Mayoral candidates make their pitches to real estate leaders at Realtors Forum

Candidates explained their positions on rent control, affordable housing and amending the building code

From top left, clockwise: Susana Mendoza, Gery Chico, Toni Preckwinkle, Paul Vallas
From top left, clockwise: Susana Mendoza, Gery Chico, Toni Preckwinkle, Paul Vallas

Mayoral candidates ran through their positions on affordable housing, building requirements, property taxes and more at a forum hosted by the Chicago Association of Realtors on Monday, offering ideas they promised would help make agents’ lives easier.

Nine of the 14 candidates took turns giving five-minute pitches to members of the organization, which technically represents brokers but also advocates on behalf of builders and landlords.

The candidates, usually cautious to keep a public distance from developers and other big donors, were quick to brandish their ties to the real estate industry Monday.

State Comptroller Susana Mendoza mentioned a special parking sticker for real estate agents that she proposed when she was Chicago City Clerk, and Gery Chico told the group he “work[s] with you folks every day” as an attorney representing real estate clients.

Even Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who disagrees with the association’s agenda on key issues like rent control and tenant protections, talked up the importance of building more homes all over the city.

Association members have said publicly they remain open to all 14 candidates, but campaign donations indicate that the industry may be starting to circle around Chico and businessman Bill Daley.

Rent Control

Most of the candidates have signaled they oppose rent control, a measure real estate leaders have come to see as a dire threat to their industry. Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas said rent control only “does more damage,” and he offered “permanent property tax caps” as an alternate route to keeping rents low.

Mendoza said rent control could backfire on poor neighborhoods, and Chico simply said, “No rent control, I believe in the free market.”

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle broke from Realtors this month when she endorsed state legislation to overturn the statewide rent control ban. She did not mention the issue in her remarks.

Former Chicago Police Board President Lori Lightfoot dodged the issue, saying she doesn’t “think rent control is an issue we need to be focused on right now.” Daley, who did not show up to the forum Monday morning, has not staked an official position on the issue.

Amending the building code

All nine candidates who filled out an issues questionnaire prior to the forum marked their support for loosening the city’s building code to lengthen the city’s list of allowed construction materials.

Preckwinkle promised to “make the building permitting process more transparent and more expeditious,” saying she recently spoke with a developer who spent more than a year awaiting the city’s permission before breaking ground.

Lightfoot seized on excessive “red tape” in the city’s buildings department, saying “we need to make sure our building code is flexible enough to accommodate the challenges” of increasingly expensive construction.

The chorus of support for easier permitting was one of the most promising signals the association took from the survey and forum, according to Brian Bernardoni, the association’s director of policy and governmental affairs.

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“It’s great for our agenda,” Bernardoni said. “We won’t have an affordable city until we have an affordable building code, and it’s good to see them all embrace where we are on that.”

Property taxes

Vallas and Chico vowed to keep property taxes at current levels, a plank also supported by Daley.

Chico called property tax assessors “corrupt,” saying the owners of Downtown skyscrapers like the 60-story office tower at 300 North LaSalle Street are “getting away with murder” on their tax bills.

“When we don’t get it right, your clients wind up paying for it,” Chico told the room of real estate agents. “And then you have to do the tapdance about why the taxes are so high.”

Lightfoot said she “has a lot of confidence” in Fritz Kaegi, the new Cook County assessor who defeated incumbent Joe Berrios in last year’s primary on a platform of reforming the system. Kaegi has already imposed some changes, including a proposal to require commercial building owners to report their income to his office.

All the candidates who answered the survey also signaled their support for ratcheting up Low-income Housing Tax Credits program for developers who offer affordable units, another policy advanced by the association. But none of the candidates mentioned the measure in their spoken remarks.

Mendoza earlier this month teased a proposal for a graduated property tax system, but she walked the idea back two days later.

Real estate transfer tax

Every survey respondent except Willy Wilson split with the Realtors’ agenda by indicating they would consider raising the real estate transfer tax on high-end properties, a measure Chicago Association of Realtors CEO Michelle Mills Clement said would “put a greater burden on homeowners” and wouldn’t pull in enough revenue “to begin to address crucial issues.”

Chico said he agrees with “90 percent” of the Realtors’ agenda, but his proposal to impose a 1 percent tax on home sales over $1 million to pay for homeless services is the only major exception.

Lightfoot has proposed a graduated real estate transfer tax and Preckwinkle wants to tax property transfers over $1 million, according to the Sun-Times. Mendoza and Vallas have expressed openness to the idea, but they have not carved it into specific proposals.

Amending city ordinance on landlord violations

Apartment owners have been agitating to change a single word in the city code, whose section on landlord responsibilities currently says tenants “shall be awarded damages” if landlords violate any provision. Realtors want to change “shall” to “may,” which would give judges discretion over tenants’ liability in each case.

“These are mostly modest violations we’re talking about, like not giving a tenant long enough notice before showing their unit,” Bernardoni said. “There’s a slew of things that can go wrong between a landlord and tenant, but we want the judge to have a determination, because landlords will just settle if they know they won’t get an even break in court.”

Chico, Vallas, Mendoza and Lightfoot all indicated in the survey that they would support the language change, while Preckwinkle wrote she would not. Daley did not give an answer.

State Rep. LaShawn Ford was the only candidate to mention the proposal in his remarks, saying, “a city that’s not friendly to landlords… will drive people out of their properties because of building violations.”

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