For 25 years, the Leon family’s mariachi music has enlivened thousands of family reunions, community events and festivals in the Pilsen neighborhood. It is part of the Mexican cultural heritage that adorns the Lower West Side of Chicago and has attracted people from all over the city.
But the Leon family members risked losing their longtime connection to Pilsen in 2018, when they lost their home, a small two-bedroom apartment fit for their budget. Karen and Enrique Leon, and their three adult children were told that they could no longer rent there.
“What we saw happened to many other families in Pilsen was happening to us,” said Karen Leon, adding that the community helped grow her family’s livelihood after arriving in Chicago in the late ‘90s from Estado de Mexico, Mexico.
Over the last two decades, thousands of residents have left the predominantly Mexican immigrant neighborhood due to the rising cost of rent, a result of higher property taxes and new developments.
“We had to find a new place to live, but we couldn’t afford anything (comfortable) for our family in the area anymore,” said Leon, who added that medical bills for one of their children and college costs for the other two increased their financial struggle. Determined to stay in the area though, the family of five secured a one-bedroom apartment for about a year.
Then in February 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit Chicago, the Leon family became one of the first six families to become homeowners of an apartment complex bought under the Pilsen Housing Cooperative, the neighborhood’s first and only limited-equity, scattered-site housing cooperative for longtime residents of Pilsen.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Leon, who became a shareholder. “Not only can we afford it, but we are saving this money instead of giving it away in rent. It has given us peace of mind and the opportunity to focus on our family and allow our children to grow.”
Leon came across the co-op while searching online for affordable apartments in Pilsen. She reached out and was told that families needed only a downpayment and that if they didn’t have it, the co-op could help them raise the funds. The collective purchase under the cooperative also meant that all the money payed into the mortgage for their share — including the downpayment — would be theirs upon the sale of their unit.
Leon and her husband only dreamed of becoming homeowners. Though their mariachi band, Mariachi Mexico Vivo, has become a local favorite, their income is often in flux, and saving up had been difficult, she said.
“The cooperative has been a blessing,” she said.
The co-op, which aims to challenge gentrification, was born out of a conversation among residents and creatives one evening while they were sipping homemade apple cider wine at muralist Hector Duarte’s Pilsen studio nearly five years ago. As of February, the cooperative now owns two buildings and will be home to a total of 12 families. A third six-unit building is under contract.
For Linda Lutton, Duarte’s wife, and a resident in the area for nearly 30 years, helping to erect the project became something personal after seeing her neighbors forced out of their homes and unable to afford rent after their landlords sold their buildings to developers.
“It was heartbreaking,” said Lutton, a Chicago journalist who is on sabbatical from her job as an education reporter at WBEZ. Lutton served as a researcher for the cooperative and is working as project manager, hoping to expand the co-op thanks to a $30,000 grant from the Field Foundation.
To get started, the Pilsen co-op sought guidance from the Logan Square Cooperative and other sources, including the University of Chicago Law School’s Housing Initiative Clinic.
The first building, where the Leon family lives on Wolcott Avenue, is near Harrison Park and the National Museum of Mexican Art. The second six-unit building, located on Morgan Street, just a few blocks from the first, was obtained in February. Co-op member families will start moving into the Morgan Street building in July.
Steve Miller, who is a co-op member, decided to sell the Wolcott Avenue building to the cooperative because he wanted his building of 20 years to remain in the hands of the community, he said.
Aside from some small fundraisers and donations from several other nonprofit organizations, the purchases have been made without public funding, according to Lutton. Collectively, the members must raise 10% of the total project cost. Down payments vary by unit owner.
The Wolcott Avenue building costs totaled $727,630, minus $6,000 in subsidies from a community fundraiser, which made the average cost per unit $120,272, according to project data from Lutton. The Morgan Street building totaled a little over $1 million with $240,380 in subsidies, which kept the average cost per unit at $130,000. A downpayment of $5,000 is listed for a $120,406 one-bedroom unit in the Morgan Street building on the co-op’s website.
Members must live in the building and cannot rent their unit. When selling, the members essentially take what they put in.
Co-op members make decisions together and pay a monthly housing charge that covers the cost of the mortgage, property taxes, maintenance and any other operating costs, according to the bylaws of the cooperative.
“This is regular people creating affordable housing, that’s a public good,” said Lutton.
Though the cooperative aims to fight displacement, its lens is focused on helping artists and longtime immigrant Pilsen families, such as the Leon family.
When the Leon family members applied, their savings were minimal, recalls Karen Leon. They had spent most of it looking for other apartments and paying application fees. The cooperative then hosted a fundraiser to help them pay a larger down payment to lower their mortgage.
“At first I was kind of ashamed to admit that we needed that help,” said Leon. “But it has taught me the meaning of community and of equal housing opportunities, now I want to help other families reach their dreams.”
The Leons’ mariachi band often participates in fundraisers and other co-op events. On a recent Saturday, the band performed at a community cookout in celebration of the purchase of the Morgan Street building and the inauguration of a mural painted on the wall of the Wolcott Avenue building that pays homage to their “Fight To Stay.”
Muralists Duarte and Gabriel Villa painted the new mural and also recreated a part of an original mural that was on the wall, “Peace,” which was painted by Mario Castillo in 1968.
In August, the Leons’ mariachi band will be performing at the Quinceañera of one of the daughters of a co-op member. “We support each other to ensure we succeed and help others do the same, like family,” Karen Leon said.
Raquel Garcia, co-president of the cooperative, said that “though the pandemic brought challenge,” it is exciting to see more longtime Pilsen residents stay in the neighborhood they helped to create.
Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez, 25th, said he supports the co-op and is encouraging the city’s housing department to create legislative changes so that housing cooperatives can be funded on a larger scale to help foster their growth and create more affordable housing.
The cooperative is currently hosting info sessions for those interested in learning more.
But since the purchase of the first complex, home prices have gone up drastically. The third building, located on Oakley Avenue, is expected to cost nearly $1.3 million, almost twice as much as the first one.
Co-op members hope to receive more donations to ensure that prices are kept affordable and that they are able to continue expanding their mission: Quedarse en Pilsen.
To stay in Pilsen.