As developers hobnob in Pilsen, protesters rip gentrification
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More than 100 real estate brokers and developers from across the city converged in Pilsen on Wednesday to talk shop and trade business cards at a networking event organized by Bisnow, a marketing and event firm.
Billed as a seminar on four of Chicago’s “emerging neighborhoods” — Humboldt Park, Logan Square, Uptown and Pilsen — the event drew ire from several community groups who argue developers are pursuing profits at the expense of longtime residents who are struggling to keep up with skyrocketing rents and property taxes.
Two dozen protesters gathered outside Mural Park and blocked the entrance to the building, including some holding a sign that said “Gentrification Is Violence.” Protestors verbally berated guests walking in, yelling “Get the f— out of Pilsen.” They were eventually cleared out by Chicago police.
Moises Moreno, an organizer with Pilsen Alliance, said the protest was aimed at “predatory developers” who target working class and immigrant communities.
“Profiteering is destroying our home, our history,” added Diego Morales, 27, a member of Democratic Socialists of America who moved to Pilsen in 2014.
Some of the seminar’s attendees were visibly moved by the protesters, but others cracked jokes about them.
“They descended on me like locusts,” Edward Dushman of Foresite Real Estate Partners, LLC said with a smirk.
Paul Tsakiris, president of First Western Properties and moderator of the event’s first of two panels, said he sympathizes with many of the protestors’ concerns, but he felt some of their criticisms came from a place of ignorance.
“These folks mean well but I question their willingness to understand what the facts are,” he said.
While half of the event was reserved for networking, panels included “Success Stories: Neighborhood Development” and “New Targets for Institutional Investors: Development Opportunities.”
Tsakiris’ panel featured Michael McLean Jr. of Condor Partners, Scott Goldman of Baum Revision, Randy Waites of Avison Young and Veronica Gonzalez from The Resurrection Project, a non-profit developer in Pilsen.
McLean kicked off the panel by addressing the elephant in the room.
“Thank you for braving the elements this morning,” he quipped to the crowd, many clad in business suits and pencil skirts. He then called on attendees to “acknowledge” concerns over displacement and to take them into account when doing business in Pilsen.
“We believe in producing responsible, impactful development,” he said.
As the first panel got underway, two protesters seated near the front stood up and shouted several chants at the panelists until being escorted out by police a few minutes later.
Gonzalez broke the ensuing silence.
“This is Pilsen,” she said. “Sometimes we have to sit and feel.”
Gonzalez went on to say some of the protesters are “misinformed [on] how markets work,” telling the crowd of developers, “there’s a lot of misinformation on your intent.”
McLean followed up by trumpeting new developments in Pilsen such as Mural Park, which replaced empty buildings and brought “role models in suits and computers” to the neighborhood. The development seeks to bring “high quality employers who respect and celebrate the rich culture of Pilsen” — including “Hispanic and Latino owned businesses, businesses that employ from the neighborhood and those who market to the neighborhood,” its website says.
“We’re safer here than in River North,” he told the crowd. “It’s an exciting time to be here.”
The housing market in the four neighborhoods featured in Wednesday’s seminar has radically shifted over the past two decades, driving an exodus of thousands of mostly black and Latino residents who can’t afford the rising rents or choose to sell their properties.
In Pilsen, the Latino population declined by 13,000 people between 1990 and 2015, coinciding with a drop in the neighborhood’s population from 46,000 to 35,000 in that same period, according to a recent analysis of Census data from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Family-occupied households in Pilsen also fell precipitously, going from 75 percent all households in 1990 to an estimated 57 percent in 2015.
Meanwhile, property values in Pilsen jumped: In 2015 the median owner-occupied home was valued at $198,000, up from $76,000 in 1990, while the median monthly rent in the neighborhood went from $575 to $814.
A Sun-Times analysis found the median monthly rent for all 55 units listed on the Multiple Listing Service by a real estate agents in Pilsen at the end of November was $1,650, which was the listing for a two-bedroom apartment. Half of all renters and homeowners with a mortgage in Pilsen spent at least 30 percent of their income on housing in 2015, according to the UIC study.
Luz Vargas, a great-grandmother who’s lived down the block from Mural Park for over 20 years, said she liked the changes she’s seen in the neighborhood but wishes her property taxes would stop rising so quickly.
“The neighborhood is getting safer and I worry less about walking down the street at night,” Vargas said in Spanish. “But at the same time, my property taxes keep going up because of the new developments on my block. That doesn’t seem fair. What do they have to do with me?”
The Cook County Assessor’s Office valued her property at $321,590 in 2018, up from $237,240 in 2017. County records show Vargas’ property taxes rose from $2,885 in 2014 to $3,508 in 2018.