Chicago’s undocumented seniors face slim and dangerous housing options

An elderly couple looks at the camera with smile-less expressions.

Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune

Undocumented seniors Lilia, 69, left, and Cipriano, 70, at their home in Chicago on March 24, 2022. They were forced out of the basement apartment they had lived in for 14 years during a time when Cipriano was undergoing surgery for health issues. In the background is a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe adorned with roses and streamers. Note: Injustice Watch and the Chicago Tribune agreed to use only their first names as they fear retaliation from immigration authorities.

Editors’ note: The Chicago Tribune and Injustice Watch teamed up to report on the challenges facing Illinois’ aging undocumented population. This is the third installment in a four-part series focused on access to health care and housing. Leer en español.

In the three days before Lilia had to vacate her basement apartment last summer, she cried herself to sleep each night. Her husband, Cipriano, 70, was in a hospital bed recovering from an emergency amputation of his left foot due to gangrene complications. But their landlords of more than a decade told Lilia, 69, it was time for them to go. And without a lease, she had no choice but to oblige.

“I packed all of our things by myself,” she said in a recent interview, wiping away tears.

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“Estabamos practicamente en la calle.” We were practically on the street, she said.

(Injustice Watch and the Chicago Tribune agreed to identify Lilia and Cipriano only by their first names because they are in the country without authorization and fear retaliation from immigration authorities.)

An elderly man with one amputated leg wheels himself on a wheelchair past a dining room table.

Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune

Cipriano, 70, moves through the home he shares with his wife, Lilia, in Chicago on March 24, 2022. They are both undocumented and were forced out of the basement apartment they had lived in for 14 years at the same time that Cipriano’s health deteriorated and his leg was amputated.

After an ambulance picked up Cipriano in September, the landlords told Lilia it was time for them to move out. A city inspector was on the way, they told her, and the basement unit, for which they paid $500 a month, didn’t have a second exit, making it illegal to rent. The inspector never showed up, Lilia said, but the landlords didn’t relent, and the couple vacated the basement by the end of the month.

With the help of a community organizer, the couple was able to find a new apartment in West Humboldt Park, the same neighborhood they’d lived in since immigrating from Mexico a little over 30 years ago. Their new landlord charges them $700 a month for a sunny second-floor unit in a classic Chicago two-flat, well below market rate.

But the couple isn’t able to work anymore; Lilia suffers from arthritis and asthma attacks — a byproduct of living in a musty basement for so long, she said — and Cipriano’s amputation has him sidelined until he can learn to walk with a prosthetic leg. And even then, he’s not sure he’ll be able to find sustainable work at his age and with his new disability.

Without any assets, savings or Social Security Disability Insurance, they now depend on their only daughter — an undocumented housekeeper and a single mother to four kids — to pay for their rent, food and everything else.

“My daughter is paying for everything, which is why I understand that her world is also shutting down on her,” Lilia said. “I understand that she is stressed because this was not supposed to be her responsibility. It was our responsibility to save enough for ourselves, but we couldn’t.”

“La vejez se nos vino encima,” Lilia said. “Old age crept up on us.”

Lilia and Cipriano are members of a rapidly growing demographic in Illinois: Undocumented immigrants age 65 and older. The population of undocumented seniors is expected to grow from about 4,000 in 2017 to more than 55,000 by 2030, according to estimates from demographer Rob Paral published in a recent Rush University Medical Center report.

A man in a wheelchair with an amputated leg sits next to his wife, who is standing next to a table with her hand in front of her face.

Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune

Undocumented senior Lilia covers her face as she gets emotional while talking about their difficult financial and health situations on March 24, 2022.

Many older adults without legal status can’t afford a place of their own and are disqualified from federally-funded senior housing. Undocumented immigrants also have a harder time buying a home than citizens, which in turn prevents them from them building generational wealth through real estate — often the only way working-class families can build wealth, especially Black and Latinx households.

As a result, undocumented seniors often depend on their families to have a roof over their head. About three-quarters of seniors without legal status live with younger family members in multigenerational households, compared to only about a quarter of citizen seniors, according to Paral.

Burdening their children and families with having to take care of them in their later years can elicit feelings of shame and guilt in undocumented seniors, said Cecilia Ayón, a public policy analyst at the University of California, Riverside, who recently interviewed dozens of undocumented older adults as part of her research.

“When it comes to retirement, you have to think about the intersection of how long can they work for and how much of a burden they want to be on their children. Because that’s actually how they talked about it — they don’t want to be a burden on their children,” she said.

Expected to do more with less

Lilia and Cipriano said they intended to buy a home at some point. But those plans withered away after Lilia became too sick to work about 10 years ago. “We had no savings. We barely managed to get by,” Cipriano said.

Only about a third of undocumented immigrants in Illinois own the homes they live in, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, compared with two-thirds of Illinois residents overall.

Legally speaking, there’s nothing stopping unauthorized immigrants from buying a house. In the late 1990s, the IRS began issuing individual taxpayer identification numbers, or ITINs, to immigrants and foreigners so they could pay taxes on their earnings. And in 2001, Congress allowed banks to issue mortgages to people with ITINs.

But immigrants without legal status have to clear a much higher bar than citizens to buy a home. ITIN mortgages often come with interest rates that are about twice what a typical citizen borrower has to pay despite having lower delinquency rates than typical borrowers. ITIN mortgages also require a full 20% down payment, while some citizen borrowers can secure a mortgage with a down payment as low as 3%.

But undocumented tenants often lack the required documents that landlords ask for to sign a lease, like photo IDs or a credit history. That means most undocumented tenants pay their rent month-to-month, putting them at risk of being easily evicted, as landlords in Illinois only need to give them 30 days notice to leave their home.

“A lot of these families are financially strained, and their kids, if they’re also undocumented, their options for jobs will also be limited. It takes a while to really become financially stable, and if you’re undocumented, it’s hard to do that,” Ayón said.

Because it’s so hard to buy a home, the majority of undocumented immigrants — like Lilia and Cipriano — are renters.

A couple sitting at a table eating food with their hands, with a bowl of fruit on the table in front of them.

Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune

Cipriano, 70, left, and his wife, Lilia, 69, eat lunch at their home in Chicago on March 24, 2022.

“I’ve seen so many immigrant tenants constantly forced out or evicted from apartment buildings,” said Antonio Gutierrez, co-founder of the Autonomous Tenants Union in Albany Park.

Undocumented seniors who’ve been forced out of their apartments have a hard time finding a new place to live that’s within their budget, especially in gentrifying areas of the city like Albany Park, Gutierrez said.

That means undocumented seniors often end up living in dangerous and squalid conditions, especially in below-ground units that are deemed illegal by the city of Chicago, said Juan Cruz, an organizer with Communities United, a grassroots social justice group also based in Albany Park. Cruz helped Lilia and Cipriano find their new apartment.

“We know, especially in the immigrant and undocumented community, often times basement units are the most affordable,” he said.

In her lowest moments, alone in her old basement unit with no food to eat and not a penny to her name, Lilia said she thought about going back to Mexico. “But I couldn’t bear leaving my daughter to take care of my husband,” after his surgery, she said.

Family ties are often what keep undocumented seniors from going back to their home countries, said Jennifer Van Hook, a sociologist at Penn State University whose research centers on aging immigrant communities. “The longer they stay (in the U.S.), the more of their family lives here and not abroad,” she said. “And of course, people want to live close to their children and their grandchildren as they get older.”

Undocumented seniors also have a hard time deciding to go back home empty-handed, said Dan Pogorzelski, a community organizer in Chicago who works with Polish immigrants, who make up the second-largest group of unauthorized seniors in Illinois after Mexican immigrants.

“Some people who emigrated here many years ago, to save face, write back to Poland, and give the impression that they’re living a great life here, because they’re embarrassed that things did not end up the way that they had hoped. So people will have no idea of what dire straits they might be in,” Pogorzelski said.

Risk of homelessness without public housing

Undocumented seniors who don’t have family to fall back on are highly susceptible to ending up homeless, said Patti Prunhuber, a housing attorney at Justice in Aging, a national legal advocacy group based in Oakland, California, working to end senior poverty.

“Undocumented immigrants … can’t look ahead to being able to retire and have enough income to pay for their housing. So they’re struggling while they’re working. And then they really have no fall back once they stop working, unless they have a family member who can rescue them,” she said.

For undocumented seniors at risk of homelessness, the road to stability can’t be found in the usual taxpayer-funded channels. Undocumented seniors are barred from living in public housing units dedicated to people over 65 years old in Illinois. And although they can qualify for Section 8 housing vouchers if they live with citizens, immigrant rights organizers and housing organizers say that public housing authorities in Chicago and across the state have done a poor job making these resources available to mixed-status families.

In 2019, the Chicago Housing Authority said in a letter to the Department of Housing and Urban Development that it served only 47 mixed-status families made up of 190 family members across its 22,000-unit portfolio. In contrast, housing authorities in New York City and Los Angeles told HUD they served more than 11,000 family members in mixed-status households.

Similarly, an analysis of 2017 HUD data by the National Housing Law Project found that Illinois public housing authorities served only 140 mixed-status families, or less than 1% of its total caseloads — a rate lower than other states with large public housing portfolios such as California, New York, Texas, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Florida and Georgia.

“I think that the data really just shows that immigrants have not been prioritized in the city for affordable housing programs, by the Chicago Housing Authority and other housing authorities in the area,” said Emily Coffey, a housing attorney at the Shriver Center on Poverty Law.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the CHA said the agency “has made improvements in our outreach to underrepresented racial and ethnic groups” and that it will “continue to look for innovative new ways to serve more members of the Chicago community.”

Undocumented seniors also have a hard time accessing the affordable housing resources that are made available to them through local nonprofit providers. To qualify, applicants often have to prove that they’re living below the poverty line through pay stubs and tax forms, a tough ask for undocumented seniors who work in the cash-based informal economy, like street vendors.

That was the barrier for 78-year-old Ananias Ocampo, a longtime street vendor and a fixture in Pilsen who lived in a makeshift one-room apartment without a kitchen or proper heating behind a restaurant on 18th Street.

A man in a winter coat stands at the entryway to an apartment with a big smile on his face, while a woman behind him records with her cell phone.

Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune

Ananias Ocampo, 78, an undocumented street vendor in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, is overwhelmed as he enters his new studio apartment at Resurrection Project, Dec. 3, 2021. Hilda Burgos, left, his advocate and caregiver, records the event.

Ocampo could not qualify for housing subsidies because his income was made in cash and he is self-employed. And because he earned way less than $12,400 — the minimum for filing taxes for single people 65 and older — he didn’t have tax records that could prove he met the income requirements.

After helping Ocampo get a much-needed knee surgery, Hilda Burgos, a Chicago immigration advocate and now Ocampo’s caretaker, pushed community and city leaders to find a way to allow Ocampo to qualify for an affordable and dignified place to live.

Inspired by Ocampo’s story, the Chicago Low-Income Housing Trust Fund, a public-private organization that provides rental subsidies to low-income city residents, implemented a new policy that allows individuals who work in the informal economy to self-certify their income.

But housing advocate Janice Ortiz said “there’s still a long way to go to ensure that undocumented elders can access these resources.”

Ortiz is the program director at LUCHA, a Chicago-based, HUD-approved housing counseling agency that launched a workshop series to help immigrant households access public housing resources they qualify for.

“We’ve seen a significant gap in the communities we serve accessing the multitude of resources offered by the CHA, as well as very limited information available regarding guidelines for families with mixed-immigration status to access such resources,” said LUCHA’s executive director, Lissette Castañeda.

Wishing for an affordable place to live

Like many undocumented immigrants, Cipriano found work through temp agencies. Lean and barrel chested with a well-kept salt and pepper mustache, Cipriano mostly worked as a janitor at factories and event spaces in the suburbs, earning minimum wage.

But his work dried up when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. As the couple’s savings slowly started to disappear, Lilia tried to get her hands on monetary aid that some community organizations and the city offered for immigrants who didn’t qualify for the federal stimulus checks.

But she couldn’t find anything. “No sabía hacer los papeles por que no se leer,” she said. The elderly woman had a hard time submitting any paperwork because she couldn’t read or write. Instead, she began to sell food during the weekends — mole, pozole and tamales — to make enough to pay rent.

A woman walks across a residential street. She's wearing a winter coat and black pants.

Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune

Lilia, 69, takes a walk after lunch near her home in Chicago on March 24, 2022.

Lilia and Cipriano had yet to reach rock bottom. Last summer, as their landlords started to threaten them with eviction, Cipriano’s health took a turn for the worse. A sharp pain developed on the toes on his left foot. A trip to the emergency room revealed that Cipriano, who has diabetes, had developed gangrene. Doctors amputated his left foot to stop the disease from spreading.

As Cipriano lay in a hospital bed with his daughter by his side, Lilia was busy packing all of their belongings from their basement apartment as their landlords forced her to leave. “They took out the stove; they took out the microwave. … I didn’t have anything to eat,” she said.

With no one else to turn to, Lilia called Cruz, the organizer with Communities United, at the behest of a neighbor. Cruz helped Lilia procure food donations and also helped the couple apply for a one-time grant for immigrant families who didn’t qualify for federal stimulus checks funded by private foundations and local and state governments.

The application went through, and the family received a debit card loaded with $4,000. Without thinking twice, Lilia handed the debit card over to her daughter to help cover the security deposit and about two months of rent on their new apartment.

After that money ran out, it was up to their daughter to pay for everything, big and small — rent, bills, food, medicine, quarters for the laundromat.

Lilia and Cipriano are grateful to their daughter, but they know their current situation is not sustainable. Cipriano said he wants to find work again, but he’s afraid no one will hire a 70-year-old with a prosthetic leg. Lilia wonders what will happen when their daughter can no longer afford to pay for their apartment.

“¿Qué va a pasar cuando ella ya no tenga para pagar este apartamento? ¿Qué vamos a hacer? ¿A dónde voy a ir con él?,” Lilia said. What are we going to do? Where will I go with him?

Grace Asiegbu contributed to this report.


Below are nonprofit organizations and institutions that can connect undocumented seniors and their families to affordable housing resources:

» LUCHA is a Chicago-based nonprofit that aims to increase homeownership and connect predominantly Spanish-speaking families to affordable housing providers. Their main office is at 3541 W. North Ave. 773-276-5338

» The National Low Income Housing Coalition, in collaboration with other organizations, put together a fact-sheet last year that outlines federally-funded affordable housing programs and emergency resources available to people in the U.S., depending on their immigration status.

» Many of the COVID-19 relief funds — including those for rental assistance — don’t have immigration status requirements. Here’s a spreadsheet compiled by several national nonprofit groups with resources available to undocumented immigrants in English and Spanish. To find local providers that can help with applying for or accessing rental assistance programs, visit the Illinois Rental Assistance Program.

» Starting in April, homeowners who struggle to pay their mortgages due to COVID-19 will be able to apply for grants of up to $30,000 from the Illinois Homeowner Assistance Fund. To find out if you’re eligible and what you need to apply, visit illinoishousinghelp.org.

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