LOGAN SQUARE — Robert Castillo fought for years to get an LGBTQ-friendly affordable housing complex built in Logan Square, the neighborhood where he grew up and built a life with his late husband, John Pennycuff.
Castillo wanted to create a place where LGTBQ people could prosper and avoid the adversities he and Pennycuff faced as young activists in the city.
Castillo said he was so proud when the project was greenlit and named the John Pennycuff Memorial Apartments at Robert Castillo Plaza. But now Castillo, whose name graces banners and marketing materials for the complex, is being denied an apartment in the building.
The developer said Castillo doesn’t meet the building’s employment requirement, a move that has left Castillo “disappointed and disheartened.”
“I’m not saying I should be automatically given an apartment or a preference, but the irony isn’t lost on me that I’m not living in a place named after my husband and a plaza named after me,” he said.
Developer Metropolitan Housing Development Corp. opened the 88-unit complex at 2031-33 N. Milwaukee Ave. in November. Of the 88 apartments, 41 are affordable housing units and 47 are CHA project-based units.
The goal of the project was to bring affordable housing to a gentrifying stretch of Milwaukee Avenue that has attracted luxury housing in recent years, and to create a hub for the LGBTQ community. The apartments are being marketed to LGBTQ people.
“It’s become so expensive to live in the area,” Richard Gonzalez, with Metropolitan Housing Development Corp., previously said. “We’re so happy we’re able to provide quality housing at a very affordable price.”
Castillo submitted an application to live in the building at the end of December, a few weeks after the opening, hoping for a fresh start after a tough year. He lost his job at Father and Son Pizza in Logan Square in 2019 and has lived with a relative in the suburbs.
Castillo has been itching to move back to Logan Square, where he’s spent most of his life and does community organizing. In addition to being a LGTBQ rights activist, Castillo is a longtime member of the Unity Park Advisory Council.
“My heart is in Logan Square. My roots are there,” he said. “The work that I do is in Logan Square and the community is important to me. When John passed away, it was basically Unity Park Advisory Council members who stepped up and looked after me.”
Castillo said moving into the building wasn’t always his plan, but it’s something that’s always been in the “back of [his] mind” as he advocated for its construction.
“I didn’t want to give the appearance that I’m pushing for a building only because I want to live in it,” he said.
But being in between jobs is why Castillo has not been approved for an apartment in the building. The developer requires all of its tenants to show proof of income because the complex was built with federal tax credits. Castillo said he has some money saved up and is looking for a job, but that’s not enough for the developer.
Gonzalez told Block Club he would “like nothing more” than for Castillo to move into the building, but the reality is he doesn’t meet the building’s requirement. Several units are still available to rent, Gonzalez said.
“We want Mr. Castillo to live there, but we can’t have Mr. Castillo if he doesn’t qualify,” Gonzalez said. “It’s very hard for any builder, or any developer, to give a unit for free because then it becomes a discrimination issue. Why does he live there for free when no one else can?”
Gonzalez rejects the accusation his team denied Castillo an apartment and said they are “working with” Gonzalez to get him in the building. He said he wants Castillo to apply for the Chicago Rental Assistance program that helps people at risk of experiencing homelessness. But Castillo said he’s worried he doesn’t qualify, given that he currently lives in the suburbs.
“Believe me, we would love to have Mr. Castillo living there. It was named after him. He was instrumental in helping us out, but he has to go through the process everybody has to go through,” Gonzalez said. “We are willing to bend over backwards to help him out, but we can’t just give him a break.”
‘It Shouldn’t Be This Hard’
Pennycuff was a force in the LGBTQ rights community.
In his years of activism, Pennycuff volunteered for several organizations, including ACT UP, the Emergency Clinic Defense Coalition, Equal Marriage NOW and the Coalition Against Bashing, according to his obituary in the Windy City Times.
Pennycuff also was a member of Queer Nation Chicago, where he organized anti-violence marches, fought for housing for people with HIV/AIDS and helped pass the Cook County Human Rights Ordinance, among many other accomplishments.
Pennycuff was recognized as one of the city’s most influential LGBTQ rights activists and was asked to serve on the Chicago Commission on Human Relations Mayor’s Advisory Council. He was inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame.
In their years together, Pennycuff and Castillo were “inseparable,” the Windy City Times wrote. They could often be found marching alongside one other.
The couple was denied an opportunity to marry in Illinois in 2004, so they traveled to San Francisco to tie the knot. They were among the first wave of Chicago same-sex couples to do so.
Not all of the memories they shared together are happy ones, however. The couple bore the brunt of violence and hateful rhetoric for their activism. Castillo said someone set their rainbow flag on fire in the ’90s, and they were sent death threats after they registered to get married in Cook County. They were the first couple to sign up for the Cook County Domestic Registry.
They were a couple for nearly 21 years.
After Pennycuff died in 2012, Castillo was devastated and looking for ways to honor his husband. An all-affordable housing complex geared toward LGBTQ people in Logan Square, where they built a life together, seemed like the perfect tribute, Castillo said.
Castillo was excited leading up to opening. Castillo’s brother gave him the poster board officials presented at the project’s groundbreaking ceremony as a Christmas present.
That poster board greets him each day when he gets up. Now, it serves as a brutal reminder he may not get to live in the building and carry out his husband’s legacy.
“It shouldn’t be this hard for me. My name and my husband’s name is on the project,” he said. “I’m not asking for favors, I never asked for anything special. I just wanted to be able to live there.”
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