Antonio Gutierrez wasn’t planning to be a housing activist. In 2012, he graduated from the Illinois Institute of Technology with a degree in architecture, but his status as an undocumented immigrant prevented him from working. He started organizing with immigrant groups, volunteering for two years with the Immigrant Youth Justice League and Organized Communities Against Deportations.
Earlier this year, Gutierrez had a choice to make when he received a work permit. He could either follow his original dream of becoming an architect or continue with the organizing work he loved. He chose organizing.
“I couldn’t be that selfish to just go and work in an architecture firm, denying the new person that I had become,” he said. “I had involved myself in the community, and they made me grow in a way that I could never have imagined.”
Gutierrez, who moved to Chicago from Mexico in 2000, has now worked as the housing coordinator for Centro Autónomo for about seven months. He oversees the Albany Park community center’s growing housing movement, helping members with foreclosures and evictions and working to push better housing policy at a national level. He is also building the new Casas del Pueblo Community Land Trust–a project in which the trust will return foreclosed homes to the community. He hopes someone will donate the first house by next summer. If not, the group will try to buy one.
The Chicago Reporter sat down with Gutierrez, 26, to discuss the foreclosure crisis, gentrification and how Centro Autónomo is fighting to keep people in their homes.
Can you explain what you do for Centro Autónomo?
We have active foreclosure and eviction cases, so just following up every single day, making sure that if somebody has a court date we have either an attorney present for them or have the community behind them at court, so the judge knows that there is a community behind this individual losing their home. We’ve been making the process take as long as possible. Because the longer this family has in their home, the more they can save, and, hopefully, eventually relocate.
We have also tried to negotiate with banks in the beginning of the foreclosure process. Sometimes we’re able to negotiate for them to remain in their home and avoid foreclosure, but those cases don’t come to Centro a lot. We usually get the cases where it’s already been a year or two that they’ve been in foreclosure and a negotiation with the bank is no longer possible—the bank is telling us they need to pay at least a quarter or a half of what they owe. These are working-class people, who unfortunately don’t have that kind of money.
What is the Casas del Pueblo Community Land Trust?
The community land trust is how the housing movement at Centro Autónomo wanted to move forward. In the last four years we were successful at making the foreclosure process very long for people, so people could save. We’ve been successful at stopping evictions, or at least trying to negotiate relocation, for these families to be able to move somewhere else. But that was only helping in a very temporary or individualistic way, and we saw that in the city of Chicago we still needed to create more affordable housing. We also needed to put a stop to gentrification. And the only way that we could accomplish that is by taking the land and putting it in our hands as a community land trust to make sure that we create affordable housing, and also [keep] our communities strong because we own the land. As long as the community is willing to work on the trust, those houses will only belong to them. We had a set of rules and bylaws where the community members are directors, treasurers, secretaries, in order for them to really make the decisions.
Why is this work important?
The importance is that if we don’t make these changes, the foreclosure numbers are going to keep increasing. We’re trying to let people know not to believe that the housing crisis is over, because that’s not true. We know as a community organization that these people are still going into foreclosure because they keep coming every single week. If we don’t implement the policies to change that, these communities are going to get displaced. And unfortunately, it’s only destroying communities of color and the working class and the poor.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Anybody is invited to the housing movement. People think oh, you have to be a homeowner in foreclosure or eviction, and I always tell them no. Housing is a human right, and we’re fighting for that, we’re fighting for dignity, to be treated as human beings, and not as a bank account or a mortgage payment that the bank realizes all of a sudden wasn’t turned in. If you really believe that housing is a human right, this is a space for you to be involved in the community and to organize with the community being affected by the housing crisis. Because at the end of the day, whether you’re a homeowner or not, all of us are citizens of Chicago, of the United States. One of the reasons I came into housing organizing was because my parents almost went through a foreclosure in 2007, and if it wasn’t for the help of family members, we would have gone into foreclosure and been evicted. It was something that really affected me. So when I came and did the interviews with Centro Autónomo, and I learned more about what they were doing as a housing organization, I saw this as the only job that I wanted.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.