Updated: December 11, 2013 6:35AM
The shuttered factory at 26th and Kostner has been an eyesore for decades in Little Village, representative of the struggles facing the mostly Mexican community.
An affordable housing development expected to go up next year has been touted as an improvement. “A shot in the arm” is how Ald. Ricardo Munoz (22nd) described the boost for the area to DNA Info in April.
The project also has been embraced by Enlace Chicago and Erie Neighborhood House, nonprofits that support Latinos.
The organizations have gathered community support for the Mercy Housing Lakefront development, but complicated layers of scrutiny and criticism simmer in the background for some who live or conduct business in Little Village.
The words ‘development project’ brought alarm at a meeting held by the Little Village Community Council last week for neighborhood residents.
It was the word ‘project’ that did it, immediately bringing to mind neglected and impoverished high-rise projects that the Daley administration ultimately tore down. Cabrini Green, a high-rise that gained national notoriety for violent crime, came up, a clear sign that the city’s public housing disasters still haunt it.
This development should be nothing like that. “It is not public housing,” Lisa Kuklinski, a Mercy vice president, said in a phone interview. Mercy is a nonprofit that uses public and private dollars to offset rent prices for lower-income earners.
It’s unpopular to say so, but race relations in segregated Chicago are still testy. Residents of the development are expected to be African-American and Mexican, which brings mixed responses: Michael D. Rodriguez, executive director of Enlace, believes Little Village is ready to resemble the real world and “live hand-in-hand with people of diverse ethnic backgrounds.”
Others worry about the identity of Little Village and whether its proud display of Mexican culture will be lost.
“Enlace and the alderman, they want to flip the community,” Council President August Sallas said. “They should want to improve qualify of life for this Mexican community.”
Sallas said he is advocating for Mexicans, similar to ministers who push for social justice for African-Americans.
Racial prejudice is at work for others. One council meeting attendee used a racist epithet to describe a Chicago Housing Authority complex and deride the Mercy development.
The alderman and Rodriguez heard about that comment and seemed to use it as an excuse to dismiss concerns some are raising.
But the inexcusable nastiness of racists should not invalidate legitimate concerns of others.
A vital question: How much access will there be for current Little Village residents who are undocumented?
A third to 40 percent of Mercy’s 148 apartments, which will range from one to four bedrooms and will be spread over two and three stories, will be rented under Section 8, a federal subsidy. Undocumented immigrants, among the neediest in Little Village, will not qualify.
Mercy will partner with the Chicago Housing Authority to rent other units, but the CHA application requires resident alien numbers for non-citizens. That’s another door closed to the undocumented.
“Our people are not included,” said Baltazar Enriquez, director and housing adviser for the HOPE organization.
Kuklinski said Mercy is lining up multiple funding resources to make housing inclusive for Little Village residents.
Rodriguez said Enlace will hold Mercy to its promises.
“We are here to oversee it and make it accountable to the community,” he said.
Rodriguez used to live close to the empty factory. He and others are tired of looking at it and the blight it represents.
Development is better than nothing, he said.