By Patrick Butler
Members of the Pilsen Alliance and other community groups fighting to lift the ban on rent controls in Chicago celebrated long into the night at Simone’s Bar and Grill, 960 W. 18th St., on March 20.
Their months of efforts to put an advisory referendum on the March 20 ballot calling for an end to the ban on rent controls in Chicago finally paid off for the residents of 76 precincts scattered among nine wards running from the 25th and the 5th wards on the South Side up to the 33rd on the North Side.
A majority of those casting ballots voted on March 20 for lifting the ban on rent control in all Chicago precincts in which the measure was on the ballot. In each, at least 60% voted for lifting the ban, with the figure exceeding 75% in some precincts.
Pilsen Alliance executive director Byron Sigcho said his group alone had about 50 volunteers out ringing doorbells as primary election day drew closer.
“Once people started to understand what rent control was all about, they became more supportive,” Sigcho said, adding that the 12,178 signatures his group and others obtained was enough to get the issue on the ballot in the recent primary.
Now comes the real work, he added. The next step will be to lobby State senators and representatives to lift the 1997 statewide ban on rent controls, said Sigcho.
Jawanza Malone of the Kenwood/Oakland Community Organization was not surprised at how the vote turned out.
“Tenants in Chicago are being displaced from their homes and communities in record numbers,” said Malone, noting that “while people may be feeling it to different extents, everyone is feeling the pinch.”
When “half your income is going to housing expenses, this leaves very little for education, health care, or other basic necessities,” Malone continued. “We have to recognize this huge burden” that leaves so many families without much money.
At this point, Malone said he is confident “we can get a lot more support for rent control in the House and Senate.” He noted the “Lift the Ban” coalition now consists of some 20 grassroots organizations across the city, including the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, North Side Action for Justice, Hope Center, 25th Ward Independent Precinct Organization, 33rd Ward Working Families, Lawyers Committee for Better Housing, and several socialist organizations along with the Pilsen Alliance and the Kenwood/Oakland Community Organization.
Not everyone supports rent control, however.
Brian Bernardoni, the Chicago Association of Realtors’ senior director of government affairs and public policy, vowed to fight the measure all the way up to the governor’s desk if need be.
Rent control ‘apocalyptic’
“Rent control would be apocalyptic for homeowners and landlords,” said Bernardoni, a former executive director of the University Village Association in the Taylor Street community. “It’s failed everywhere it’s gone into effect because it takes no perspective of the property tax issue or landlord needs.”
The Illinois Realtors Association, which describes itself as “the only advocate for private property rights” in Springfield, launched an informational campaign some months ago, warning that rent control is “widely discredited by many if not most economists and many housing advocates,” according to the association. “Rent control is destructive and counterproductive in many ways, is very complicated to administer, and would have many unintended consequences, such as a reluctance to invest in rental property” because it would put a cap on any investment returns.
Property rights advocates warn it also would discourage landlords from maintaining or improving their buildings, and property values would plummet, according to an Illinois Realtors Association letter, which the group sent to supporters, asking them to mail it to their state representatives and senators.
Do not forget the almost inevitable illegal black market in rent controlled apartment units, Illinois Realtors added.
J.B. Pritzker, the Democratic nominee for Illinois governor, said he supports “rent stabilization,” as did Chris Kennedy and Daniel Biss, the two other leading Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls defeated by Pritzker in the March 20 primary.
At a community meeting in mid-March at the Little Village Library, 2311 S. Kedzie Ave., Sigcho and Malone both argued that the kind of gentrification that has been hitting communities like Pilsen often hurts homeowners and apartment landlords as well as lower- and middle-income renters.
“When the rents go from $800 to $1,800 a month, that means homeowners and landlords’ property taxes also go up,” Malone warned. “When someone comes in with a development that’s way out of scale for the surrounding community, your property taxes also shoot up.
“You either eat it [the tax increase], or you’re passing it on to the renter,” Malone added. “By implementing rent control, we’re actually stabilizing the housing market, and you get to keep the tenants in your building.”
“It’s important we do this so nobody gets hurt,” Sigcho said. “We aren’t trying to hurt homeowners. We’re committed to make sure that doesn’t happen. We want to support small homeowners and apartment owners.”
For the Chicago Association of Realtors, see chicagorealtor.com. For Pilsen Alliance, log on to www.thepilsenalliance.org. For the Kenwood-Oakland Community organization, go to kocoonline.org.