At the Todo Para Todos shelter in Pilsen, volunteers this summer kept running into roadblocks to find permanent housing for asylum-seekers.
The vacant warehouse in Pilsen was retrofitted into a shelter for migrants in May to relieve a maxed out police station nearby. Over the course of the summer volunteers estimate upward of 250 asylum-seekers — more than 70 of those children — lived there.
The Pilsen shelter was a volunteer-run effort, operating outside of the city’s shelter system. Because of that, residents weren’t eligible to participate in a state-administered rental assistance program only available to asylum-seekers living in city shelters. And long-term, keeping the shelter running in perpetuity wasn’t the goal for the residents staying there: finding housing was.
Finding housing for migrants is a pressing and growing problem in Chicago. More than 15,000 migrants have arrived in the city since August 2022, and the city is seeing a surge in just the past week, as a dozen buses of asylum seekers from the border are sent here.
Facing crowded police stations and overcrowded shelters, advocates and volunteers want to move as many migrants out of temporary mass spaces as quickly as possible.
But finding landlords who will rent to new arrivals who have no credit or rental history is challenging.
“We were running into dead end, after dead end, after dead end, trying to find housing on our own…” said Matt Joynt, a Pilsen resident and volunteer with the mutual aid group Todo Para Todos, which means “everything for everyone” in Spanish. “We were getting quite desperate.”
That’s when Brad Suster, the owner of Luxe Property Managers, “appeared seemingly out of nowhere,” Joynt said.
Suster manages and owns buildings across the city, and through a subsidy program operated by the Chicago Low-Income Housing Trust Fund, he has for years helped those in need find stable housing.
Suster had units available and had been searching for weeks to find groups who knew of migrants in need of housing.
“Short of going to police stations, or any other encampments, I had no idea how to really help this community,” Suster said, later adding: “And it truly was Matt coming up with a spreadsheet for me, showing me the number of family members that had an income and matching up where they particularly would go.”
The first lease was signed in early August, and now Joynt and Suster are in regular contact. They’ve been able to more quickly move families from the shelter into permanent housing thanks to a unique program and unlikely relationship that at first Joynt thought was “too good to be true.”
Suster’s units became even more needed when compounding forces forced volunteers to close the shelter at the beginning of September. By the end of this month, 47 former shelter residents will be housed across a dozen apartments and houses through Suster and the rental subsidy program.
“I was joking with the other volunteers that we need to make a bronze bust of Brad’s face and put it outside of the shelter before it closed,” Joynt said.
Trust Fund Program
In his home office, Suster, who has been a landlord since the 90s, opens up on his computer a long spreadsheet of names.
The list dates back more than a decade and holds hundreds of names of people he has housed or who have reached out to him looking for housing. He gets calls at least two or three times a week from prospective tenants looking for subsidized housing. Whenever he has a unit that fits someone’s family size and income, he tries to pull from the list that only continues to grow.
Even years later, “a lot of times people still don’t have housing,” Suster said.
The influx of new arrivals from Central America is just the latest Suster has been able to help through the Chicago Low-Income Housing Trust Fund’s subsidy program. He currently manages about 155 units through the program.
“It’s a wonderful safety net that just most people are not familiar with,” Suster said.
Founded in 1989, the fund, known as the CLIHTF, aims to meet the permanent housing needs of Chicago’s low-income residents. It’s funded through a combination of city and state funds.
The rental subsidy program covers the gap between the market rate of a rental unit and what a household can afford. Anyone whose income is at or below 30% of the area median income can qualify. The trust fund aims for participants to pay no more than 30% of their income on rent, and covers the difference.
Because of the program’s aid, Suster has been able to rent a seven-bedroom house for roughly $300 a month for a large migrant family, for example, compared to the $2,200 it would normally go for.
“We want to reach that demographic where the person has an income … but just doesn’t make quite enough to afford other monthly or daily expenses,” Annissa Lambirth-Garrett, CLIHTF’s executive director said, later adding: “We didn’t think that we should be a barrier to housing because someone does not have a traditional form of income.”
Unlike the state-administered rental assistance program that covers rent for up to six months, the CLIHTF’s subsidy program does require tenants to have a source of income — something that can be challenging for asylum-seekers who are not legally authorized to work in the U.S. while facing lengthy waits for work permits.
Joselyn Walsh, a Todo Para Todos volunteer, said volunteers have had to get creative to get landlords to accept new arrivals as tenants despite a lack of credit history. That’s included using money asylum-seekers earn in the U.S. and send back home to their relatives in Venezuela, for example, as proof they have a reliable source of income.
But for those who are able to secure work, the CLIHTF’s program allows participants to self-certify their income.
It’s a policy that’s been in place since last year. Chicagoans who are self-employed or don’t have a traditional income that can be verified through pay stubs, for example, can present a notarized statement declaring their income instead. That gives workers who are getting paid in cash a way to prove their income — even if it’s not earned through traditional means.
The average family remains on the subsidy between five to seven years, Lambirth-Garrett said. If a participant’s income exceeds the eligibility requirements, they have a year to transition to new housing while they pay an increased rent.
“You guys would do the same thing for us”
As of Tuesday, 8,996 migrants were staying in city shelters, with 2,052 people living in police stations and O’Hare and Midway airports, according to city figures. The need for housing has been made even more pressing ahead of winter.
But Suster is hopeful the waves of new arrivals can help reinvigorate the city, which has been losing population — especially on the South and West sides. His own work managing properties stemmed from an interest in preserving historic housing on the South and West sides that were facing demolition.
“This is such a big transfusion that the city needs of an entire new population. And that’s a culture. That’s a workforce. That’s everything. And I think that’s exciting,” Suster said, later adding: “Hopefully 50 years from now, these families, they’ll be generations and they will all look back and go, ‘Wow, look what happened 50 years ago.’ And the city will be much better for it.”
With many of Todo Paras Todos’s volunteers returning to teaching jobs and the building housing the shelter facing insurance issues, volunteers decided the shelter had to close at the start of this month.
Walsh said volunteers made clear to residents when the shelter’s closure was imminent, that “we’re all going to keep supporting each other, no matter what ends up happening after that.”
The community that was born out of crisis and has since flourished among the volunteers and residents has not gone with it.
On a recent Wednesday night, Joynt and Walsh maneuvered couches through stairways, jump started a dead car battery and trekked across Pilsen and the South Side for nearly three hours to deliver donated furniture to migrant families living in houses they are renting through Suster and the CLIHTF’s rental subsidy program.
Abraham and his family were one of the first families volunteers were able to move into a place through Suster, and since August they have shared a large house with another family from the shelter. Abraham, who is from Venezuela and whose last name we aren’t using for his safety, said he feels blessed by the support they’ve received.
“We are grateful for our new, sweet home. It’s a beautiful home that we have received. A million thanks,” he said in Spanish. “This is something many want.”
The support has gone both ways. A former shelter resident brought Joynt home-cooked meals each day as he recovered from COVID last month. While there are still some former shelter residents looking for housing, those that have been able to settle into more permanent housing have expressed interest in volunteering to help others who are just arriving, Joynt said.
It’s a collective of support Joynt knows would be there if the roles were reversed. After one former shelter resident recently signed his lease, he asked Joynt: Why do you do this?
“And I said to him, because I know that if the tables were turned, imagine the countries are flipped, imagine all Americans are fleeing to Venezuela, I know you guys would do the same thing for us.” Joynt said.
“And he said, ‘You’re right, we would.’ ”
Tessa Weinberg covers Chicago government and politics for WBEZ. WBEZ’s Michael Puente contributed to this story.