Photo courtesy of Canopy / Architecture + Design

Persistence Pays Off for Enlace Chicago as Hard-Won Facility Serves as a Stepping Stone for Continued Growth May 24, 2023

In a Nutshell

What: Founded as a grassroots organization meant to improve the quality of life in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, Enlace Chicago is today a multi-faceted service provider that strengthens the community in a variety of ways. After navigating a complex development process to construct a new facility that opened in 2020 and has served as a springboard for continued growth, the nonprofit is now planning for a second community hub that will further expand its capacity.  
Sector: Community Development 
Location: Chicago, IL (Little Village) 
Size: 9,870 square feet 
Cost: $3.6 million 
Sources of Funding/Financing: IFF loan, State of Illinois capital grant, The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation grant, McCormick Foundation grant, Neighborhood Opportunity Fund grant, agency equity 
IFF Support: Facility feasibility analysis (2013-2014); owner’s representation, including predevelopment support (2016-2021); two loans totaling $2.05 million (closed in June 2017 and September 2019)  
Design: Canopy / Architecture + Design 
General Contractor: Blackwood Group

For more than 30 years, Enlace Chicago has served as a force for positive change in Little Village – or La Villita – a neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side sometimes referred to as the “Mexico of the Midwest” because of its large immigrant population and vibrant cultural assets. Born of a grassroots movement to influence the redevelopment of an abandoned industrial park in the neighborhood, today Enlace serves more than 8,000 young people and adults annually through programs that focus on community health, immigration, education, and violence prevention.  

As the organization has grown from a startup nonprofit to a comprehensive service provider dedicated to meeting the needs of Little Village residents, so too have the organization’s facilities needs evolved. Having started out in a series of small offices, Enlace took a significant step forward in 2013 when the organization began working with IFF’s real estate team to explore options for a new facility that would expand its capacity. 

From several development scenarios, Enlace settled on a plan to acquire a single-story building across the street from one of its existing facilities, demolish it, and start fresh with a new facility – creating a multifunctional, 10,000-square-foot building to triple its space. What began with a straightforward plan, however, stretched into a seven-year quest to bring the project to fruition after Enlace found itself in the middle of a “spending freeze” resulting from a political stalemate between Illinois’ then-Governor and the state legislature that significantly delayed $2 million in state capital funds awarded for the project.  

This compelled the organization and its project team to pivot, opting instead for a more patient approach to the development of the nonprofit’s new, permanent building – which ultimately opened in 2020 after two phases of construction spread out over a five-year period. For its perseverance, Enlace ended up with a high-quality facility that helped it meet the moment during the pandemic while positioning the organization for continued growth that’s now well underway. 

Developing a “one-stop-shop” for Little Village residents

Before engaging IFF’s real estate team to conduct a feasibility study and to identify three potential development scenarios for the organization’s new community hub, Enlace was making do without any private areas for program staff to work with clients as they had outgrown their space. This left staff scrambling for private meeting places in homes, schools, and partner agencies, making already challenging work even more difficult. Big picture, the organization’s lack of quality space compromised Enlace’s ability to continue growing to meet the overwhelming need for its services in Little Village. 

While a dynamic neighborhood that serves as the hub of Chicago’s Mexican American community, Little Village is not without its challenges. One of the densest neighborhoods in the city – with more than 71,000 residents living in an area that’s roughly 4.5-square-miles – there’s limited access to safe green space for community gatherings. Despite a thriving business district that’s the second highest tax-generating district in the City of Chicago, per capita income is about a third of the city average. Because a large percentage of Little Village residents are undocumented immigrants, public services aren’t always easily accessible. And, like other neighborhoods where structural disinvestment has exacerbated the pernicious, grinding effects of poverty, gangs and accompanying violence are an unfortunate reality.   

“We have 22 schools within the community, and having two community centers to offer services and programming wasn’t enough.”

We have 22 schools within the community, and having two community centers to offer services and programming wasn’t enough,” says Enlace Co-Executive Director Cesar Nuñez. “There was – and still is – a need for much more space to support Little Village residents.” 

With its new facility, which was designed by Canopy and built by Blackwood Group, Enlace envisioned a “one-stop-shop” which could serve as a safe haven for young people in the community and where the organization’s adult clients could access public benefits, insurance and health care options, and immigration and legal aid services. Also important was providing the organization’s staff with more quality space in which to work. To accomplish these goals, plans included a multi-purpose room, a computer lab, private counseling rooms, a rooftop garden, and efficient administrative space for up to 44 members of the Enlace staff.  

In the first phase of construction, which IFF’s real estate team helped Enlace plan and budget for as owner’s representative, a two-story, 5,000-square-foot facility was built with the expectation that further improvements and expansion to the structure would take place once Enlace had raised additional money. IFF also provided a $500,000 loan for this phase of construction, which supplemented $500,000 that was released to the organization through the State of Illinois’ capital grant program after its full, $2 million award was frozen, and a grant from the McCormick Foundation.  

While construction was underway, Enlace continued raising funds for the remainder of the project, which enabled phase two of construction to begin immediately after the first phase. This was possible because of a $550,000 grant from the City of Chicago’s Neighborhood Opportunity Fund, a grant from The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, and Enlace finally receiving the remaining $1.5 million from the State of Illinois. IFF provided a $1.55 million bridge loan to the organization to help facilitate the completion of the project without a delay between the first and second phases of construction. 

Nearly a decade after planning began, the result is a purpose-built facility designed to strengthen ties between Enlace and the community it serves – with glass blocks in the façade letting in plenty of natural light and floor-to-ceiling windows on the ground floor that can be opened blurring the line between the interior and exterior of the building. Located on a corner lot in a residential area of Little Village, Enlace’s headquarters stands out visually because of vibrant exterior colors.  

Since moving into the new space during the summer of 2020, Enlace has used it to meet community needs. In addition to providing the organization with more space from which to offer its wide range of programming, the facility has served as a COVID-19 vaccination site for more than 3,000 neighborhood residents; a polling site; and an accessible, welcoming location where Enlace’s partner, CommunityHealth, offers twice weekly health check-ups, and more.  

“By making the ground floor of the building available for different types of services, folks in Little Village are able to access resources that they might not be able to otherwise,” says Nuñez. “CommunityHealth is located at Chicago and California, which requires two modes of public transportation to get to from Little Village, which just doesn’t work. Now that’s available in the community.” 

A stepping stone for continued growth

Given the time that elapsed from construction to completion, the size of the organization’s staff had already grown to capacity by the time it began operating out of the space. And with the organization securing new government funding opportunities during the pandemic that enabled it to better support the community during the public health emergency and in the subsequent recovery, Enlace has experienced explosive growth. Three years ago, the organization had 54 full-time staff members; today, it has more than 80.  

“Nonprofit organizations do not control enough assets in their communities, and we’re excited about the opportunity to continue to invest in Little Village as a property owner.”

With two other leased locations in Little Village, by completing minor renovations to its original building, and by employing a hybrid staffing model, Enlace has secured enough space for staff and programming for now, but the organization is already planning its next development project to reach a broader cross section of Little Village residents. 

“Historically, we’ve had two sites within Little Village, with one on the east side of the neighborhood, and one on the west side, because we want to maintain a presence that allows us to service both sides of the community,” says Nuñez. “Little Village is divided by gang boundaries, so that presence is especially important for our violence prevention work, since we have youth we can’t service in just one location. We’ve rented office space in a location on the east side for a good 10 years now, and the community knows we’re there, so what we’d like to do next is acquire the property and redevelop it into an 8,600-square-foot community hub similar to the facility we completed in 2020.” 

Enlace has already taken several important steps in the process and is leaning on lessons learned during its first major development project. Having already secured a $1 million commitment for the upcoming project through the Chicago Community Trust’s We Rise Together initiative, and determining that the budget will be $6 million, Enlace is setting its sights higher for a capital campaign to ensure that any unexpected shifts in funding won’t force the organization to rework its plans, compromise on what it wants the building to provide, or require the project to be completed in phases that could delay being able to leverage the space for the benefit of the community.  

“Once a capital campaign is done, it’s done,” says Nuñez. “And we don’t want to have to cut any corners to get the project completed through value engineering. That’s a challenging goal as a nonprofit, and we’ll have to be creative, but we shouldn’t sell ourselves, our clients, or the community short. Nonprofit organizations do not control enough assets in their communities, and we’re excited about the opportunity to continue to invest in Little Village as a property owner.”  

Read about additional nonprofit facilities projects in Illinois supported by IFF