Rent control campaign builds momentum in Rogers Park

By Becky Dernbach
Medill Reports

Sandra imagined getting older as a peaceful time to retire and travel. She didn’t expect to be fighting to stay in her Rogers Park apartment as the rising rent takes up more and more of her fixed income on Social Security every year.

“I didn’t see my old age like this,” said Sandra, 73. “I’m just amazed they can raise the rent any amount they want.”

Sandra pays more than half her income in rent, and says she has seen it increase exponentially every year. This year her landlord presented her with an increase of more than $100, which Sandra is fighting to reduce.

On election day Nov. 6, the Jane Addams Senior Caucus and the Chicago Democratic Socialists of America made phone calls and talked to voters outside polling places in Rogers Park about lifting the state ban on rent control. The non-binding referendum — “Shall the State of Illinois lift the ban on rent control?” — received over 66 percent of the vote in the 49th Ward, where Rogers Park is located. It was on the ballot in three wards in Chicago that also include Logan Square and Uptown.

With the referendum results in Rogers Park and other wards showing strong support for repealing the statewide ban,the movement for rent control in Chicago is gaining momentum. The coalition hopes to help pass a bill that would repeal the ban and establish rent control boards in every county in Illinois.

“Our lives shouldn’t be driven by profit,” said Heather McLaren, who helped coordinate referendum canvassing for the Chicago Northside DSA in the 49th Ward. “We shouldn’t be forced to be driven out of our homes just because that’s what the market tells us to do. We want to reframe housing as a human right, not as a market commodity.”

McLaren said the campaign saw a lot of support in Rogers Park, where many residents said their rents were too high and expressed concern about high-end developments.

“We know this is something Chicagoans want, this is something Chicagoans need, to sustain our communities and keep our communities together and not have them become a luxury playground,” she said.

Illinois governor-elect J. B. Pritzker, a Democrat, has expressed support for repealing the ban. But the bill for repeal that would that establish county rent control boards, SB 3512, has stalled in the Democratic-controlled state Senate.

Real estate industry groups and some property owners are organizing to oppose rent controls. Michael Glasser, president of the Rogers Park Builders Group, told Chicago Tonight that rent control will not solve Chicago’s affordable housing shortage. “Wherever it’s been implemented in the U.S. and elsewhere, it’s proven to diminish the supply of affordable housing available and bring the existing housing into a state of disrepair,” he said.

Allen Smith, a building owner in Rogers Park and a board member of the Rogers Park Builders Group, said rents are going up as more renters are drawn to the neighborhood and property taxes rise. “We’ve seen more people come into the rental market. We’ve seen the North Side of Chicago be a desired place to live. We’ve seen more people who are dependent on or choose to use public transportation,” he said.

Smith manages about 850 apartments across a wide range of price points, and has ownership stake in about 60 percent of them, he said. He said rent control could lead to unintended consequences, including an increased property tax burden for homeowners and decreased incentives for landlords to take care of their properties.

“I think the best solution is to let the market sort that stuff out,” he said. “There is affordable housing to be had, and you just have to find it.”

Rogers Park is the home of Loyola University as well as one of the most diverse and integrated neighborhoods in Chicago. Residents say they prize the neighborhood’s diversity, but they’re already seeing it change due to rising rents.

According to 2016 five-year estimates for the American Community Survey, 43 percent of residents in the 12 census tracts that comprise Rogers Park are white, up from 38 percent in 2010. Data shows 26 percent of Rogers Park residents are black and 22 percent are Hispanic or Latino, down from 28 percent and 25 percent in 2010.

“I’m someone who really loves my neighborhood and really love Rogers Park because of the diversity and I really don’t want to see the neighborhood change the way it’s changing,” says Judith Cooper, a landlord who supports the rent control bill.

Cooper, who rents out one of the units of the two-flat where she lives, says realtors looking to make a quick profit have been increasing their footprint in the neighborhood. Property values and, with them, property taxes, are increasing, she says, which causes more turnover and higher rents. She sees the rent control bill, and its built-in incentives for small landlords to keep rent low and make improvements, as a way to level the playing field.

“Getting some kind of tax credit for doing repairs would be really helpful,” she said.

Sandra, who is still negotiating with her landlord over her proposed rent increase, said it will be a hard battle to pass rent control. But the growing momentum, and the opportunity to work with the Jane Addams Senior Caucus, gives her hope.

“With poverty comes powerlessness,” she said. “It gives a little bit of hope that there could be changes that would protect me somewhat.”

Editor’s note: Sandra’s name has been changed to protect her identity.

Photo at top: Reggie Griffin, a volunteer with the Jane Addams Senior Caucus, asks a voter to support the rent control referendum outside a polling place Nov. 6. (Becky Dernbach / MEDILL)