Election fires starting gun on the state’s battle over rent control

Property owners and brokers are rushing to catch up in a messaging war they might already be losing

From left: Jawanza Malone, Michael Mini, Brian Bernardoni and Rep. Will Guzzardi
From left: Jawanza Malone, Michael Mini, Brian Bernardoni and Rep. Will Guzzardi

The rent control movement may have been defeated in California last week, but it got a jolt of new life in Illinois.

It’s not just that voters elected a governor who’s voiced support for lifting state’s 21-year-old ban on rent regulation. Proponents of rent control also can point to lopsided, if narrow, referendum results from voters in three Chicago wards who overwhelmingly supported repealing the law.

“The public conversation has moved tremendously on this issue, from something nobody was talking about to a question that the leading candidate for every major office is having to reckon with,” said state Rep. Will Guzzardi, who represents a gentrifying stretch of Chicago’s Northwest Side.

Guzzardi last year introduced legislation that would repeal the Illinois Rent Control Preemption Act of 1997. And in February, state Sen. Mattie Hunter of Chicago sponsored a separate bill that would go a step further and establish rent control boards in each of the state’s 102 counties.

Neither bill advanced, but they’ll be harder to ignore once a more progressive General Assembly is sworn in next year, Guzzardi said.

“The [election] results show that people overwhelmingly support us on this issue,” Guzzardi said. “It’s time for us to start having this conversation.”

In February 2017, when Guzzardi held a rainy outdoor press conference to announce he was introducing his bill, most of the local real estate industry barely noticed, according to Michael Mini, executive vice president of the Chicagoland Apartment Association.

It’s paying attention now.

Realtor and landlord groups are whipping up their members and doubling up lobbying efforts for next year’s legislative session in Springfield, gearing up for a messaging war that Tuesday’s election indicated they might already be losing.

The apartment association is marshaling resources from its 190 member companies and “gearing up for an advocacy campaign” that could involve mail flyers, TV advertising and paid lobbyists, Mini said.

Rent control “probably represents the biggest threat to the apartment industry in a long, long time,” Mini said. “We’re very concerned about it, and we’re willing to do whatever it takes to get our message across.”

The group will take lessons from the campaign against California’s Proposition 10, which would have overturned the state’s 1995 Costa-Hawkins Act, opening the door for cities to expand their regulation of rents. After initially leading in public polling, the measure was voted down by a 2-to-1 margin.

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“We showed single-family homeowners that [the measure] would limit what they could charge, and our message for renters was that it would reduce the availability of affordable housing,” said Steve Maviglio, a spokesman for the No on Prop 10 campaign. “It doesn’t immediately come through, but once you drill down into the effects of rent control, you can make a very strong case that it’s bad for renters.”

It also didn’t hurt that opponents of the measure outspent supporters 3-to-1, Maviglio said.

But the future of rent control in Illinois will be decided in the halls of the state Capitol, not at the ballot box, and Guzzardi said his allies are already off to a running start. Hunter held four legislative hearings in different cities this year to discuss her bill, and all of them put senators face-to-face with tenants who said they’re being gouged each month.

The hearings “emboldened” the Chicago-based Lift the Ban Coalition, said co-founder Jawanza Malone, who is also executive director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization. The coalition will keep confronting lawmakers with renters whose skyrocketing housing costs are making it hard to survive, while presenting a case that regulation is the only way to keep landlords in check, Malone said.

“We have overwhelming testimony that indicates there’s a real problem that needs to be addressed,” Malone said. “At some point, our state legislators are going to have to pay attention.”

Guzzardi’s bill has already racked up nine co-sponsors in the state House. Hunter’s bill tallies eight Senate co-sponsors, including former gubernatorial candidate Daniel Biss and state attorney general-elect Kwame Raoul, who will both depart the chamber next year.

If apartment owners want to keep the rent control ban in place, they’ll have to become just as familiar to their elected officials as their tenants are, Mini said. His association will distribute fact sheets to its members so they can fluently argue the policy’s downsides.

“We know the advocates are very good at creating a lot of noise and getting their message across, so we need to be just as aggressive,” Mini said. “We’re going to be looking at everything, and depending on where the politics take us, we’ll adjust our plan accordingly.”

Opponents of rent control will have grassroots organizing power on their side, too. The Neighborhood Building Owners Alliance, an umbrella group representing property owners in six different Chicago neighborhoods, is sharpening its public outreach arm, president Michael Glasser said.

During the weeks leading up to last week’s election, members of the Rogers Park Builders Group — one of the Alliance’s member organizations — passed out flyers and mailed 4,500 postcards listing arguments against rent control. About two-thirds of voters ended up approving the ballot question in the 49th Ward, which covers most of Rogers Park, compared to 70 and 71 percent in the other two wards where it was asked.

“All we did was ask people to think twice and research before they voted, and that ended up being the most successful message,” Glasser said. “We need to show that we recognize there’s a real affordability issue … to overcome this sense that we’re just greedy landlords out to protect our own interests.”

Proposing alternative fixes for the increasingly pricey rental market will be crucial to winning the argument against rent control, according to Brian Bernardoni, senior director of government affairs and public policy for the Chicago Association of Realtors. As discussions get underway in Springfield, Realtors will lobby for changes that encourage more home construction — a solution Bernardoni said would more effectively blunt the growth of housing costs.

“There’s clearly a frustration with the high cost of living, and the referendum was evidence of that,” Bernardoni said. “You can look at it in a way that points fingers, or you can come to the table saying you want to be part of the solution.”