Photo by Lioyd De Grane

Op-Ed: Bringing Chicago Home in a Time of Crisis

Housing advocates continue to push for a dedicated funding stream to address the city’s homelessness crisis

Chicago falls far behind other major U.S. cities in its commitment to addressing homelessness. We spend only five percent of what New York City spends per person on homelessness services, and only three percent of the expenditures in Los Angeles. However, Chicago is also home to many housing advocacy organizations who are trying to shift the city’s misplaced priorities. 

One such group is Bring Chicago Home, a coalition of both people directly impacted by Chicago’s housing crisis and community, policy and direct-service organizations who aim to end homelessness in the city. Its supporters include the city’s largest nonprofits working on homelessness, progressive political groups, unions, health care organizations, neighborhood groups, nonprofit developers, religious groups, and more. 

Formed in 2018, the coalition has been pushing for an increase to the city’s real estate transfer tax (RETT) for high-end properties in order to generate revenue for the city to invest in affordable housing and services for people who are homeless. Bring Chicago Home’s original proposal would have increased the RETT by 1.2 percent on properties over $1 million while cutting taxes for properties under $1 million—with sixty percent of the resulting revenue allocated to addressing homelessness. Transfer taxes have already been enacted to raise revenue to mitigate the homelessness and affordable housing crises in San José and Berkeley, California, with similar bills being proposed in Boston and Oregon. In December, the Berkeley City Council passed a bill funding additional homeless services between $11 and $13.5 million through 2021, depending on how much is brought in by an increase in its RETT, which was passed with over seventy percent of the vote in a 2018 voter referendum. The increase from 1.5 to 2.5 percent for the top third of residential and commercial real estate sales is expected to bring in $6 to $8 million per year, expressly for homeless services.

However, the coalition faced an early setback in 2019 when the City Council denied its request for a ballot referendum that would have asked voters to weigh in on its proposal, even though it was supported by a majority of aldermen. The measure was blocked by a group of aldermen led by then-40th Ward Alderman Patrick O’Connor, who briefly served as then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Committee on Finance chair before he was defeated later that year by Andre Vasquez. Vasquez is part of a slate of democratic socialists who were elected to the City Council last year, running on campaign platforms that proposed major reforms to housing policy, including the Bring Chicago Home plan. 

During the 2019 mayoral campaign, Mayor Lori Lightfoot also committed to introducing the coalition’s tax and using the revenue to combat homelessness—the plan was even included in the report from her transition team’s housing committee. However, once elected, Lightfoot said that budget constraints made it too difficult to enact the Bring Chicago Home proposal. While introducing her own plan—which proposed a RETT of .55 percent for sales under $500,000; .95 percent for sales between $500,000 and $1 million; 1.5 percent for sales of $1-3 million and 2.55  percent for sales over $10 million, estimated to raise $50 million for the 2020 budget—Lightfoot dismissed the Bring Chicago Home proposal as “never going to happen, obviously.” 

She continued, “We’re not going to be in a situation in the near-term to be able to take sixty percent”—the RETT revenue amount to be dedicated to services for people who are homeless, as proposed by Bring Chicago Home—“of a significant revenue stream off the table and devote it to any issue. There’s lots of issues that merit: homelessness, mental illness, violence reduction… We’d love to be able to fund them all at the highest possible level but the reality is, we have a budget with a huge deficit not just for this year but in the years to come and we’ve got to be realistic about managing taxpayer dollars in a responsible way.” 

The coalition responded with a proposal to change the rate structure to allow for Lightfoot’s desired changes, with a reduced percentage of funding committed to homelessness, according to Mary Tarullo, associate director of policy and strategic campaigns for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, which has been working to advocate for such a proposal since 2006. But Lightfoot also rejected that plan, and her own RETT proposal stalled last year in the state General Assembly after nine lawmakers said they would oppose her proposal if it did not include more funding for the homeless. Lightfoot’s office did not respond to a request for comment on her current stance towards this legislation. 

Bring Chicago Home is also pushing its own proposal at the state level. If the legislature passes a law authorizing the RETT increase and it is approved by Governor J.B. Pritzker, a city ordinance and referendum won’t be necessary. Accordingly, in February, two progressive lawmakers—Northwest Side state Representative Delia Ramirez, and Far North Side state Senator Ram Villivalam—put forward a proposal that they worked on with the coalition. The proposal would raise the RETT from 2.55 percent for properties worth over $10 million to 2.8 percent for properties worth between $3 and $10 million, and four percent for properties over $10 million. Of the expected revenue, the proposal would allocate $88 million to the city’s general budget, and $79 million to homelessness services and affordable housing. 

The House version of the bill has twenty-three cosponsors—including Michael J. Zalewski, the powerful, real estate industry-backed southwest suburban legislator who is the chair of the Revenue and Finance Committee, which the bill was assigned to in March. (He did not respond to a request for comment.) The Senate version has twelve cosponsors, and has remained in the Assignments Committee since being introduced. The proposal’s cosponsors include much of the South Side’s delegation to the legislature, including Representatives Theresa Mah, Sonya Harper, Marcus Evans Jr., Aarón Ortíz, and Justin Slaughter, and Senators Robert Peters, Celina Villanueva, Mattie Hunter, Jacqueline Collins, Emil Jones III, and Tony Muñoz.

In addition to these bills that would increase funding for homelessness, Ramirez will be introducing the COVID-19 Emergency Renter and Homeowner Protection Act, which would cancel rent and mortgage payments for 180 days for tenants impacted by the crisis, create a residential housing relief fund offering landlords relief on mortgages, property taxes and utilities, extend the ban on evictions, and amend the Illinois Human Rights Act to ban discrimination against those impacted or perceived to be impacted by COVID-19. Peters will be introducing a similar bill in the Illinois Senate. On the federal level, U.S. Representative Jesús “Chuy” García has signed on to Representative Ilhan Omar’s bill that would cancel rent and mortgage payments for the duration of the coronavirus crisis. U.S. Representative Bobby Rush also filed a bill that would defer some mortgage payments and provide loans to landlords who waive rents during the crisis. Both have been referred to the Committee on Financial Services.

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Even before the current crisis, the Bring Chicago Home movement had made a compelling case and created a crucial policy proposal that would help thousands of Chicagoans. However, since the pandemic hit the city, member organizations have been focusing their energy on collaborating with state and local lawmakers on the “Right to Recovery” platform

As part of this, United Working Families legislative director Kennedy Bartley recently worked on multiple amendments to Lightfoot’s emergency spending powers ordinance. The first amendment proposed prioritizing borrowing at low rates from the Federal Reserve instead of giving the mayor and budget director complete control over all spending under $1 million (even for funds already appropriated by the City Council). The second amendment, which is related to the $470 million of unrestricted funds that the city is set to receive from the federal government under the CARES Act, would create a mortgage relief fund, “where essentially mom and pop landlords would be able to apply for mortgage relief, thereby creating the conditions for rent cancellation,” according to Bartley. 

The third amendment, which she and UWF worked on with CCH in the spirit of Bring Chicago Home, would create a homelessness fund which would support bridge housing and make hotel rooms and vacant CHA units available for Chicago’s homeless population. However, the amendments were ultimately defeated, and after a heated debate, Lightfoot’s emergency powers ordinance passed City Council by a vote of 29-21. The city has started paying for hotel rooms for some sick homeless people—but advocates are still pushing for vacant CHA units to be utilized, a much cheaper solution than hotels. Many more individual units are needed, especially given the magnitude of COVID-19 outbreaks in Chicago’s homeless shelters. Bartley said, “We are going to keep fighting, either for another amendment to the emergency powers ordinance or a standalone piece of legislation.” The emergency powers ordinance has a limited scope, and will expire June 30 unless it is renewed by City Council, so the coalition will continue organizing and pushing for their demands. 

Many of the no votes on the mayor’s ordinance came from progressive City Council members who have endorsed the Right to Recovery policy demands, including 20th Ward Alderwoman Jeanette Taylor and 25th Ward Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez. Speaking with the Tribune about his vote, Sigcho-Lopez raised concerns that the lack of democratic input from City Council on spending decisions could lead to the Lightfoot administration entering into problematic short-sighted deals or enacting austerity measures due to plummeting tax revenue during this crisis, saying that, “In the past, the city has not had a good track record with toxic swap deals and privatizations of things like the parking meters… Ultimately, it’s our responsibility as elected officials on the council to help make sure we don’t enter into these kinds of bad deals again.” Taylor stated, “I don’t want to see memes, commercials, or people talking about what needs to be done. I want to see action, I want to see democracy and I want to see the resources my people need to survive.”

The Right to Recovery movement has several demands, including the right to housing. It asserts that in order to vindicate that right, state and local officials should place an indefinite moratorium on evictions, stop all court filings for evictions and foreclosures, and waive all rent, mortgage, and utility payments for the duration of the crisis. While Governor Pritzker has placed a moratorium on evictions, landlords are still filing cases, and rent, mortgage, and utility payments have not been waived. 

As the Weekly previously reported, in order to waive those payments, Pritzker would have to lift the current statewide ban on rent control, which he has the power to do in an emergency, according to a legal memo commissioned by the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization. However, Pritzker has asserted that he does not have the legal authority to lift the ban on rent control; his office has not replied to a request for clarification. The Right to Recovery platform also demands housing for all those who are homeless and unable to shelter-in-place, and automatic lease extensions for tenants who are unable to move during the crisis. 

While the members of the Bring Chicago Home coalition are currently focused on the Right to Recovery, they will continue to push for their goal of a long-term, dedicated funding stream to address the city’s homelessness crisis. The coalition will continue to organize support for the bills introduced by Ramirez and Villivalam, and Bartley said that they also plan on introducing more city ordinances to fulfill the goals of the Right to Recovery movement. 

Ultimately, the longer-term difficulty of ending homelessness in Chicago will depend on the measures that state and local officials take now in addressing our current public health and economic crises. They could do nothing—essentially leaving the homeless for dead, and driving thousands more people into homelessness and housing insecurity when the ban on evictions is lifted—and by their inaction also significantly prolong the infection’s spread. Or they could take affirmative measures to address the reality of the crisis and support tenants, landlords, and homeowners alike. As tenants and organizers are saying in New York and nationwide, we must demand that we not return to the pre-coronavirus status quo where thousands of Chicagoans were homeless and thousands more were forced to live one paycheck or medical emergency away from eviction.

Even before the current crisis arose, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless estimated that there are around 86,324 homeless people in the city. Further, almost half of the city’s renters qualify as rent burdened, which means that they spend at least thirty percent of their income on rent. Many people pay much more than thirty percent, and nationally, over 30 million of people have filed for unemployment as a result of the coronavirus. According to the National Multifamily Housing Council, even before the pandemic hit, an average of twenty percent of tenants were unable to pay their rent on time. Almost one third of America’s 13.4 million renters weren’t able to pay full rent in April, and that number was surely higher in May. Chicago’s homelessness crisis will certainly get a lot worse if policymakers do not act, or if they only enact non-binding pledges and other half measures.

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Bobby Vanecko is a contributor to the Weekly. He is a second-year law student at Loyola University Chicago interested in criminal law, and interns at First Defense Legal Aid and the Westside Justice Center. He last wrote about a proposed ordinance that would require city evictions to have Just Cause.

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