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Can Rent Control Stem Gentrification in Pilsen?

Community members hosted a panel to discuss ways to keep developers from pushing out long-time residents.

The mural at Casa Aztlan was painted over this year, a literal symbol of developers whitewashing the Latino community.   Photo: Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune

Last night, the Pilsen Alliance, a community organization that’s spearheaded the neighborhood’s anti-gentrification efforts, hosted a panel and community discussion on rent control—regulating how much landlords can raise rents in a given timeframe—at the Dvorak Park Advisory Council.

At the heart of the conversation were stories from residents who felt the neighborhood was slipping away from them: renters whose monthly rents have doubled and tripled (in one case, quintupled) after landlords renovate and refurbish their apartments, and homeowners who are aggressively solicited each month to sell their property. “Our barrios are no longer our barrios,” as one resident put it.

The panel—state representatives Will Guzzardi and Theresa Mah; Frank Avellone, a senior attorney at the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing; and Janet Smith, associate professor of urban planning and policy at UIC—spoke about different policies that could help residents maintain their footing in the neighborhood, including rent control. Guzzardi, who was keynote speaker, talked about a bill he introduced to the state House this spring that could allow rent control policies to be implemented (they are currently prohibited by law in Illinois).

The evening was not without tension. “Why should we trust you?” . “We’re losing our homes. We can barely afford food." Halfway through Guzzardi’s answer to the question—“You shouldn’t trust us, but organize us”— he walked out. A young organizer challenged Mah on why she had taken $7,000 in campaign contributions from a local real estate developer. (Her response: She had used a space belonging to the developer at her inauguration party.)

Here are some of the other main takeaways from the meeting.

On Illinois’s prohibition of rent control

A 1997 state law forbids Illinois municipalities from regulating how much landlords can raise rents—a prohibition that, as the Reader has suggested, was the result of a concerted national effort by conservative lobbying groups. Guzzardi, who seeks to repeal that law, pointed out that most of the response in Springfield to his bill had been from real estate agents.

“The embarrassing truth is that we’re getting out-organized. I expect that we’re going to be out-spent in these fights. We’re going up against Realtors who have all the money,” he said. “But in my conversations with my colleagues, they have gotten hundreds of emails from Realtors, and they haven’t heard from us, from the 650,000 rental units in the city of Chicago.” He urged attendees to speak out in favor of repealing the bill so that municipalities can decide whether or not they want to institute rent control.

On the constant fight to stay put

Vicky Romero, whose parents immigrated to 18th and Bishop in the early ’50s and have stayed there ever since, said, “Within the past 10 or 15 years my mom and I have consistently received solicitations and letters from different developers, people offering cash to buy our homes—about four to five letters per month, that obviously we just toss in the garbage.”

Nowadays, she’s doing even more than trashing the letters. “I’ve actually been calling these guys back, and telling them, ‘Take my mom’s number, take my number off of your list. We’re not interested in helping you gentrify my neighborhood,’” she said.

On other policies that can “stabilize” a neighborhood

“Rent control or rent stabilization is a good way to make neighborhoods affordable over a long period of time, but when paired with just cause for eviction, they work together to create a stable neighborhood,” said Avellone. Just cause for eviction, a policy in three American states and 27 cities, means a landlord must give a legitimate reason (the list of which differs in each jurisidiction) for evicting a tenant. 

He also advocated for proactive (rather than reactive) rental inspections. “Your landlord makes so much profit by not reinvesting in the property, it falls into disrepair,” he said. “That makes it a target for someone to buy at a profit, who will then put in a granite countertop and jack up the rent by $500. So disrepair and foreclosure are major reasons for displacement and gentrification.” Chicago’s “reactive, complaint-based system” allows this to go on, he said. But if landlords were required to get inspections every five years or so, then “gradually over time, maybe a decade, all the properties in the city reach some basic level of stable, habitable, safe, and decent.”

On the history of rent control

Rent control began during World War I in Europe to prevent landlords from taking advantage of the war, Smith said. The same thing happened during World War II in the U.S. That’s changed: “The contemporary idea of rent control means you can raise rent, but at a limited amount every year—something you start to see in the United States in the 1960s and 70s,” she explained, and that was a result of organizing by communities hit by high rents and double-digit inflation. "So it took war twice, and then it took organizing,” she said.

Smith also noted that neoclassical economists tend to view rent control as an “interference” in the free market, which they see as something that could cause more problems than it solves. However, “Research that’s been done more recently by researchers at UC Berkeley has been able to document through data that rent control does prevent displacement,” she said.

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