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Volunteers Help Migrants Find Permanent Housing in Chicago

It's the only sanctuary city that has pointed to resettlement as the primary solution to put migrants on a path to self-sufficiency. But there are not enough case managers or landlords willing or able to rent to keep up with demand.

Adrian Davila, from left, and Sebastian Davila, Matthew Joynt and Argenis Davila in Chicago on Oct. 12, 2023. The Davila family migrated to Chicago from Venezuela and now rents an apartment from Joynt.
(Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
When volunteers found there was no way of keeping the makeshift shelter in Pilsen open despite the need for spaces to house thousands of migrants living in police stations across Chicago, their priorities shifted.

They needed to find a way to help the asylum-seekers find permanent housing without the city’s assistance to ensure they wouldn’t go back to a station or the streets.

The volunteers had a little over a month and more than 100 residents, mostly families, who needed to be rehoused before the shelter closed. “It seemed impossible at first,” said Cynthia Nambo, a volunteer with Todos Para Todos, the group that operated the shelter.

But they did it.

With the help of the Chicago Low-Income Housing Trust Fund, and some without financial help at all, volunteers from the Pilsen shelter placed most of the residents in apartments right before the shelter closed in early September.

As Chicago infrastructure buckles under the weight of thousands of migrants who have arrived over the past year, city officials had pointed to resettlement — moving migrants from temporary to permanent housing — as their golden ticket to ensuring people have roofs over their heads. But the hundreds of asylum-seekers arriving daily from the southern border on buses and planes are overwhelming Chicago’s efforts.

Denver and New York are also struggling to handle mass numbers of migrants, and Chicago is the only sanctuary city that has pointed to resettlement as the primary solution to put them on a path to self-sufficiency. But there are not enough case managers or landlords willing or able to rent to keep up with the rate at which people are arriving, leaving volunteers to fill the gaps.

A government assistance program covering up to six months of housing costs for migrants is open only to those living in city or state shelters, forcing thousands of other new arrivals to seek help elsewhere. There are more than 11,000 migrants in city-run shelters, according to the the city’s latest reports, and the process of applying for assistance can take months.

Argenis Davila, an asylum-seeker from Venezuela, had been living at the Pilsen shelter with his wife and two sons since May, when Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez, 25th, turned the empty warehouse into an emergency shelter with the help of volunteers.

Soon after settling in the shelter, Davila, 45, began to work, first in construction and then in a mushroom factory, he said. Now he rents a basement apartment from Matt Joynt, the volunteer who first picked up Davila and his family from a police station to take them to the shelter.

“It’s so nice here. It finally feels like a home,” he said in Spanish on a recent day, surveying his new apartment from a chair by the kitchen counter. “And it was all thanks to them, to those people that believed in me and gave me a chance.”

They recently celebrated a birthday for one of Davila’s sons in the backyard with other volunteers and asylum-seekers.

“They’re like family now,” Joynt said.

Filling housing gaps

Todos Para Todos, which means “Everything for everyone,” rehoused nearly 300 migrants who had been living at the shelter since May, including 100 in the month before it closed. Most people live in apartments on the Southwest Side, where rent is more affordable. Few, like Davila, live in Pilsen or neighborhoods on the North Side.

After Todos Para Todos learned the city would not provide their residents with rental assistance because the shelter was not operated by the city, the group of mostly educators created a housing committee to take matters into their own hands.

They began to research affordable apartments and work with landlords to find ways to meet the application requirements, such as offering alternate ways to prove income, waiving the credit check or the need for a record of the migrants’ rental history.

A few families have proved their income based on receipts of their remittances, the money they sent to their families in their home country. Some volunteers have written letters of good faith to the landlords on the migrants’ behalf.

The volunteers also raised more than $8,000 to help pay for deposits and collected donated furniture for the migrants’ new homes. But finding landlords willing to rent at an affordable price “was extremely challenging,” said Nambo.

Market-rate prices are high — the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,480 in Chicago, according to Apartment List — and few migrants earn enough to pay that much. Most work in construction, landscaping, maintenance and restaurants making minimum wage, if not less. A few have worked their way to factories, Nambo said.

That’s why the Chicago Low-Income Housing Trust Fund became essential to their efforts, Nambo said. Weeks before closing the shelter, Nambo met Brad Suster, a landlord who accepts low-income tenants whose rents are subsidized by the fund.

Suster, owner of Luxe Property Managers, helped to house nearly 50 migrants from the Pilsen shelter, mostly on the Southwest Side, under the subsidy program operated by the trust fund. He said he had been searching for weeks to find groups to connect him to migrants who needed housing before he met the team from Todos Para Todos.

The nonprofit Chicago Low-Income Housing Trust Fund was founded in 1989 to provide permanent affordable housing to Chicago’s low-income community with a combination of city and state funds. But it wasn’t until 2022 when the organization made the program more accessible for residents who are self-employed — often homeless, undocumented and now migrants — by allowing workers to self-certify their income with a notarized letter, said Annissa Lambirth-Garrett, executive director of the fund.

That gives migrants who are getting paid in cash a way to prove their income.

The program is landlord-driven, which means landlords choose the families they rent to and receive money directly from the fund. Anyone whose income is at or below 30% of the area median income qualifies. The trust fund aims for participants to pay no more than 30% of their income on rent, which means the rental subsidy program covers the gap between the market rate of the unit and what the household can afford.

Though the program closed applications for 2023, Lambirth-Garrett said she expects to open applications again in the first quarter of next year. While the city program provides up to $15,000 to cover a market-rate rent for up to six months, migrants living in units subsidized by the fund have permanent rental assistance unless their economic situation changes or the landlord stops participating.

About 800 landlords participate in the program, which received nearly $15 million from the city and close to $5 million from the state for 2023, said Lambirth-Garrett.

Yohana Maria Moreno Muñoz, a Venezuelan mother of two, was the first migrant Suster rented to in July. She connected volunteers from Todos Para Todos with Suster, whom she met after arriving in Chicago last January. She now lives in one of Suster’s units in Homan Square, where she pays $375 a month, she said.

She affords the rent and supports her two sons by cleaning houses. Moreno Muñoz also has a lawyer helping process her asylum case.

“I want others to have the same opportunities that I did; I know how difficult it is to come here the way we did,” Moreno Muñoz said in Spanish. “Dios los ha puesto a todos en mi camino.”

“God has placed every single person I’ve met here on my path to get to where I am,” she said.
Venezuelan migrant Yohana Maria Moreno Muñoz, 39, prepares dinner as her younger son, Isaac, 11, does homework at their apartment on Oct. 18, 2023. The family started renting the unit in August with help from the Chicago Low-Income Housing Trust Fund.
(Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
Waiting for months

But Maria Alejandra Larez, who lives at a city shelter, has not had the same luck. She’s faced a harder road trying to get assistance directly through the government’s rental assistance program, taking her just about three months to understand the process to apply. Reaching the case manager was difficult even after she found a landlord who was willing to rent, she said.

“It’s like we’re a burden to them. I can see why, though. There are so many of us in there,” Larez said.

After months of uncertainty making her way to the southern U.S. border from Venezuela, she worked cleaning houses and saved money to get out of the Inn of Chicago, one of the largest migrant shelters for families in the city. She was approved for housing assistance earlier this month, and she hopes to move with her son on Nov. 1 into an apartment that they’ll share with her twin sister and her family.

As of the end of September, nearly 2,300 households had applied for rental assistance through the government’s program, with more than 1,700 households in Illinois approved — representing a total of 5,100 people — and around $13.5 million disbursed, the state said.

The remaining applicants were either denied — primarily because they withdrew their applications — or in limbo as their applications are reviewed or they search for units to rent. So far, about 1,000 households have been recertified for an additional three months of assistance.

The Illinois Housing Development Authority does not expect rental assistance funds to run out “in the immediate future” and is working with its partners “to ramp up resettlement efforts at shelters throughout the city.”

Ami Novoryta, chief program officer of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago, the primary organization in charge of providing case management to find migrants permanent housing, said her organization has increased its staffing throughout the summer, allowing Catholic Charities to hit its target in September of helping around 500 households sign leases per month.

In January, the organization had around 25 dedicated staffers for resettlement and reunification work. Now, the organization has around 60 , and is aiming to help 6,000 families sign leases between July 2023 and June 2024, Novoryta said.

But the number of asylum-seekers arriving in the city does not cease. There are nearly 19,000 new arrivals from the southern border. Of those, 11,295 are living in city shelters and more than 3,000 await placement in and outside police stations across the city and Chicago’s airports.

Still, Novoryta called the organization’s pace “extraordinary” and said she has been “very surprised” to see the monthly numbers of new placements grow, as landlords step up to provide housing.

“It is not enough; we are overstretched,” Novoryta said. “We are working to make sure that we are connecting folks to great landlords, to great apartments, that they are supported in the process, and that does take some time.”

About 1,155 landlords are renting to new arrivals, up from about 600 in July, according to the state.

Many property owners are hesitant to rent to migrants. They worry new arrivals won’t be able continue paying after the six months of rental assistance runs out, property owners told the Tribune. They said they do not want to have to go through a lengthy eviction process that can mean months of lost rent.

Michael Glasser, president of the Neighborhood Building Owners Alliance, said that while his organization and its members are working with organizations like Catholic Charities, the city and state have not reached out directly.

“We are willing to help, but there is a capacity issue, and, of course, this has to be an advantageous business decision,” Glasser said. “Is the money there to ensure that we are going to get market rent? There is a lot that we don’t know.”

While some landlords remain hesitant, many also have limited unoccupied units. Occupancy levels at rental buildings typically remain high heading into the end of the year, as people do not move as often in the fall and winter seasons.

According to a Neighborhood Building Owners Alliance September survey of more than 230 Chicago housing providers, 38% of respondents said they do not have any vacant units available, with around 85% of respondents saying fewer than 5% of their rental units available.

Rafael Leon, executive director of Chicago Metropolitan Housing Development Corp., rents to 10 migrant families, an uptick from the seven families he was renting to in July. His organization provides more than 700 units of affordable housing in the city and suburbs, with the current occupancy rate at 97%, Leon said at the end of September.

A native of Venezuela himself, having moved to the U.S. more than 40 years ago, Leon said he worries for his fellow Venezuelans as winter approaches.

“The fact that winter is coming will make the situation worse,” Leon said. “The coolest temperature it would get down to in Venezuela is 60 degrees, … so here we are approaching winter, and it is going to be tough.”

Hoping for work permits

As migrants aim to become self-sufficient, finding legal work remains a challenge. Last month, President Joe Biden announced temporary legal status — or the protection from removal that fast-tracks approval to work legally — to hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan migrants who have crossed into the U.S.

Most migrants, however, won’t get their permits immediately, as the process is lengthy and complicated. Cristina Pacione-Zayas, deputy chief of staff for Mayor Brandon Johnson, said expediting work authorization is a vital part of long-term resettlement efforts.

“The sooner that we move people through the process (to get) into an apartment and (support) their efforts to be self-sufficient through legal work authorization, it will … relieve the costs of the operation,” Pacione-Zayas said.

Alberto Oviedo, 41, received resettlement support from the city but doesn’t have a work permit because he’s waiting to get temporary protected status. He was an engineer in Venezuela, and his wife, Darney Ledezma, 34, was a professor.

They lived in Chile for nearly four years with their two kids before deciding to move to the United States because Oviedo was threatened for opposing the far-left leadership in his country of origin. Oviedo’s 77-year-old mother, Maria Isabel, also joined them for their journey.

The family arrived in Chicago on June 23 on a bus from Brownsville, Texas, and were brought to a shelter on the North Side and then to the Inn of Chicago in Streeterville. At the time, Oviedo’s mother was declining rapidly from cancer, and Oviedo said the family was trying to grieve while simultaneously processing their harrowing migration across 11 countries.

“We were disconcerted,” he said in Spanish. “We didn’t come to the United States with the intention of relying on city resources, but at the time all of our attention was going to her.”

Knowing the family was in a precarious situation, workers at the Streeterville shelter connected them to Catholic Charities and New Life Centers. Maria Isabel passed away July 29, about a month after the family arrived in the United States. Now, the family is settled in Calumet City.

They have been in their home for about a month. Their landlord helped by donating some furniture. The family will receive $2,174 in rental assistance per month for at least three months, with the possibility of extending to six.

Oviedo said he hopes he will be able to work legally before his rental assistance runs out.

“We are going to plan the next six months as if we were paying rent — putting aside money so we can continue living here for another six months,” said Ledezma in Spanish.

©2023 Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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