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Ald. Moreno unveils plans for LGBT-friendly affordable housing project
by Matt Simonette

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Logan Square residents, politicians and other stakeholders gathered May 21 at Congress Pizzeria, 2033 N. Milwaukee Ave., to learn about a new affordable-housing development, intended to be welcoming for LGBT individuals. The project been guided by the office of Ald. Proco Joe Moreno ( 1st Ward ).

The complex, to be named The John Pennycuff Memorial Apartments at Robert Castillo Plaza, will be financed through the use of TIF funds from the existing Milwaukee-Fullerton Tax Increment Finance ( TIF ) district, as well as Chicago Housing Authority ( CHA ) funds, tax credits and private funding. The development is slated to have 88 units, according to officials.

Castillo, a longtime activist for both LGBT rights and affordable housing, attended the open house. Pennycuff, his husband, was equally active in those causes and passed away in 2012.

"Obviously, this is bittersweet," Castillo said. "A lot of friends posted that they wish John were here to see this. Obviously, I wish John were here. But this is a legacy to all the work that he's done, not only for the LGBT community but also the Logan Square community. We were born here, we did a lot of our activism here, and a lot of our community work, so I think it's fitting that there will be LGBT-friendly affordable housing in Logan Square in our honor. I'm humbled by it, but this is a first step and I'm looking forward to its completion."

The project has been in the works for about two years already, according to Moreno, and is still subject to a number of reviews and approvals.

"There's my own process that I have for any community project, regardless," Moreno said. "We'll move forward with the neighborhood association. They'll have their own internal meetings and a large community meeting. This also has many steps for the city—it's a planned development, so it has to go through the Planned Development designation. It's getting TIF money, so it's got to go through the [Community Development Committee], and of course it has to go through the normal zoning process."

The development is the second LGBT-friendly affordable housing facility in the city, after the Town Hall apartment complex in Lake View. But the Logan Square complex will not be aimed specifically at senior residents as Town Hall is. Moreno said that, even though the project was announced only days earlier, his organization had already been contacted by organizations eager to connect with the development.

Rick Ehlert, a principal with MHDC/TRW, said his firm was approached by the city, who asked for "market rate-looking apartments that you could be proud of, that could be brought down to an affordable rate."

"At the early meetings, the alderman had a few different things that we tried to respond to—LGBTQ, LGBTQ and LGBTQ," he added. "If there are things we can do to respond to that, that's what we're looking for. These are the typical size for market-rate apartments. If there is something we've missed so far, that we can add, that is geared for LGBTQ [residents], we'll do it."

Cook County Commissioner Luis Arroyo, Jr., said, "This is something very exciting, something new, and something that is very needed in the community, and I appreciate this process of an open-door policy to the constituents, so that they can give their feedback. That's a win-win for everyone."

Juan Calderon, chief operating officer of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, praised the opening of an LGBT-friendly complex outside of Boystown, adding, "This goes back to the efforts of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, and our work with Vida/Sida, and what many other advocates have done in terms in addressing the issue of transphobia and homophobia in orur communities. This is a good step and we're excited that this a possibility for the Northwest Side."

Attorney and activist Jacob Meister added, "This is a good use for TIF funds—it helps the LGBT community. It's a great project. I'm happy to see it come and I applaud Ald. Moreno for his efforts."

"There's definitely a need for LGBTQ-friendly housing that's near transit and that's in a neighborhood becoming more-and-more attractive," said Moreno. "To recognize that and be proactive on that is my responsibility as alderman."

Neighborhood resident Johnny Elias grew up with Castillo and said that he was excited to see his friend honored.

"He was very active in the community and we banded together and fought for HIV housing in '94 or '95—Robert and John were right in the center of things," Elias said. "… Our neighborhood friends are just proud. John did a lot of work and left too soon. This is a way to memorialize him."

As the celebration winded down, Castillo further reflected on his late partner and his activism: "I think John would have been too modest to say how excited he was, but I'm sure those big eyes of his would have been wide, he would have smiled, and I'm sure he would have gotten a thousand hugs today. I'm sure that there are a million people sharing in his happiness today."

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