After setback in Springfield, organizers say rent control is “past due”
Charles Perry considers himself one of the lucky ones.
“I’m still here. I can afford it,” said the longtime Austin resident. “But not everyone is as lucky as me.”
In the past two decades, Perry said he’s helped dozens of his family and friends pack up and sell their West and South Side homes, leaving behind multi-generational family properties because they could no longer afford to pay the rent.
Perry is the director of community organizing at Westside Health Authority and a member of Lift the Ban Coalition — a group of 21 community organizations whose fight to repeal Illinois’ more than two decade-long ban on rent control has been gaining steam recently in Chicago. Perry joined dozens of protesters on April 1, who demonstrated outside the James R. Thompson Center to urge Gov. J.B. Pritzker to step up and lift the ban with an executive order.
The executive order strategy comes after a major setback in the legislature on March 27 when HB 255, a proposal introduced in February by state Rep. Will Guzzardi (D-Chicago) stalled in the Commercial Law Subcommittee of the Civil Judiciary committee. The bill — only seven words long — would have repealed Illinois’ 22-year-old prohibition on rent control in the state.
The bill’s failure to advance was not surprising, Guzzardi said.
“The real estate lobby is very powerful. It is going to take a long, hard slog to beat these guys,” Guzzardi said. “But we are going to fight and organize until we get rent control.”
Guzzardi said he plans to continue working with Democratic lawmakers before the session ends to figure out if there is an another path forward for the bill, including an executive order from the Governor.
Holding banners that read “lift the ban” and “rent control now,” protesters chanted, “J.B. keep your word!” and asked Pritzker to honor his campaign promise to support the repeal of the state's rent control ban. They were accompanied by aldermanic candidate Rossanna Rodriguez-Sanchez and Alderman Carlos Rosa-Ramirez, who shared stories of the housing squeeze from the 35th ward.
Ten protesters blocked the downtown intersection and diverted traffic for 30 minutes at Randolph/Dearborn and Lake/Clark. Amongst them was longtime Little Village resident Rebecca Wolfram.
“I feel strongly about this,” said Wolfram, who is affiliated with the neighborhood-based Comité de Desarrollo Comunitario de Little Village (CDCLV), a member organization of Lift the Ban Coalition. “That’s why I decided to [divert traffic]. My neighbors, those families have been here for literally generations. And that’s changing really fast, and I’m really horrified.”
According to Wolfram, the pace of displacement in Little Village has “accelerated” in recent years. As of 2013, nearly 54% of tenants in Chicago were spending more than 30% of their income on housing, a fraction that the federal government deems unaffordable, according to The Chicago Reporter.
Sara Heymann, co-director of CDCLV, said gentrification and development in Pilsen over the last several years has had a significant impact on local families in Little Village as well.
“We are already seeing people moving westward and driving up rent,” Heymann said. “The city is also starting to promote things in our area that appeal to a whiter, wealthier audience like Riot Fest and Lagunitas, which has caused speculation, and rents skyrocketing around the Douglas Park and Marshall Square area.”
Heymann has lived in North Lawndale and Little Village for over ten years. During that period, she has seen rents rise dramatically, she said.
“The five bedroom that I used to live in five years ago used to be $1,200 a month with electricity included. The developer ... bought it, and now it's at least two times that,” Heymann said. “A loft space on Cermak that sat dormant for the more than ten years I've lived here is now being rented out at $3,000 a month and the small grocery corner store that was on the first floor of that building — the only one in the immediate area — had their rent raised once the new tenants moved in and they had to close up shop.”
Perry said he’s observed a parallel trend in Austin.
“We’re a gateway to the suburbs, right next to Oak Park,” he said. “Over the years, I’ve seen more and more people riding bikes to commute to get to the Loop for work. And we know our rents will start rising. They’re already rising in West Garfield Park.”
He said an upswing in purchase prices has already begun to push people out of Austin. Homes that once sold for $60,000 five years ago are now selling for $100,000, he said. And those sales are escalating anxiety for residents.
“There’s a lot of fear,” Perry said. “[Residents] don’t ever want to leave, because they love where they stay. That’s why we need to stabilize rent for these families, so they can stay at where they love.”
While the current status of rent control in Illinois is unclear, Lift the Ban organizers have been building a broad and diverse movement across the West Side and throughout Chicago. Perry said whether or not the bill advances, the group will keep fighting as long as rents keep rising and developers keep displacing families.
“We’re a powerful group, and our meetings are the most diverse place in Chicago. We have formerly incarcerated people, seniors, people with disabilities, gay people, all racial backgrounds — it’s a real rainbow,” Perry said. “And we’re organized. We’re ready to fight for what’s right.”