In 2017, state Rep. Will Guzzardi introduced a bill to overturn the state’s ban on rent control. It didn’t get out of committee.

In 2019, Guzzardi introduced the bill again. Same result.

This year, though, the bill passed the House’s new Housing Committee, which Guzzardi chairs, and is headed to the floor for a vote by the full body.

Illinois has prohibited municipalities from adopting rent control since 1997, when Republican Gov. Jim Edgar signed the Rent Control Preemption Act, a measure promoted by the free market American Legislative Exchange Council. The bill addressed a non-existent issue, since rent control has never been imposed anywhere in the state.

The economic calamity that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic, though, seems to have created an acceptance of government intervention in the housing market. Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued an eviction moratorium which is currently set to expire April 3. The state used federal coronavirus relief funds to launch emergency rental and mortgage assistance programs, which have paid out $324 million to 56,000 households. In this environment, rent control may be another tool to prevent economically stressed Illinoisans from losing their homes.

“We need to have a few more tools in our toolbox, especially coming out of this pandemic, to stabilize the housing market,” said Roderick Wilson, executive director of the Lugenia Burns Hope Center in Bronzeville and legislative coordinator of the Lift the Ban Coalition, which has been lobbying for Guzzardi’s bill. “Once that moratorium is ended, people still owe what they owe. With rent control, it doesn’t cost [the state] a dime.”

Guzzardi also believes that COVID has contributed to the advancement of his bill. The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that the pandemic has put 30 to 40 million Americans at risk of eviction.

“The pandemic has brought to the foreground a housing crisis that has been lingering in the shadows,” he said. “You saw how little it took, because of fragile economic circumstances, limited savings, it didn’t take long for this to become a crisis. It really helps us make the case that our hands have been tied.”

Guzzardi’s bill, HB116, is only seven words long: “The Rent Control Preemption Act is repealed.” Its passage alone would change nothing about the housing market. It would simply allow cities to pass rent control ordinances. As a state official, Guzzardi has no opinion on what those should look like. (“That’s kind of none of my business.”) Wilson, though, is a community organizer who was priced out of Bronzeville, and now lives on the West Side. He thinks rent control in Chicago could look like Oregon, which in 2019 passed a statewide rent control law limiting rent increases to no more than 7 percent annually, plus the rate of inflation. (Oregon’s law applies only to multi-unit buildings more than 15 years old, which would cover most Chicago renters.)

The strongest opposition to the bill comes from Illinois REALTORS, a real-estate industry group. “Government price controls on rentals have been empirically proven to reduce the number and quality of affordable rental units in the areas they are imposed. In areas where there are existing housing shortages, rent control imposed by local governments has dramatically worsened the shortages. Worse yet, policies like government-imposed pricing in housing has been proven to increase segregation and continue patterns of disinvestment along racial lines,” REALTORS said in a statement. “As of February 2021, available housing inventory for sale in Illinois was down over 49% year-over-year. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Illinois was over 100,000 units short of enough affordable housing units that were needed and fell over 60% behind the number of necessary affordable rental units. H.B. 116 would allow proponents to shift millions of dollars of housing costs onto neighboring properties.”

Guzzardi and Wilson both believe rent control can stabilize neighborhoods, and perhaps prevent some of the population loss that has made Illinois the nation’s second-fastest shrinking state. Guzzardi’s Northwest Side district, which includes Logan Square, Hermosa, Avondale, and Old Irving Park, has seen “a huge displacement of Latinx families” as a result of rising rents and property values.

“That’s why I’ve been working on this bill in the first place,” he said. “I know a lot of the tenants who tried to organize at this building around the corner from me where the developer bought the building and they slapped a new coat of paint on there and they said, ‘Your rent just went up by 50 percent, and you’ve got until the end of the month to figure it out.’”

During his 2018 campaign, Gov. J.B. Pritzker supported repealing the rent control ban. However, Pritzker has not taken a position on HB116, and his spokeswoman, Jordan Abudayyeh, did not respond to a question about whether he would sign it.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot may be a bigger obstacle. In the 2019 mayoral campaign, rent control was one of the few significant policy differences between Lightfoot and her runoff opponent, Toni Preckwinkle. Lightfoot was opposed to rent control, preferring to build affordable housing instead; Preckwinkle thought it would be a “solution to the problem of Chicago’s rising rents that are pushing families out of their homes and communities.”

That was two years ago, though, before the pandemic that may have forever changed our views of government’s role in the housing market.