La Casa in Pilsen, the ‘world’s first community-based college dormitory,’ shuts down
The Resurrection Project opened La Casa in 2012 to provide affordable housing to full-time students in Chicago.
There’s a building in Pilsen that doesn’t look like the others. It’s called La Casa — a six-story glass-plated boxy edifice steps from the 18th Street CTA Pink Line stop.
La Casa opened in 2012 and was celebrated as the first of its kind: A college dormitory in the middle of an immigrant neighborhood tailored for low-income students of color.
The Resurrection Project, a nonprofit developer based in Pilsen, built La Casa for $12.2 million, with $8.4 million coming from a state grant and $1 million in donations.
At the ribbon cutting ceremony, then-Gov. Pat Quinn joined The Resurrection Project co-founder and chief executive Raul Raymundo in welcoming La Casa’s first batch of students.
“La Casa is the world’s first community-based college dormitory,” Raymundo boasted at the ceremony. “La Casa is here today to complement the work that universities are achieving by meeting the needs of students in our communities.”
Two years into the program, 87 of La Casa’s 100 beds were occupied, according to The Resurrection Project’s 2014 annual report. The occupancy rate held steady through at least 2016, according to news reports.
Today, there are no students living at La Casa.
The Resurrection Project announced in March the program would shut down at the end of the spring semester and the last students in the building moved out by the end of May. The nonprofit blamed the closure on “low program participation and a lack of adequate funding,” adding the building will serve as mixed-use office space for the time being. The group has moved most of its office and support staff to the building and used some space for other programs.
The future of La Casa is up in the air.
Raymundo said he’d like to convert the building into “some form of housing” in the next few years but doubts it’ll reopen as a dorm. “If you can help me figure out how to get a $100 million endowment, absolutely,” he said.
Asked if The Resurrection Project had considered selling the building, Raymundo was unequivocal. “No,” he said. “That’s not who we are.”
La Casa has 10 five-bedroom suites with two beds per room. Each suite has two bathrooms, a living room and a full kitchen.
Students paid $6,255 per academic year for a bed, which is considerably cheaper than many dorms in the city. (A two-bed dorm room at nearby University of Illinois at Chicago goes for $9,550.)
The rent included utilities and building amenities such as Wi-Fi, a fitness room and security. La Casa also provided mentors, tutors, and career training for its students, most of whom were the first in their families to go to college.
Raymundo said the impetus to build La Casa came after he met a UIC student in the early 2000s who shared a two-bedroom apartment in Pilsen with seven family members.
“I asked him, ‘Where do you study and when?’ and he said, ‘In the bathroom at two o’clock in the morning,’” Raymundo said.
La Casa was also built to serve working-class students who lived at home in the suburbs but attended a college or university in the city.
Joel Aguilera was one of those students.
Aguilera moved into La Casa in 2014 during his junior year at UIC. Before then, Aguilera lived in Elgin with his parents. It would take him three hours to get to and from campus.
“I would get home and be too tired to do homework,” he said.
Living at La Casa brought Aguilera’s commute down to under half an hour each way without breaking the bank. He credits the move with allowing him to finish his architecture bachelor’s degree.
“Architecture majors are really hard and time consuming. All-nighters were a pretty common part of our culture. I don’t know if I could’ve done it without La Casa,” he said.
Despite rave reviews and high occupancy, La Casa quickly started losing money.
A recent audit of The Resurrection Project’s finances show La Casa took in $495,533 in rent and other revenues in 2016 but cost $1.05 million to operate. The $557,000 deficit accounted for about half of The Resurrection Project’s net loss of nearly $1.2 million in 2016.
The situation worsened in 2017 as rental income covered only 40% of La Casa’s operating costs, according to figures shared by the nonprofit with the Sun-Times.
Raymundo said The Resurrection Project couldn’t keep swallowing La Casa’s shortfalls.
“At the end of the day, we cannot continue to deeply subsidize a program that begins to impact other services we’re trying to provide for the entire community,” he said.
La Casa’s commercial space is occupied by a Dunkin’ Donuts. A pop-up shop supporting The Resurrection Project’s breast cancer awareness initiative took over another space on the ground floor in recent months. A one-story building across from La Casa that served as the student resource center continues to host community meetings, computer literacy classes, and home purchase education workshops.
The Resurrection Project owns 38 buildings in Chicago and controls total assets of almost $100 million, according to tax records and the nonprofit’s 2018 annual report.
Carlos Ballesteros is a corps members of Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of Chicago’s South Side and West Side.
Editor’s note: This article was updated to include information about The Resurrection Project moving its office and support staff into the building.