A Chicago Teachers Union member testifies about his rent burden and union support of affordable housing measures Credit: Maya Dukmasova

More than a hundred people filled the Quarry Event Center in South Shore on Saturday, October 12, to share and hear testimonials about the effects of Chicago’s growing rent burden on low-income families and seniors. In a town-hall-style forum the Lift the Ban Coalition sought to mobilize interest and support for a continuing legislative push to lift Illinois’s decades-long ban on rent control and perhaps even establish rent control laws across the state. 

Massive banners demanding “Rent Control Now” and proclaiming that “Wage increases are going to rent” hung on an exposed brick wall behind a stage from which the conveners of the meeting rallied the crowd with chants and delivered prepared remarks on the benefits of and common myths about rent control. The proposals floating around the city and state at this time involve tying annual rent increases to inflation rather than imposing a ceiling on rent prices.

The coalition, composed of several groups including the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, Northside Action for Justice, and the Lugenia Burns Hope Center, is organizing support for two state house bills that’ll be back before legislators this spring. HB255 is a proposal to simply repeal the 1997 Rent Control Preemption Act introduced by northwest-side representative Will Guzzardi (it currently has 11 cosponsors). HB2192 was introduced last spring by representative Mary Flowers, whose district covers swaths of the south and west sides. Mirroring a proposal that died in the state senate last session, Flowers’s bill (which has seven cosponsors) would establish statewide regulations on how much landlords can raise rents and offer tax incentives to smaller landlords to help encourage routine maintenance and offset the cost of property improvement. The state ban on rent control was enacted in the 1990s as part of a wave of such bills that swept state legislatures through the lobbying efforts of the ultraconservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). At the time there hadn’t been any push for rent regulation in Chicago or elsewhere in the state and both houses in Springfield were controlled by Republicans.

Lift the Ban organizer Jawanza Malone said the goal of Saturday’s town hall was to educate public officials about rent control and demonstrate the need for regulations on how quickly and how much rents can be raised every year. All elected officials representing southeast-side communities were invited, but only state senator Robert Peters actually showed up; 22nd Ward alderman Michael Rodriguez sent a staffer to observe.

“What we’re seeing is every income level is feeling squeezed right now,” Malone said after more than an hour of personal testimonials from the audience. An elderly woman from Rogers Park talked about being on 18 waiting lists for senior housing; a woman on disability with a monthly income of $751 described having to move in with a friend after her rent went up to $685; several residents of Chicago Housing Authority public housing developments complained about rising rents; a Chicago Teachers Union organizer said rising rents and evictions cause some schools to see 40 to 50 percent student turnover every year. Malone emphasized how important regulating rent increases could be for young people, especially boys vulnerable to gang violence. “When we hear the stories of people losing their lives in communities, what isn’t talked about is that oftentimes these are newcomers in these communities because they’re forced out of their neighborhoods,” he said. “[Rent control] is not an intellectual argument. This is literally the difference between life and death for some people, and I’m not overdramatizing.”

Informational posters and banners display Lift the Ban Coalition demands
Informational posters and banners display Lift the Ban Coalition demandsCredit: Maya Dukmasova

The real estate industry and groups representing landlords have vehemently opposed the repeal of the ban and the establishment of rent control on the grounds that any regulation of how much and how often landlords can raise rent will cause a decline in the quality of the housing stock and disincentivize development. The Illinois Realtors Association, which helped push the rent control ban through the state assembly in the 90s, argues that rent control would drive down property values for rental buildings and that “this will result in higher property taxes for everyone else.” All of these arguments hinge on the idea that rents are what they are because of the cost of maintaining housing (taxes, utilities, building maintenance, etc). In fact, no citywide study of Chicago landlords’ cost-setting practices has ever been conducted. Right now, there’s no way of knowing what percentage of the rent collected by any landlord for any unit or building comprises pure profit unless the landlord volunteers this information. In this reporter’s experience, they’re reticent to do so.

After a series of nonbinding Chicago referendums demonstrating support for repealing the 1997 law, and the election of a governor who voiced support for the idea, the Lift the Ban Coalition has been mobilizing outside of Cook County. To get more state legislators on board they must organize renters in suburban and rural areas who are increasingly rent burdened (paying more than 30 percent of their income toward rent) but tend to be a much less potent political force for their state elected officials. For either Guzzardi’s or Flowers’s bill to make it to a full vote on the house floor, they’ll need the votes of committee members from outside Chicago. Malone says the momentum is building, particularly in areas with many mobile home parks, which usually sit on land belonging to one of just five companies operating in the state. (Mobile home residents own their homes but not the land to which they’re anchored; because the homes aren’t actually mobile, they’re often victims of steep and arbitrary rent hikes.) 

“People are struggling if you look across the state,” Malone said as the crowd began to disperse. “This isn’t a roomful of poor people, it’s a roomful of people who are struggling to make ends meet.” As seniors and kids and middle-aged workers and young professionals Black, White, and Latinx streamed out into the crisp air of sun-drenched 75th Street, they carried colorful coalition posters declaring: “We didn’t fight for wages to hand them to developers.”  v