Attendees gathered at Mount Pisgah Baptist Church in Bronzeville last Thursday for an educational event on rent control. Credit: Maya Dukmasova

Public interest and enthusiasm for abolishing Illinois’s prohibition on rent control is growing. In Bronzeville last Thursday night, a crowd of around 200 people packed a church auditorium to hear presentations organized by the Lift the Ban Coalition. The group of 20 community groups has formed in recent months to push for a repeal of the state’s 1997 Rent Control Preemption Act and subsequently lobby for a rent regulation ordinance in Chicago. The coalition has been picking up steam since rolling out its campaign in Pilsen earlier this month; it plans to collect signatures to get a referendum to repeal the state prohibition on the March primary ballot. 

“A landlord should not be able to go up on the rent as much as he or she wants to,” Roderick Wilson of Lugenia Burns Hope Center, a Bronzeville-based community development and leadership organization, declared to the crowd before the panel discussion. “There should be regulation on how much he raises the rent. Y’all with me?”

A roar of “Yeah!” and thunderous applause echoed through the room.

In between testimonials from north-, south-, and west-siders, who spoke about their experiences being displaced or evicted, attorneys from New York City and San Francisco’s Bay Area spoke about the history and effects of rent regulation laws in their communities.

Timothy Collins formerly served as the executive director of New York’s Rent Guidelines Board, which oversees a million rent stabilized apartments. He warned that proponents of rent regulation typically face a plethora of arguments from real estate interests that don’t hold much water. Take a look, Collins said, at seven decades of regulation in the country’s largest rental market.

“[Opponents] are gonna tell you that landlords will disinvest, they’re gonna leave the city,” Collins cautioned the crowd, “that you’re gonna see underutilization where rents are priced so low that one person will keep a big apartment and have three bedrooms to rattle around. And they’re gonna tell you that maintenance is gonna collapse, because [landlords] won’t be able to afford it.”

But, he went on, “none of the real estate interests’ dire predictions have come true” in New York, where the real estate business is booming despite half the rental housing being under some form of rent regulation, where the highest rental vacancy and underutilization rates are in unregulated apartments. “The housing stock,” Collins said, “has never, ever been in better condition.”

Marc Janowitz, the attorney from Oakland, California, highlighted that rent regulation is one of two legal strategies that must work in tandem to counteract gentrification and displacement. The other is what’s known as a “just cause eviction law.” Currently in Chicago, landlords can terminate a month-to-month rental agreement or a lease-based tenancy (when the lease expires) at will, even if a tenant has paid rent consistently and hasn’t committed any violations.

“When a landlord doesn’t have to have a reason, the reason is never no reason—the reason is more money!” Janowitz said. He explained that the ramifications of no-cause eviction laws are particularly palpable in areas where the value of rental housing suddenly increases and landlords decide they can charge much more than current tenants are paying.

This dynamic has been on full display in gentrifying neighborhoods around Chicago. Earlier this month, a group of tenants in Albany Park staged a protest in front of their building, on the corner of Sunnyside and Albany, which changed hands last February.

Tenants in Albany Park protested displacement by developer Ron Abrams on September 21, 2017
Tenants in Albany Park protested displacement by developer Ron Abrams on September 21, 2017Credit: Maya Dukmasova

When developer Ron Abrams of Silver Property Group bought Sunnyside Manor—a four-story, yellow brick building with 21 studio and one-bedroom apartments—most tenants had been paying $500-$700 per month in rent and living for years without written leases. Many in the building were undocumented immigrants. (Housing costs are considered affordable when they comprise no more than 30 percent of a household’s income; for a Chicago renter working a full-time job at minimum wage, that amounts to around $500 per month.)

Abrams has previously purchased multi-unit properties in the neighborhood, renovated them, and put the units back on the market; Silver Property Group currently owns 15 buildings in Albany Park with one-bedroom units going for more than $1,000. Nevertheless, Abrams says he wasn’t sure what he’d do with the property when he first purchased Sunnyside Manor. “There was a possibility we were gonna leave it as is,” he says, if architects and building inspectors had determined the renovations weren’t feasible or allowed. But shortly after July 4, Abrams and company decided to move ahead with the rehab and issued 30-day notices to all tenants explaining they’d have to move out by the end of August. Most of the tenants did.

The handful of tenants still in the building say they were blindsided by the notice and that the people who left were mostly undocumented immigrants who may have feared fighting Abrams. “We pay rent [to Abrams] for eight months and he’s treating us like we’re nothing,” said Teodor Margea, himself an immigrant from Romania who’s lived in the building for six years. “I understand he’s the owner, he bought the building, he has plans for the building. But he needs to understand that we’re human beings.”

With the help of organizers from the Autonomous Tenants Union, the remaining tenants wrote to Abrams to request that they be allowed to stay until April, when they would have an easier time finding affordable rental housing. They also asked the developer to allow them to live those months rent-free and that Abrams pay for the first month’s rent in their new apartments—demands that ATU organizer Jake Marshall says were “meant to open negotiations,” but that Abrams likened to making a $3,000 offer on a $30,000 car.

In the past, ATU, with the help of 33rd Ward alderman Deb Mell, successfully negotiated with Abrams to prevent sudden displacement of tenants elsewhere in Albany Park. But this time around, Abrams says he isn’t interested. And, of course, he’s not legally obligated to try to appease those tenants without leases. 

Mell says she’s disappointed. Though the alderman has received $3,300 in campaign contributions from Abrams and Silver Property Group since 2014, she told the Reader she “would not take any more campaign contributions from him.” Mell says she now believes he’s contributing to gentrification in her ward.

“People are being priced out and affordable housing is rapidly deteriorating over there,” she said. “We are losing our families, folks who have lived here for generations.”

“I feel terrible and really frustrated about the situation [at Sunnyside Manor],” Mell continued, adding that she’s unhappy with how common month-to-month verbal leases are. “They put everyone everyone in a precarious place.” Currently there’s no data about the prevalence of such rental agreements in Chicago, but they’re frequent among low-income and immigrant renters who may have bad credit or no credit history or not know about the legal protections offered by formal leases. Many people also allow leases to lapse for fear of seeing their rents go up on formal renewal.

Asked what she thought about the idea of rent regulation, Mell said, “I love it. . . . The [City Council] Housing Committee needs to start looking outside the box and examining what other cities do and not be complacent.”

Back in Bronzeville, the event organized by the Lift the Ban Coalition ended with a call to action. Organizers called for attendees to commit to contacting their state representatives about supporting Will Guzzardi’s bill to repeal the Rent Control Preemption Act, to support a rent control referendum at their local precinct, and to educate at least ten neighbors about rent control and the campaign to lift the statewide ban.

Closing out an evening of fiery speeches and fervent chants, Wilson led the crowd in one final call and response.

“We shouldn’t have to choose!” he yelled.

“Between rent and food!” the audience shouted back.