lived in went condo. Butler first considered moving in with her mother on the West Side but later decided to stay with her mother-in-law so the girls could stay at Brentano. She liked the school—the teachers were good and many of the students spoke Spanish.

Butler’s mother backed up the decision, giving her advice that mobility research proves sound. “‘If you change [their school], their grades might slow down,'” Butler recalls her saying.

When she was able, Elaine moved the family to an apartment located one block from Brentano. “When I first saw my apartment, it was really raggedy,” she says, recalling that the landlord dragged his feet installing a new hot water heater.

But every year, the rent goes up, she says. “The rent is killing me,” she says. “The first time the rent went up, [the landlord] said, ‘The taxes went up.’ God forbid he goes up to $750.”

Meanwhile, she is worried about losing her job now that K-Mart is in bankruptcy. “They had to do some cutting across the board, and we got hit pretty bad,” she says. “I’m pretty sure I’m on the list for a layoff.”

The Castillos

Fighting back

Raquél Castillo and her family were priced out of Bucktown 12 years ago. They spent some time in Michigan but came back to settle in Logan Square in the mid-1990s.

Castillo has a fairly secure spot—she and her husband rent from her father-in-law. But with property taxes rising, she knows that someday her father-in-law may have to raise the rent beyond what they can pay.

As a parent-mentor at Brentano, Castillo sees the effects of displacement in her neighborhood. One of the students she tutors had to leave the neighborhood and now commutes back to the school. Another student—a girl who wore hand-me-down clothes and needed lots of help in reading—just disappeared. Castillo suspects the family lost their apartment.

“One day, I came in [to Brentano], and I was passing out papers, and there’s one extra,” she recalls. “‘Where’s Sierra—is she absent again?'” she asked, and the teacher responded. “‘No, she transferred.’ And I was like, ‘Oh… that’s too bad.'”

Brentano is a safe environment for her kids, and the parents are well organized, Castillo adds, citing a mentoring program and a safety committee.

Castillo has joined a housing committee through Logan Square Neighborhood Association and works with other Brentano parents to advocate for more affordable housing. “I don’t want to get pushed out,” she says. “My husband’s been here the majority of his life. The school is great, the expressway is right there.”

Last fall, the group invited Ald. Vilma Colom and a local developer to discuss setting aside some units in a new apartment complex for moderate- and low-income residents.

But neither party showed up, and the parents marched to the alderman’s office in protest.

“I’ll be fighting for a while,” she says. “Brentano’s a good school, and I don’t want ever to be taken out.”

Dan Weissmann with intern Catrin Einhorn