A flyer warning tenants against voting for Bring Chicago Home appeared in an elevator in a Group Fox-owned building last week. Credit: Provided

For the last few weekends, supporters of Bring Chicago Home, a contentious housing referendum on the March primary ballot, have fanned out across the city to knock doors and convince voters to endorse the measure. It’s the final push in a six-year organizing effort that, if passed, would raise the transfer tax on property sales of more than $1 million to fund anti-homelessness efforts.

Now, after a coalition of building owners sued to try to remove the referendum from the ballot, some large-portfolio landlords are warning tenants to vote against it.

The referendum would raise the transfer tax to 2 percent on real estate sales above $1 million and 3 percent on sales above $1.5 million, while lowering it to 0.6 percent on sales below $1 million. Proponents of the measure say it would generate $100 million each year to address homelessness. If it passes, the City Council will have to vote on how specifically to allocate that money.

Lawyers for the Building Owners & Managers Association sued to take Bring Chicago Home off the ballot, and in a February ruling a Circuit Court judge agreed that the referendum’s wording made it invalid. But a state appellate judge overturned that ruling, and the Illinois Supreme Court denied an appeal on March 13, meaning the referendum is staying on the ballot.

Last week, the Weekly learned tenants in two Streeterville buildings owned by Group Fox had gotten emails from management decrying Bring Chicago Home and saying rents would go up if it passes. This week, we obtained similar emails Horizon Realty Group sent its tenants.

Group Fox, an apartment management company owned by William O’Kane, has more than 4,000 units, mostly on the North Side, as well as the South Loop and two suburbs. Rent in one of its loft buildings in Streeterville starts at $1,695 for a 471-square-foot studio (the median rent for studios citywide is about $1,200). Group Fox bought that building in 2016.

On March 15, O’Kane claimed he spent about $150 million on “acquisition and improvement money” for the building. O’Kane also said Group Fox sent the email to all of its tenants, and that it was the first time the company had done so. He denied that it was a political message.

“This, to me, is not about politics. This is about policy,” O’Kane said. “This is policy. This is a tax, and it’s a policy. What’s it going to do to Chicago? People need to know. I’ve been doing this all my life, so, besides, I think my opinion—I’ve got a lot of experience. What happens when you raise taxes?”

O’Kane said the email was “an edited draft” that “was more from a group, Chicago Forward.” That group, a 501(c)(4), was organized by longtime political operative Greg Goldner to defeat Bring Chicago Home, the Sun-Times reported.

Asked to confirm O’Kane’s claim about Chicago Forward, Goldner provided the following statement: “Keep Chicago Affordable (KCA) is a registered PAC with the State Board of Elections. If information comes from KCA, it is required to have proper disclosure information on it as required by state law. All materials are on our website at keepchicagoaffordable.com.

KCA and Chicago Forward are separate entities, but financial disclosures show the vast majority of its funding was donated by Chicago Forward. Language in the Group Fox emails echoes a few points laid out on KCA’s landing page.

Emails reviewed by the Weekly show Group Fox emailed tenants at multiple properties it owns about Bring Chicago Home. 

“Help US Help YOU – Vote NO on the Real Estate Transfer Tax,” the email subject line reads. 

“While politicians would like you to believe this Tax will solely affect wealthy property owners, the TRUTH IS, it will negatively impact Chicago’s economy,” the email reads. It claims the referendum would “significantly” decrease new development, including affordable housing, thus “devastating Chicago’s middle class,” and “significantly increasing rents as landlords pass on the cost via their rental rates.” 

“How can you help?” the email asks. “That’s simple – vote NO on the Real Estate Transfer Tax question. Don’t be fooled, beware of the hidden rent hike!”

Carson Wang, a Group Fox tenant who has canvassed in support of Bring Chicago Home on the Southwest Side, got the email on March 6. It’s the first time in three years renting from Group Fox that he’s gotten an email about a political measure. “It’s shocking, and it’s out of line,” Wang said. “You know, we’re paying to stay in the building rather than get priority access for certain political issues to reach us and certain political messaging. It’s certainly not anything that I signed up for.” 

Two Group Fox tenants who have lived in a Streeterville property for about two years also said it was the first time management had emailed renters about a political measure. “It was really jarring,” said one tenant who declined to be identified by name. “It’s just very off-putting…. And so my first impression was, ‘Wow, the fact that [Group Fox] is sort of going out of their way to do something like this probably means I don’t agree with what they’re doing.” 

On March 16, the Weekly obtained an email Horizon Realty Group sent its tenants that similarly urged them to vote against Bring Chicago Home. Horizon owns about two dozen mid- and high-rise buildings along the lakefront on the North Side and in Highland Park.

“The ‘Bring Chicago Home’ referendum is on the ballot, and we urge you to join us in voting NO,” Horizon’s email reads. “This referendum proposes a transfer tax increase that will impact all of us, not just homeowners. If passed, this tax will likely result in higher rents for renters across the city.”

The email includes a hyperlink to Chicago Forward’s website. Contacted by phone, a Horizon representative initially denied the company sent the email, then said, “We actually have no comment,” before hanging up.

Michaylah Kimbler, a Horizon tenant, said management had never sent something like this before. “When I read the email, my reaction was almost disbelief,” she told the Weekly. “In the email, they weaponized the threat of increasing rent, and falsely implied that this referendum would impact the average renter. The threat of increased rent is particularly laughable, as Horizon has already increased our rent this past year. The last thing the homeless population of Chicago needs is yet another company or corporation working against them.” 

Late last week, a flyer echoing the emails sent by Group Fox appeared in an elevator in the management company’s Streeterville building, in a spot normally reserved for the “pet of the month” picture. Signed by “Concerned Chicago Citizens,” the flyer threatened rent hikes if the referendum passes. “Landlords won’t pay more, they’ll just pass the cost on to renters like you,” it read. The flyer was gone by Monday morning, the tenants said.

O’Kane said he attributed the flyer to “Concerned Chicago Citizens” because he wants “to start, I guess, a 501(c)(3) with that name…to fix Chicago. My biggest concern is the education; it’s the kids. That’s my biggest concern, are the kids.”

“The realtors, developers, and big corporate landlords responsible for making Chicago too expensive to live—from price-fixing commissions to privatizing CHA land—have fought us every step of the way,” read a statement provided by the Bring Chicago Home campaign. “These misleading messages from big corporate landlords to their tenants are just the latest example. We always knew that those who profit from the housing crisis would do everything they could to avoid paying their fair share. ”

Wang called the messaging in the emails “inflammatory,” noting that a line that read “Look at the fine job Mayor Johnson has done housing the migrants this winter!” was formatted in bright red, bold type. “That’s not only a political statement,” Wang said. “This, to me, was a statement of values—for instance, the value of [being] against migrant housing.” 

The Streeterville tenants agreed, noting that there has been an influx of homeless asylum seekers in their neighborhood over the past year. One said the email presented an “unfortunate juxtaposition” in which management threatened to “make rent even higher while there’s, like, a homeless crisis all around us, [over] something that actually fights the homeless crisis.”

The email was the first the two Streeterville tenants had heard about Bring Chicago Home, and it prompted them to research the referendum further. They voted early, by mail—in favor of it. 

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Jim Daley is the Weekly’s investigations editor.

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1 Comment

  1. Bottom line, if your landlord is not in favor of something, it probably is good for you and community.

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