Affordable housing activists advocate for rent control


Gentrification in low-income neighborhoods causes rent prices to soar and can lead to a rise in evictions and traumatic displacement. Ally Zacek | The DePaulia

The immense difficulty of finding affordable housing in Chicago has spawned an intense debate about how to meet the needs of the many people burdened by the rising costs of rent —  and one potential solution could be rent control.

In 1997, Illinois passed the Illinois Rent Control Preemption Act which banned cities and municipalities from enacting any regulation on the cost of renting.

Since its inception, the rent control ban has been a divisive topic, and concern over affordable housing has become a central debate in Illinois. Organizations such as the Lift the Ban Coalition fought to have the issue of  reevaluating rent control put on the March primary ballot in 10 wards.

Across the 77 voting precincts included in the 10 wards, 75 percent of voters were in favor of rent control.

“Pilsen is a neighborhood that has a very high percentage of renters,” associate geography professor Winifred Curran said. “In markets that are really rental dominated, rent control can be a very important tool to preserving affordability.”

Curran says the lack of protection renters receive has led to high apartment turnover and an unstable market as a result.

“Any sort of policy tool that helps to create a reliable supply of affordable housing is a welcome change to those people,” Curran said. “(Rent control) cuts down on a lot of social problems that evictions and displacement can cause. The trauma and upheaval that the current housing situation brings with displacement exasperates the mental health problems that we see citywide.”

According to data presented by the Chicago Rehab Network, between 2000 and 2009 income in Chicago fell 8.1 percent, but the percentage of cost burdened renters increased from 10.1 percent to 54.6 percent.  In neighborhoods such as Humboldt Park, those numbers were more drastic — income fell 20 percent and the percentage of cost-burdened renters rose from 41 percent to 69 percent.

Josh Khalilian is a sophomore in the film program who grew up between Humboldt Park and Ukrainian Village. While Khalilian empathizes with those struggling to find affordable housing, he also understands how rent control could potentially put a strain on landlords.

“The thing about it is that if property taxes go up in a neighborhood and the rent is controlled, the landlord is having to spend more on that property as a result of that higher property tax,” Khalilian said. “(The landlord) is unable to increase rent to a level which would cover it.”

Khalilian also says neighborhoods which young and wealthy people find desirable can lead to further displacement. Landlords sometimes will sell rent controlled units to housing developers who wish to turn those units into condominiums or businesses.

“In urban development, sometimes the city has to tear down buildings to build what they want to build, like affordable housing projects,” Khalilian said. “The problem is that they then will use the TIF funds to build project buildings, but that drives up property taxes and can make those areas unaffordable.”

Economics professor William Sander cites a survey from the American Economic Association, which concluded that 93.5 percent of economists oppose the idea of rent regulation. He believes the prices of rental units should be governed by the market itself rather than third-parties.

“The economists do not like rent control because it has a negative effect on rental housing pricing and decreases the amount of rental housing available to the public,” Sander said. “In San Francisco where they have rental regulation, they have been converting apartments into condos to get around rent control.”

Curran, however, says markets have historically failed at providing reliable affordable housing.

“Someone has to provide it because the market is not supplying affordable housing,” Curran said.

Sander says rent control also offers the possibility of landlords not maintaining housing units due to apathy, that can surface when realtors do not have control over the price of rent.

In order to combat dangerous living conditions in apartments under rent control, Curran says the state could require regular inspections.

“The larger toolbox to create a supply of affordable housing … would be rent control coupled with proactive housing inspections, so that every apartment would be inspected every five years,” Curran said. “That way you know that there are safe conditions and also just cause for evictions. There has to be a reason for evicting a tenant, not just that the landlord wants to do it – which is currently true in Chicago.”

Sander also says Chicago is generally an affordable city to live in, compared to other major cities.

“Chicago overall has a relatively modest price of housing,” Sander said. “Chicago was the only metropolitan area where the average expenditure on rent was less than 20 percent of income.”

According to Curran, to afford an average two bedroom apartment in Chicago, one would have to make $75,000  per year. In an American Community Survey of Chicago salaries completed in 2016 by the U.S. Census Bureau, the average yearly salary in Chicago was $66,020.

While Sander understands the economic argument against rent regulation, he also had to move from Lincoln Park once prices began to climb quickly.

“When I first moved to Chicago, I came to Lincoln Park, but rent was going up 50 percent a year so I moved,” Sander said. “Lincoln Park used to be more mixed-income than it is (today) and there has been a push to reduce zoning to keep multi-family units in Lincoln Park.”

Sander says his niece also lives in an area where rent has the potential to skyrocket.

“One of my nieces lives in the West Loop,” Sander said. “It’s getting gentrified, but it’s really low rent right now and they give her a lease month by month, so they can get rid of her very easily.”

According to Sander, there are ways other than rent control to provide affordable housing to people who have low-incomes or are financially burdened.

“There could be ways of increasing housing supplies for people with modest income, or the state could provide rent supplement programs for people who cannot make their rent,” Sander said.