Roderick Wilson moved to Chicago from Champaign in 1997 to study at Northeastern Illinois University. He settled in Bronzeville but was soon displaced by rising rents in the gentrifying South Side neighborhood. It wasn’t until about a decade later that Wilson became aware of an Illinois law, passed the same year he moved to Chicago, that prevents municipalities from limiting rent hikes. That law is now a battleground in the fight he helps lead for affordable housing.

The law was passed at the behest of property owners who felt that ever since Chicago passed its Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance in 1986, during Mayor Harold Washington’s tenure, the playing field had been tipped against them. Among other things, that ordinance protects renters from “retaliatory” evictions, lets them withhold a portion of rent if a unit is damaged, and allows them to make needed repairs and deduct the cost from their rent.

Rent control wasn’t even under discussion in Chicago at the time, but the real estate industry believed a preemptive ban was crucial to protect its investments, explains Jane Garvey, board member of the Illinois Rental Property Owners Association. The ban “got snuck through,” says the executive director of the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, John Bartlett, who, like Wilson, was unaware of the law until years later. “We didn’t have much of a focus in Springfield then. It certainly got passed without our knowledge.” Today, 33 states ban rent control.

Gentrification of neighborhoods such as Bronzeville, Pilsen, Humboldt Park, and Uptown continued at a rapid pace in the late 1990s and 2000s, until the economic crash in 2008 put a damper on housing development and speculation. By the time the market was picking up again, around 2012, Wilson — then an organizer with the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization — and other activists began pushing against the rent control ban, viewing its lifting as a way to help low- and moderate-income Chicagoans stay in their homes. “We saw landlords double, triple the rent just to clear buildings out,” Wilson says. “We could see it wasn’t going to be an easy fight, but it was a fight worth having.”

In 2017, state representative Will Guzzardi, whose district includes the gentrifying Logan Square neighborhood, introduced a bill to drop the restriction. In partnership with Guzzardi, community organizations such as KOCO, Pilsen Alliance, Lugenia Burns Hope Center, and Northside Action for Justice formed the Lift the Ban Coalition. One of the cofounders was Wilson, now executive director of the Hope Center, based in Bronzeville, where he lives again.

Guzzardi’s bill didn’t get out of committee. Reintroduced in 2019, it stalled again. Momentum for rent control continued to build in Chicago, though. In 2018 and 2019, nonbinding referendums on rent control were placed on ballots in multiple wards, and they passed by large margins. Then the COVID-19 pandemic launched a new housing crisis, as thousands of Chicagoans lost their jobs. The city and state leveraged federal dollars to provide emergency rental assistance and adopted relief measures, including a moratorium on evictions.

“The problem [with the ban] is municipalities can’t even have this tool in their toolbox — that’s not fair.”

— Roderick Wilson of the Lift the Ban Coalition

With the end of that moratorium looming in 2021, affordable housing advocates saw a crisis on the horizon — especially since tenants would still owe rent they had not paid during the moratorium. In January 2021, Guzzardi introduced another bill to lift the ban. This one was only seven words long: “The Rent Control Preemption Act is repealed.” It passed the Housing Committee but languished in the Rules Committee.

This June, after the close of the legislative session, state representative Hoan Huynh, whose district covers Uptown and Lincoln Square, introduced a bill that would allow local governments to hold binding referendums on whether to opt out of the statewide ban. If a local government’s referendum passes, it would be free to adopt rent control.

Rent control rules typically cap how much landlords can increase rents each year. In Oregon, for example, a state law caps annual hikes at 7 percent, plus adjustments for inflation. Rent control proponents point out that local policies could include protections for property owners, such as provisions for utility increases and capital improvements.

Still, local landlords are vehemently opposed to letting Chicago opt out of the ban. Garvey and Mike Mini, executive vice president of the Chicagoland Apartment Association, contend that rent control would make life so difficult and unprofitable for property owners that some would flee the market and stop developing low-cost housing altogether. “We think the best way to solve the affordability issue is to incentivize and create more investment in housing; we know rent control will result in the opposite,” says Mini. Garvey, a landlord herself, says she has already sold several properties in Chicago because of the mere possibility of rent control.

If the General Assembly allows municipalities to opt in, would Chicago pass a referendum? Garvey is “horrified” at the prospect. She argues that a local vote would be stacked against landlords, since many reside outside the city. “The proportion of owners to renters is lopsided in Chicago, so if you allow the community to make up its own mind, it’s a real problem.”

And if the ban is lifted here, it’s not a stretch to think the city’s progressive administration and City Council would institute rent control. Mayor Brandon Johnson made affordable housing central to his campaign, promising to “push for rent stabilization legislation at the state level.” And he’s pushing his Bring Chicago Home ordinance, which would increase taxes on property owners selling buildings worth more than $1 million, creating funds to address homelessness. Rent control advocates see that as momentum for affordable housing policies, including rent control. “The problem [with the ban] is municipalities can’t even have this tool in their toolbox — that’s not fair,” says Wilson.

Bartlett, of the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, agrees, calling rent control “a more democratic and equitable way to figure out housing that’s decent and affordable for everyone. This is too important to leave to the market.” Because when that happens, he contends, the rent gets too damn high.