A small crowd of people unfurled a huge, white banner in front of state senate president John Cullerton’s district office on Belmont last Thursday morning. “Illinois needs rent control now,” the sign proclaimed. Members of the Lift the Ban Coalition, which has been organizing statewide for more than a year to repeal Illinois’s Rent Control Preemption Act, were here to drop off hundreds of postcards signed by Chicagoans in support of the initiative. They also wanted to remind the public about a referendum on rent control that would be on the ballots of three wards in the November election.
The 1997 Rent Control Preemption Act—a law that was pushed by the ultraconservative, Koch brothers-funded American Legislative Exchange Council in states across the country beginning in the 1980s and was adopted in Illinois when both houses of the state legislature were under Republican control—is the biggest hurdle standing in the way of rent regulation in Chicago. The law prohibits local governments from establishing any rules about how fast or how much residential or commercial rents can rise.
Lift the Ban first began organizing around a state house bill proposed by representative Will Guzzardi, whose district on the northwest side has seen rapid gentrification in recent years. Guzzardi’s bill aims simply to repeal the 1997 ban in order to free local governments to consider measures to regulate rents.
But last spring, a far more sweeping measure was introduced by Mattie Hunter in the senate. Hunter’s bill would not only lift the ban, but also establish rent regulation throughout the state and create new tax incentives for smaller landlords to maintain their properties in good repair and keep rents affordable. Hunter’s proposal doesn’t allow the government to set rent prices, but establishes regional boards to determine median market rents and peg increases to inflation.
The coalition is urging Cullerton to cosponsor Hunter’s proposal and to move her bill to a vote in the full senate. They’ve brought out dozens of people to testify at public hearings Hunter has been holding around the state to gather feedback on her bill. They’re also behind the second Chicago referendum on rent control.
During last spring’s primary election, 16,000 voters across 77 precincts received ballot questions about rent control—and 75 percent voted in favor. Now, voters in the 35th, 46th, and 49th Wards—spanning parts of Logan Square, Uptown, and Rogers Park, respectively—will see questions about rent control on their November ballots.
As with all ballot initiatives—which, per state law, can only be advisory if they concern public policy—the question isn’t exactly neutral, implying that rent control will be an effective tool to combat eviction and displacement. Voters will be asked: “Should the State of Illinois be able to regulate rents to address rising rents, unjust evictions, and gentrification in our communities?”
But coalition organizer Jawanza Malone says he’s confident people will make an informed decision when they respond. “People aren’t stupid,” said Malone. “I think that it’s an insult to say that a question that’s asking voters how they feel about an issue is somehow manipulating the voting public when they go into a polling place.”
Cullerton was not at the office to respond to the coalition last Thursday. A staffer accepted the group’s latest delivery of postcards and added them to a towering stack now containing more than 1,000 signatures. Reached by phone later, Cullerton’s spokesman John Patterson said the senate president has yet to make up his mind on Hunter’s proposal. “He’s got an open mind on this,” Patterson said. “There’s been impressive turnout and interest, and a lot of people around the state want an opportunity to have their voices heard on this.”
Patterson also noted that Cullerton created the senate’s special committee on housing and installed Hunter as the chair to collect input on solutions to the affordable housing crisis in the state—including rent control. During the last hearing Hunter held in Chicago, a small cadre of landlords spoke in support of her bill because it would provide tax breaks that don’t currently exist for smaller property owners. But there was also a strong turnout by real estate industry representatives claiming the bill would impinge on landlords’ property rights while doing nothing to preserve housing affordability.
Around ten o’clock, a red bullhorn appeared, and women began to take turns sharing their personal stories of housing insecurity in front of Cullerton’s office. The goal was to underscore how a lack of affordable housing options is a “gender justice issue,” according to Susan Armstrong, a coalition organizer with Organizing Neighborhoods for Equality: Northside (ONE Northside).
“The gender pay gap continues to exist in the United States,” she said. “Rents are rising at an increasingly fast pace all over the state, and women are feeling the strain.”
When Caitlin Brady, a member of the Chicago chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, took over the horn, she told a chilling tale of her eight-year abusive relationship with a man downstate—a man who was also her landlord and to whom she said she paid about $500 a month for rent. It was affordable on her $11 per hour wage as a certified nursing assistant. Brady said that over the years, she thought of leaving many times, only to be dissuaded by the rising cost of rent; she also knew she’d have a hard time finding a place on her own without an independent rental history.
“One day it got so bad I could no longer ignore what was happening to me,” she said, her hands shaking as she read from a piece of paper. “He got so mad one day he choked me on the bathroom floor until I passed out . . . I came to the realization that I was going to die, that this man would literally kill me if I didn’t leave.”
Brady said escaping the relationship meant leaving behind most of her possessions, her job, her mother, and coming to Chicago, where she could sleep on her sister’s floor while they searched for a place they could afford together.
“I work 40 hours a week, and there is no reason that in the richest country in the history of mankind I couldn’t find a safe space to live,” Brady said. “No one should have to stay in a horrible situation because it’s economically feasible. No one should have to choose between a fist and homelessness.” v