Pilsen residents share testimonials about rising rents and unscrupulous slumlords at Thursday night's event in Dvorak Park Credit: Maya Dukmasova

Some 100 people packed the Dvorak Park gym in Pilsen on Thursday evening for a panel discussion on eviction and rent control. The event, organized by the Pilsen Alliance, was meant to spotlight the magnitude of eviction- and gentrification-driven displacement in the community, as well as raise awareness for a legislative push to end Illinois’s prohibition of local rent control laws.

The Pilsen Alliance reports that since 2007, about 10,000 families have left the west-side Latino neighborhood, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing estimates that half of those families were evicted from their homes. As the Reader has reported over the past several months, Cook County eviction courts see more than 30,000 eviction case filings per year, and though filings in the city of Chicago have declined over the last decade, the outcomes are usually stacked against tenants. Landlords win most of the time , and very few tenants have legal representation in court. It’s also nearly impossible to appeal judges’ decisions (often made in less than two minutes) due to a lack of court reporters or recording equipment.

And while Pilsen has seen a high number of evictions in recent years, the scope of the problem there pales in comparison with some south-side neighborhoods. Cook County Circuit Court records show that last year the South Shore neighborhood (which sees more evictions annually than any other community area) had about five times as many eviction filings as Pilsen: more than 1,400 eviction cases were filed in South Shore’s 60649 zip code, compared to nearly 280 in Pilsen’s 60608.

State representative Will Guzzardi, the keynote speaker Thursday night, thinks one way to combat the eviction crisis is to allow municipalities to make their own rent regulation laws. Since 1997, such local decision-making has been neutered by Illinois’s Rent Control Preemption Act, which Guzzardi has proposed to eliminate with House Bill 2430. The prohibition was cooked up by the ultraconservative, Koch-brothers-sponsored American Legislative Exchange Council; versions of the law sailed through Republican-dominated state legislatures in the 1980s and ’90s. Though there were no rent control laws anywhere in Illinois when the bill was passed, with both houses under GOP control, real estate interests saw an opportunity to—as one lobbyist told the Reader—stamp out any possibility of cities regulating how fast or how much landlords could raise their rents before rent control ordinances could become “a big issue.”

“As residents of Chicago we should have the right to make decisions about how our communities look and should have the right to offer protections,” Guzzardi told the crowd gathered in the gym, then fluidly translated his remarks into Spanish. He urged attendees to spread the word about the bill, and to call on their elected officials to support it. So far the voices of the opposition, led by the Illinois Association of Realtors, have been much stronger, Guzzardi said.

“I have to tell you the honest truth about this, which is that we are losing this battle in Springfield, and the more embarrassing truth is that we’re getting out-organized,” he continued. “I expect that we will be outspent in this fight, because we are going up against realtors. But we are getting out-organized and we should be beating them.” He said that since introducing the bill, he and his colleagues have been flooded by hundreds of form-letter e-mails and calls from realtors opposed to it. “But [legislators] haven’t heard from us—the people who day in and day out are getting screwed over by landlords.”

Guzzardi’s bill won’t be up for debate in the state house again until the next legislative session begins in January. But its progress and cosponsors can be tracked online, and the representative urged attendees to pressure the legislators on the committees considering it for their support. Meanwhile, the Pilsen Alliance is already banding together with other community organizations across Chicago to push for a referendum on rent control to be on the March primary ballot.

Following Guzzardi’s remarks, UIC urban-planning professor Janet Smith presented the audience with research about the effectiveness of rent control and rent stabilization laws in other cities. Some studies have shown that these laws have protected low-income households from being displaced from gentrifying neighborhoods. Her goal was to give the audience “ammunition” to counter typical arguments against rent control. “Most of the research done today on rent control has been done by economists,” Smith pointed out. “They start from the assumption that rent control is an interference in the market—not an intervention, as planners would say—and by the nature of it being an interference, it will cause more problems than good. However, research that has been done more recently at Berkeley has been able to document that rent control does prevent displacement.” She added that displacement is not necessarily an important measure for economists but that “it’s good to know how the economists view this because you have to be able to counter their positions.”

From left: State reps Theresa Mah and Will Guzzardi, Frank Avellone of the Lawyers' Committee for Better Housing, and UIC's Janet Smith
From left: State reps Theresa Mah and Will Guzzardi, Frank Avellone of the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing, and UIC’s Janet SmithCredit: Maya Dukmasova

In his speech, attorney Frank Avellone of the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing said there are about 670,000 rental units in Chicago; with an average of 2.8 people per household, renters amount to half of the city’s population. “According to the ‘American dream,’ renting is just a temporary status on the way to being a homeowner,” Avellone said sarcastically, then reassured the audience: “You are full-fledged Americans by being renters.” In addition to rent control laws, he spoke of two other legal strategies that could alleviate pressure on low-income renters in Chicago: creating a just-cause eviction law, which would prohibit landlords from evicting tenants without reason, and passing proactive rental inspection rules, whereby the city would inspect all rental properties every few years, not allowing landlords to run units into the ground.

Despite the impassioned, information-laden presentations by the panelists about strategies for the future, multiple audience members asked questions about what could be done about their problems now. Several homeowners spoke of constant hounding by developers trying to buy their properties; an elderly woman complained about a 25 percent rent hike in her building; a middle-aged man told of a landlord refusing to make building repairs for years; a woman in her 40s gave a testimonial about seeing her rent spike from $550 to $2,500 after her Pilsen building changed hands. Two young men also challenged Guzzardi and representative Theresa Mah, who’s cosponsoring his bill along with six others, about how they could be trusted if developers are contributing to their campaigns.

Mah replied that taking campaign contributions or in-kind donations from developers doesn’t amount to a quid pro quo. “I don’t stand with developers, I don’t agree with displacement or gentrification in this community,” she said, adding that her support for the bill should speak for itself. “But it’s only possible for me to stay in office if I raise money in order to get reelected.”

Guzzardi, in turn, stressed that community members can’t expect change without their own grassroots organizing. “You shouldn’t trust any of us,” he said. “What you need to do is pressure us.”