J.B. Pritzker and Daniel Biss are vying for the Democratic Party nomination to unseat governor Bruce Rauner. Credit: Brian Jackson, Ashlee Rezin

As the March gubernatorial primary approaches, two candidates have now expressed support for repealing Illinois’s Rent Control Preemption Act—a 1997 law that prohibits municipalities from enacting any form of regulation on residential or commercial rent prices. This week state senator Daniel Biss and wealthy businessman J.B. Pritzker spoke in support of a house bill that would lift the ban and allow local governments to grapple with the issue of rent control. Biss has also committed to introducing a companion bill in the senate early in the upcoming legislative session. 

The Rent Control Preemption Act was a piece of legislation championed by the ultraconservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in state legislatures around the country in the late 1980s and 90s. It overrides municipalities’ “home rule” powers and forbids any unit of local government to “enact, maintain, or enforce an ordinance or resolution that would have the effect of controlling the amount of rent charged for leasing private residential or commercial property.”

As rent prices have steadily risen in Chicago and the stock of affordable housing has shrunk, the law has effectively prevented the City Council from discussing any possible regulation on how fast or how much landlords can raise rent. Though real estate interests frequently paint rent control as a hard price cap, in reality that kind of rent regulation hasn’t existed anywhere in the country since the early 1970s, and isn’t the sort of solution advocates are calling for in Chicago.

“Local control is a principle that we should have some respect for, and protecting those who have been left behind by a broken economy is a principle we should have some respect for,” Biss said in an interview with the Reader. “The state right now is preempting local control in order to screw over those who have been left behind.”

But Biss acknowledges that repealing the law will be an uphill battle “because of the power of the real estate lobby in the state capital.”

At a candidate forum hosted by the Community Renewal Society on Monday, Pritzker said: “We have to end the moratorium on rent control around the state so that we can limit the gentrification that’s been going on across Chicago and the other parts of the state.”

As of yet none of the other gubernatorial candidates have publicly discussed their position on the Illinois Rent Control Preemption Act.  

State rep Will Guzzardi, the house bill’s main sponsor, was glad to hear both candidates support the legislation and that Biss plans to push the issue in the senate. “My goal is to continue pushing this bill this year, and try to add more cosponsors, and hopefully to have legislative hearings,” he says. “It’s still an issue that too few people in Springfield know and understand. The boogeyman arguments are still pretty prevalent down there.”

Meanwhile, the idea of some form of rent regulation has attracted interest in a wide variety of communities across Chicago over the past year. Public forums on the issue in Pilsen, Bronzeville, Albany Park, and Uptown were well attended. At one such event in September, experts from New York and California dispelled various misconceptions about their local rent control laws.

“When we look at 50 years of rent control in New York, what we see is that realtors and developers and property owners are still making money,” says Jawanza Malone, executive director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization and a leader of the Lift the Ban coalition, which has been organizing the public campaign against the 1997 law. “There’s an opportunity for them to be making a profit but the difference is them making a profit doesn’t result in making homelessness.” He adds that rent regulation would reduce volatility in the rental market and provide smaller landlords with steadier tenants.

“The volatility only works for the big fish in the sea, the people who have thousands of units,” Malone says of the kind of large, corporate landlords who have so many units that they don’t have to worry about a churn of tenants affecting their bottom line. “But for the smaller players, the mom-and-pops, what helps them is to have a tenant that they know can pay the rent. Rent control enables that type of system.”

In addition to supporting Guzzardi’s push for a repeal of the Rent Control Preemption Act, the Lift the Ban coalition has also gotten a question regarding rent regulation on the March ballot in some 100 precincts around Chicago. It will help measure public support for the idea and will ask voters the following: “Should the State of Illinois lift the ban on rent control to address rising rents, unjust evictions, and gentrification in our community?”