Chicago DSA Fights for Rent Control on the November Ballot

The Lift the Ban Coalition knocked thousands of doors this year in its mission to end Illinois’ ban on rent control. As a member of this coalition, Chicago DSA is taking up the fight to pass referenda in favor of rent control in the 35th, 46th, and 49th wards this election day, November 6th.

In the 49th Ward, DSA volunteers collected 400 signatures from citizens who believe Rogers Park should remain an affordable, diverse community.

DSA organizer Mauricio Maluff Masi recalls a conversation with a woman selling tamales outside St. Jerome Church who was harmed by landlord greed.

“She’s been living in Rogers Park for many years,” says Maluff Masi. “Every year, her landlord raised the rent by $100. Recently, she had to tell him she couldn’t do it, and he said ‘Well, it’s either that or you can move somewhere else.’ She actually had to find a new place.”

Landlords and property managers are seldom friendly to progressive organizing. The infamous “double buzzer” apartment style has kept out countless would-be canvassers. But Lift the Ban in particular has encountered resistance from landlords because it challenges their power over tenants.

Isabella Janusz, a DSA volunteer, relays how some tenants seemed hesitant to say anything that might get them in trouble.

“There was a sense of fear,” says Janusz of an apartment building canvassed by DSA. “But then one of the tenants invited us into her unit and, after listening to what we had to say about the Lift the Ban campaign, she really opened up and told us of the repairs in her unit that weren’t being addressed, the landlord evicting tenants, and a living situation that did not feel safe to her.”

Some landlords began canvassing themselves to spread misinformation about rent control, claiming it will not benefit renters in the long-term. But DSA volunteer Bumper Carroll met one Rogers Park citizen who knew firsthand how beneficial even meager rent control policies are.

“She expressed dismay at the gentrification that had driven prices up in Southern California and was grateful that she had enjoyed some protection in Los Angeles,” says Carroll. “She was surprised to learn about the ban in Illinois, her new home, and enthusiastically supported our efforts.”

Megan Hyska, a DSA organizer new to Rogers Park, was amazed by how many of her neighbors are in desperate need of affordable housing.

“We know folks are busy and talking to canvassers can seem like a pain,” says Hyska. “So I think it’s telling how many people wanted to talk to us about rent control. A couple older homeowners who have lived in Rogers Park 50 years invited me into their living room to tell me they worried the neighborhood would become too expensive for their neighbors to stay.”

DSA organizer Brian Bennett believes true socialism is necessary to secure housing for all. He supports Lift the Ban not because it will fix the housing crisis but because of the good it can do for people right now.

“We spoke to a man who had recently gotten off the streets and into an apartment,” says Bennett. “His landlord was raising the rent on him, putting his ability to stay there in danger. It struck me what an incredible feat it is for anyone to escape homelessness in our society, and how the land owning class could possibly destroy this feat for profit. He asked simply, ‘Rent control…Is that ‘less’?’  For some, ‘less’ means they can worry less about their budget; for others ‘less’ means survival.”

How Should Socialists Organize? Reflections on the Lift the Ban Campaign

Ever since I attended my first DSA meeting more than a year ago, it’s been the question: What should DSA do?

Not that members of Chicago DSA are short on things to do. There’s an array of working groups to choose from, many doing creative and exciting projects; there are educational events, parties, actions, and plenty of meetings. But as an organization of more than 1,300 socialists in the city of Chicago—what should we collectively try to accomplish? What is our plan?

Without presuming to be able to answer that question on my own, I want to make a few observations and reflections on the referendum campaign that Chicago DSA finished leading up to the March 20 primary election as part of its work with the Lift the Ban Coalition. For those of us who organized for and led it, this campaign was one answer to that question. By asking how and why we undertook this campaign and to what extent we accomplished our internal goals, we can hopefully draw some lessons that will be useful for Chicago DSA and other DSA chapters in future campaigns, as well as help point a way forward in the fight for rent control.

Background on the Referendum Win

On March 20, voters in 77 precincts in Chicago got to weigh in on whether Illinois should lift the statewide ban on rent control, and more than 75 percent—12,178 people—said yes. The referendum appeared on the ballot through the efforts of the Lift the Ban Coalition, whose members have been fighting for rent control in Chicago since 2016. (The ban has been in place since 1997, when the corporate-funded group ALEC pushed it through the state legislature.) Chicago DSA became a member last September, when the Coalition began its petition drive to put the referendum on the ballot. In addition to sending members to canvass with two other Coalition partners—Pilsen Alliance and 33rd Ward Working Families—Chicago DSA also ran its own canvassing operation for two precincts in the 5th Ward. In those precincts, 11 and 18, the referendum passed with 77 percent and 83 percent support respectively.

Like all referenda in Chicago except those regarding the sale of alcohol, the Lift the Ban referendum is non-binding. We set out to pass it by a large majority in order to show state legislators that voters overwhelmingly want to lift the ban—and that we have the capacity to turn them out to the polls. By all accounts, the Coalition succeeded at this first stage of the fight for rent control. Our next task is to pressure state legislators to repeal the ban, which will require making connections with renters and other stakeholders in downstate Illinois. Then we will need to pass a bill to enact rent control, either at the city or—as has been proposed by State Senator Mattie Hunter in SB3512—the state level.

Coalition Building

Chicago DSA joined the Lift the Ban campaign as part of our effort to build relationships with other organizations that share our politics. This may sound like an obviously good thing to do, but it’s more important than just making friends: it’s been an essential first step to organizing for socialism in Chicago. I think it should be a priority for any DSA chapter in a place where such organizations exist.

One reason it’s so important is that DSA’s membership is, as a June 2017 Democratic Left post put it, “whiter, richer, and more masculine than the working class we’re working for.” The extreme segregation of Chicago makes this divergence particularly evident in the case of the South Side Branch. It probably also contributes to the fact that it is the smallest of Chicago’s three branches. These conditions have encouraged us on the South Side Steering Committee to prioritize making connections with other groups based in working-class communities on the South Side. Since taking office last June, we’ve made it a practice to invite leaders of these organizations to speak at our branch meetings, and to meet with them one-on-one. The opportunity to join the Lift the Ban Coalition came about because of this practice.

In a city as rich with community organizations as Chicago, it would of course be foolish to intrude on anyone’s geographic “turf” without talking to them first. But avoiding stepping on toes is the least of what we have to gain from these conversations. DSA chapters should be deliberate about reaching out to groups that represent the self-organization of the working class and people of color and other oppressed peoples, because more often than not their fights will be ours.

The Lift the Ban Coalition is a great example. Of the four organizations on its steering committee—the Lugenia Burns Hope Center, Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, Northside Action for Justice, and Pilsen Alliance—all center low-income and working-class people, and three are based in neighborhoods that are majority people of color. The policy they are fighting for is one that curtails the profiteering of developers in the interest of working-class communities—a worthy goal for a socialist organization. In joining the fight for rent control, we have both grown Chicago DSA’s capacity and helped push the struggle forward. By targeting and winning our own precincts for the referendum, lending expertise in graphic design and social media, turning out members to actions, and showing up to coalition meetings, we’ve shown Chicago DSA to be a valuable, reliable coalition partner and paved the way for future collaboration on this and other campaigns.

We would never have accomplished all this if we hadn’t thought we had something to learn. This attitude is one we should hold on to going forward. With two new branches and a membership that has surged from 184 in October 2016 to 1,340 as of last month, Chicago DSA is—like many other chapters—a basically new organization. Of the thousand-plus members we’ve gained, many are new to organizing and political work. But we shouldn’t get so caught up in the exciting movement or interesting phenomenon that is DSA, that we forget that organizing is not new to Chicago. Rather, as we go forth to do something as DSA, we should be humble and receptive to the lessons we can learn from other organizations, without giving up any of our long-term ambitions or our ideological focus (which, lest we forget, are our strengths).

Capacity Building

The other big goal of the referendum campaign was to build the organizational capacity of Chicago DSA. Last September, most of our chapter’s projects and campaigns were happening at the working group level and, as a result, at the working group scale. As co-chair of the South Side Branch, I was looking for a potential campaign that would be big and broad enough for any branch—or chapter—member to plug into, in the form of a simple, not overly time-consuming, but rewarding and meaningful task (for example, a two-hour canvassing shift). Also, as someone with relatively scattered, minor organizing experience, and without a good sense of the organizing that was already happening on the South Side, I didn’t want to try to design a campaign from scratch. So when Pilsen Alliance invited Chicago DSA to collaborate with them on canvassing for the referendum, I decided, with the support of the other members of the South Side Steering Committee, to try to organize our branch and chapter to adopt the Lift the Ban campaign.

Looking back, I would say that we had a strong success in building Chicago DSA’s capacity with this campaign—with the caveat that I think we could have had even more success if the campaign had been taken up more broadly, at the chapter level. We ended up organizing it at the branch, and then the working group level, due to issues of timing and organizational structure.

In what ways did we build capacity? Starting last fall, the South Side Steering Committee learned how to build consensus around a campaign, and our membership participated in deliberative branch meetings in which we voted to adopt the campaign. Before the second, get-out-the-vote round of canvassing, the Housing Working Group did the same thing, and also wrote a comprehensive campaign proposal that included targets for turnout based on calculations of our win percentage goals. Dozens of Chicago DSA members learned how to canvass and had the experience of talking to folks about rent control on the doors, and several members trained and led their own canvass teams. A small core group learned to write a rap, cut turf and enter data in VAN, and conduct turnout phonebanks for a total of about twelve canvasses. (University of Chicago YDSA and 33rd Ward Working Families shared turnout duties with the Housing Working Group.) We got to know the ins and outs of the two precincts in East Hyde Park that constituted our turf, and learned how to distinguish between good and bad turf. In February, we helped plan, execute, and debrief a direct action for rent control at the Thompson Center. We helped write the copy for the referendum campaign literature, and a very talented Housing Working Group member did the graphic design work (shoutout to Ben). On March 20, we ran an election day operation which began with flyering at 6 a.m. when the polls opened and ended at 8:30 p.m. when the poll workers printed out the “tape” with the primary results.

We did a lot! And we ran most of the South Side-based campaign (the longer, more difficult get-out-the-vote phase) with a core group of only four people: myself, John Aspray, Loreen Targos, and Ruthie Lichtenstein.

Many more people contributed to the campaign by canvassing, phonebanking, or flyering on election day and by helping to organize our first petition-drive canvass last fall to get the campaign off the ground. But without diminishing anyone’s contribution, I would say we could have used more help. It would have taken some of the burden off of John, Loreen, Ruthie, and me, and it would have meant that the skills we gained were gained more widely.

How to Do Even Better Next Time

Why weren’t our numbers—both of leaders and of rank-and-file canvassers and phonebankers—higher? Bad timing deserves some of the blame. We held our first petition-drive canvass on the weekend before Thanksgiving, and our momentum dropped off during and after the holidays. Some Chicago DSA members shifted focus to other chapter work; others became inactive. This was unfortunate, but probably couldn’t have been avoided at the time.

Another, more important, reason hinges on the structure of Chicago DSA, in which working groups and branches operate independently and with near-complete autonomy from the chapter. The tendency that this structure begets is, as I mentioned above, for work to happen within the working groups and at the working group scale—that is to say, a small fraction of the size of the chapter, with no more than a handful of leaders. Those of us who organized for this campaign last fall tried to build consensus around it among the entire chapter leadership—and though the majority of them supported it, there was no easy or obvious means to encourage or enable them to organize for it. Based on votes taken at North and South Side Branch meetings, the majority of the membership were behind the campaign too—but on the North Side, once again, there was no mechanism to hold leadership accountable to this vote, and no clear North Side plan for those members to plug in to.

Thus, the campaign was initially undertaken by the South Side Branch, and in its second phase it was led by the Housing Working Group. The shift made sense because the members of the South Side Steering Committee were overtaxed with other working group responsibilities and the business of running the branch, and didn’t have the capacity to lead the campaign, whereas the Housing Working Group, once formed, pulled in a lot of new people who wanted to devote their energy to housing work. But the smaller size of the group which had “ownership” of the campaign probably also contributed to smaller turnout in the second phase of canvasses.

How can we address the structural issues that hampered the referendum campaign? We need more collaboration across working groups and branches. We need a stronger organizing culture at all levels of leadership—meaning leaders should have both a broad vision that encompasses the whole chapter, and a sharp focus on building Chicago DSA while also building working-class power. We also need bylaws changes that will give the chapter membership the power to decide what we should do—as a chapter. Only then can we marshal the full strength of our 1,340-member organization—and we’ll need all the strength we’ve got as we go up against Rahm, Rauner, and the neoliberal power structures behind them.

Rent Control is Not Just an Economic Issue; It’s a Moral Necessity

Brian Bernardoni, Senior Director of Government Affairs and Public Policy for Chicago Association of Realtors, recently appeared on a segment of Chicago Tonight about rent control, arguing against the repeal of the 1997 act that preemptively outlawed the practice entirely in Illinois. Bernardoni said that the stories of displaced tenants are “compelling” but that “rent control is not the solution.”

“This is a much more complex solution,” Bernardoni continued:

“If we’re going to talk about actually performing at the highest level to put people into homes we need to start talking about building affordable housing, reforming a building code that’s too expensive for developers to build. We need to get neighbors and communities to start getting engaged in real discussions about zoning densities and increasing those capacities, so we can expand opportunities for folks to get into affordable housing.”

Bernadoni’s talking points on the program embody the line of attack that IL Realtors have been putting out since state representative Will Guzzardi first announced his repeal bill last March, attempting to mask their opposition as level-headed foresight of unavoidable market reaction to public policy.

They contend that the solution to gentrification and displacement could never be as simple as rent control. What the state should really do is enact policy that lets developers skewer safety regulations, so they can afford to build smaller and lower quality units, as if rent in Chicago is skyrocketing because the countless 100+ year-old residential brick buildings that so many are being displaced from are just too high maintenance to be affordable for the same tenants who lived there for years.

Of course, the real reason that rent is going up is that property values are going up, and with them the potential for more profit to be had by landlords and developers. And just as Bernardoni advised they do, neighbors and communities are getting engaged, and have come together to form the Lift the Ban coalition, of which Chicago DSA is affiliated.

Bernardoni was also quoted in a story on the debate in the Tribune:

“The disincentive to add new units ultimately increases rent, so rent control is very much a response that benefits people who have been in a community for a long time at the expense of the overall community — at the expense of particularly young people who are trying to move out and form their own households, so it really very much is prioritizing one community over another.”

Bernardoni is correct in his analysis that rent control prioritizes one community over another. Rent control prioritizes the existing community over a new class of higher-income renters who would displace them. While there is certainly no shortage of over-priced high-rise condominiums in the city, affordable housing has become more and more scarce. Rent control is one way to ensure that affordable housing stays affordable for current tenants.

As momentum builds in the state, not only to lift the ban on rent control but to enact it, it’s likely we’ll see groups like IL Realtors continue to push these lines of attack. Before they have a chance to do so, let’s take a moment to dispel some of the common myths surrounding rent control they’ve been perpetuating so far.

Myth #1: Rent control disincentivizes landlords to make building repairs and maintenance

I reject this premise completely. First, the evidence used to support this claim tends to be empirically dubious, as highlighted in this 1988 study. Further, the prospect of increased profit is not the primary catalyst for repair and maintenance. The prospect of losing tenants and decreased property values is, as repair and maintenance are measures taken to preserve current value.

To increase rent as a way to cover the cost of maintenance is to just shift a naturally recurring cost onto renters, as if it were another utility that costs extra. If tenants were pushing for a landlord to remodel, renovate, or otherwise make additions to the building, say with the construction of a communal swimming pool, then shifting the cost onto them through increased rent would perhaps make sense.

Myth #2: Developers can’t build affordable housing because of a strict building code and other regulatory measures that are too costly

Sure, developers could in theory build housing for a lot less if there weren’t as many regulations in place that make construction more costly, just as abolishing the minimum wage could in theory solve unemployment. But building codes, like the minimum wage, are regulations put in place first and foremost to protect people, be it from hazard or from exploitation.

Just as with employment, if a landlord really can’t afford to build affordable housing (they can), then they can’t afford to build housing altogether. The problem isn’t that building codes cost so much that there’s no net positive return on investment for developers, but that it’s enough to chip off a piece of their profit margins. It’s not that there’s too little money to build affordable housing, it’s that there’s not enough profit to be made to incentivize developers to do so.

This exemplifies the limits of the supply-side economics behind such thinking. There is, of course, a high demand for affordable housing in cities like Chicago, but ultimately a low supply because capital is underwhelmed by its profit potential. And when building code regulations are cast aside for increased affordability, as IL Realtors posits as one possible solution, the results can be disastrous, as we saw all too clearly with the Grenfell Tower fire last year in the UK.

Myth #3: Rent control is “essentially a vote for a property tax”

This claim can be best dispelled by a contradiction found in IL Realtors own messaging on the issue. In a release from last year, IL Realtors argues first that “out of control property taxes and regulations are a big factor in the upward pressure on rents,” while in their very next point stating that the city “stands to lose untold millions in property tax revenue, as rental property values will certainly drop if their potential earnings are capped.”

How exactly can rent control cause property taxes to increase while simultaneously causing property values to drop? If anything, the stabilization of property value under rent control would mean a stabilization in property tax, as the two are directly tied together.

Myth #4: Rent Control Will Lead to Divestment and a Return to Urban Blight

One must ask why our fair city should be lobbying for the economic investment of outside capital when the return on that investment rarely finds it ways back to residents? While gentrification may bring in new business to areas, if it’s at the expense of current residents, who exactly stands to benefit? That is, aside from developers and the politicians who enable them?

It also can’t be understated that the abstract threat of a return to “urban blight” is a racially-charged dog-whistle. In his 2003 paper on “The Public Menace of Blight” published in the Yale Law and Policy Review, property law expert Wendell E. Pritchett writes that:

“Blight was a facially neutral term infused with racial and ethnic prejudice. While it purportedly assessed the state of urban infrastructure, blight was often used to describe the negative impact of certain residents on city neighborhoods. This ‘scientific’ method of understanding urban decline was used to justify the removal of blacks and other minorities from certain parts of the city. By selecting racially changing neighborhoods as blighted areas and designating them for redevelopment, the urban renewal program enabled institutional and political elites to relocate minority populations and entrench racial segregation.”

Being that those displaced by gentrification in Chicago and elsewhere are primarily low-income people of color, the threat of blight implies a direct correlation between their removal and continued urban revitalization. Of course, urban blight as we know it is historically correlated with white flight post-integration, and the resulting urban divestment that came along with the decrease in tax revenue. In that sense, blight is not caused by the neglect of existing tenants, as hinted at by the dog-whistle, but by systematic devaluing of communities of color by capital.

Reframing the Narrative

Beyond these myths, the larger debate of rent control is really one about private property, and whether or not renters have any sort of legal right to the homes and communities they inhabit. As a socialist, I would argue that they absolutely do. For one, tenants are the ones who compose the thriving communities that have caused property values to rise, not landlords. While they may have no existing legal claim to properties, they most certainly have this symbolic claim.

Of course, arguing a symbolic claim would likely be laughed off in any court. No financial transaction means no contract which means no deal. But one should remember that Americans’ claim to the large chunk of land that makes up our United States is also largely symbolic.

The only financial transactions that legitimize our land holdings as a country were from one colonizer to another. Rather, the primary claim to American soil has been, historically, the spilling of indigenous blood. In that sense, gentrification is very much a continuation of colonial processes. This is illustrated quite explicitly by the trend of predominantly non-white renters being forced out of their homes so that a new wave of “urban pioneers” may move in.

But these are not the discussions that groups like IL Realtors would like to have. They’d much rather make vague economic critiques and frame the issue, and their opposition, in that sense. The truth of the matter is that the opposition of realtors, developers, and landlords to rent control is that such a policy, while perhaps curbing displacement and keeping rent affordable, would mean a decrease in their profits. Unfortunately for them, profit over people is not a very popular stance to take, and so they sidestep and mask the debate as being a technocratic rather than a moral one.

With a non-binding resolution to lift the ban on rent control in 78 different precincts in the coming March 20 election, the question of rent control is bound to become more pervasive as the year continues, and so too will the flak. To counter this, fair housing advocates must reject entirely the framing of “good politics, bad economics” put forth by the opposition. We must instead retort that the continuation of displacement in our city is in fact a moral choice, and those looking to preserve that status quo must be forced to defend it as such.

For those of us arguing for the rights of tenants, making the moral case for rent control will not be so hard a challenge.