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The Right to Rent Control

Last month, voters and organizers in Chicago mobilized against Illinois’ rent-control ban — a first step in stemming the city’s affordable-housing crisis.

Milwaukee Avenue near Logan Square, Chicago, 1993. Phillip Capper / Wikimedia

On March 20, voters in nine Chicago wards were faced with a simple question at the end of their ballot: “Should the state repeal the ban on rent control?”

Such a simple query belies the intense amount of organizing that has galvanized housing activists and changed the debate around Chicago’s housing problems. After more than a year of fighting to get the measure on the ballot, the outcome of the vote speaks to the frustration many people feel about rising housing costs in Chicago: 75 percent of voters supported the measure.

It was a remarkable success, built on thousands of hours of volunteer phone banking, canvassing, and signature gathering. Though rent control remains illegal in the city, organizers have changed the terms of the debate and laid the groundwork for future battles for housing justice in our communities.

Time to Lift the Ban

The measure emerged thanks to the Lift the Ban coalition, a collection of twenty neighborhood organizations and citywide housing-justice groups that collaborated to get the measure on the ballot and ensure its success. The coalition was home to several neighborhood organizations in communities that have been severely impacted by displacement.

Take, for example, Albany Park, a neighborhood on the city’s Northwest side. Long one of the city’s most affordable, ethnically diverse neighborhoods, with dozens of languages spoken in its public schools, Albany Park has seen costs skyrocket in recent years. At the center of these changes is the developer Ron Abrams, whose company Silver Properties now owns more than fifteen buildings in the neighborhood. The developer has repeatedly given entire buildings thirty-day eviction notices, often in the middle of winter, pushing undocumented immigrant families out while doubling rents for new tenants.

In that neighborhood, organizers involved with 33rd Ward Working Families and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) collaborated to knock doors, distribute flyers, and inform their neighbors of the measure. (Full disclosure: I’m a member of DSA.) As a canvasser, I spoke with plenty of people who supported rent control because they’d seen firsthand what happens when landlords have too much power.

Chicago’s rents are not as notoriously high as those in New York or LA, but they are growing less affordable. According to a Depaul University report, the “affordability gap” between those seeking affordable housing and the number of units available has ballooned since 2007, with more than one in three families seeking affordable housing unable to find it.

That’s left more of the city’s population either “rent burdened” or “severely rent burdened,” meaning they’re spending more than 30 or 50 percent of their income on rent, respectively. Those challenges are felt most acutely in low-income communities on the city’s South Side, a trend that’s only been exacerbated with the announcement of the Obama presidential library in the Jackson Park neighborhood. There, organizers are challenging Obama’s refusal to enact a Community Benefits Agreement that would hire local residents and work to mitigate the consequences of gentrification. With the number of wealthy census tracks quadrupling in the city since 1970, Chicago now has the eighth-highest income inequality levels in the US, creating a deepening divide that plays out across the city’s segregated landscape.

Unfortunately for Chicagoans, enacting rent control isn’t as simple as passing city or countywide legislation. Lift the Ban earned its name from a statewide rent control ban enacted in 1997, a product of a push by the American Legislative Executive Council (ALEC) to preempt rent control in states across the country. Last month’s vote wasn’t binding, but its overwhelming success is a sign of changing times.

Tactics

Lift the Ban used a variety of tactics in the buildup to the vote in order to dispel myths about rent control, educate voters, and foster grassroots support. To get the question on the ballot in the first place, the coalition had to gather nearly 3,800 signatures from voters in the wards. They used this outreach to create initial contacts that could be returned to in the following months.

Last October, the coalition hosted lawyers from Oakland and New York, two cities with existing rent-control legislation, to challenge the idea that controls would cause disinvestment. To a room of 200, they debunked arguments against rent control and helped residents to learn about the law. There were also powerful testimonials from people facing displacement across the city.

Lift the Ban’s Jawanza Malone, representing the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization, even took these ideas to prime-time TV by debating a real-estate lobbyist on PBS’s “Chicago Tonight.” He focused his comments on the tangible consequences of unrestricted rents. “There’s an 84-year-old woman who lives in our neighborhood who’s seen her rent double, when a venture capital firm out of New Jersey bought her building,” he told viewers. “There is something fundamentally wrong with that when one out of every two renters in this city are paying more than what they can actually afford, and we should be able to do something about that.”

In January, protestors occupied the James P. Thompson Center, a state government building, hunkering down on blankets and sleeping bags. “Where are we going to go when we ain’t got nowhere to live?” they asked the Illinois state officials looking on from the building’s balconies above.

As the campaign neared its conclusion in March, different organizations tackled their respective communities with intensive canvassing. In Pilsen, where at least 10,000 low-income residents have moved out in recent years — half of them evicted — bilingual door knockers mobilized the largely Latino community. Thanks to the efforts of hundreds of volunteers, the campaign entered the March 20 vote with strong momentum, energy that hopefully will continue to build as organizers push elected officials to act.

Moving Forward

Even before the results came in, the campaign had already shifted the debate at the statewide level. Two Democratic gubernatorial candidates, including eventual Democratic nominee J.B. Pritzker, endorsed statewide rent control. Whether the billionaire Pritzker — now facing off against fellow billionaire and incumbent Republican governor Bruce Rauner — holds to that promise is an open question. Still, it’s an encouraging sign that politicians sense the discontent brewing in our city.

Rent control’s biggest statewide champion has been Illinois house representative Will Guzzardi, who represents gentrifying neighborhoods like Logan Square on the city’s Northwest side. His bill, first proposed last winter, squarely answers the question put to voters in March, stating plainly: “The rent control pre-emption act is repealed.” While Guzzardi has yet to reintroduce the bill during the 2018 legislative session, housing organizers are already looking to further measures to slow gentrification and give tenants greater protection. A just-cause eviction ordinance, for instance, would block landlords from evicting tenants without a legitimate reason— including those aiming to bring in higher-paying tenants. Combined with rent control, it would change the game for housing justice in Chicago.

The terrain for winning rent regulation in Illinois remains difficult, but the vote has given organizers confidence that they’re on the right path. Although more ambitious socialist housing demands, like completely decommodified housing, are not yet within reach, the way this campaign united disparate communities across our sprawling metropolis provides hope that housing justice is possible in Chicago.