For a moment, let us sidestep the staggering statistics, the debates, and the studies like this one from the nonpartisan Urban Institute, which found that Illinois’ ban on rent control “constrained local housing policy responses to COVID-19.” First, let us be clear about the scenes we will bear witness to. They won’t include a UHAUL truck or friendly movers.
A baby’s crib thrown onto the front lawn. Precious family heirlooms picked over by passerby. A toddler crying into the arms of her humiliated parents, who have been evicted for the crime of losing their jobs during a global economic collapse. Most likely, the tenants will not move into a new apartment, but face homelessness and potentially suicide. Their community will destabilize a little further, and phenomena like unrest and looting will increase.
We can avoid these horrific scenes by simply giving renters and small landlords the same bailout that corporations have already received. When community organizations and legislators call for Illinois to cancel rent and mortgage payments and lift the oppressive statewide ban on rent control, they are accused of asking for “free stuff,” or are told “it’s not that simple.” Here’s a fact that will make it very simple: the corporate landlords and private equity groups that own so much of our city have already been bailed out. They got the free stuff. Already. It’s done. Mortgage forbearance, PPP loans, a third of a trillion dollars in CARES Act tax breaks, and the ongoing TIF travesty have left them richer than before. Some corporate landlords are simply refusing to pay their mortgages and walking away. But they continue to collect or even raise rents on struggling Chicagoans. Canceling rent and mortgages (for small landlords) will merely give working people the same bailout that the behemoths already enjoy.
Market-based “solutions” and patchwork subsidy programs have succeeded at one thing: displacing Illinoisans from the neighborhoods they built and enriching private investors who don’t even live in Illinois. Governor Pritzker, Mayor Lightfoot and state legislators are simply not meeting the need, despite knowing who will become homeless over the coming year: Black and brown Illinoisans. They claim that drastic action to reform our housing system will threaten homeowners — but that same system already takes homes and wealth from people of color and refuses to lend to them if they can avoid it. Now, Lightfoot’s property tax increases and the failure of the Fair Tax will make things even worse.
Pritzker continues to break his campaign promise to lift the ban on rent control, which would open up options for municipal rent relief. He barely enforces his own eviction moratorium: illegal evictions have doubled since COVID began. His meager relief funds are more of the same failed approach that perpetuates poverty: a few grants here, a few vouchers there, hold press conferences to dole out federal funding, and wrap up the application process in a web of paperwork for exhausted nonprofits and social workers to complete.
Everything Lightfoot has done so far — the cruel lotteries, the unenforceable and confusing eviction ordinance, the Housing Solidarity Pledge — has created good press for herself, but it’s done nothing for the vast majority of people crying out for protection and relief.
It’s no wonder where this year’s anger and looting originate — a working class that feels disinvested, displaced, and disposable. As we go forward, expect to see more organized, militant resistance to evictions if government continues to fail us.
Brian Bennett is an organizer with the Lift the Ban coalition and the Chicago Democratic Socialists of America. He has worked with tenants, advocates and teachers for progressives housing reforms like rent control and just cause eviction.