Activists demanding rent control, more affordable housing in area
October 6, 2017

Photo by Christopher Valentino
Pilsen rents have skyrocketed in recent years, resulting in a loss of 10,000 Latino residents in the past decade. Activists from Pilsen and Bronzeville are among those who want a State of Illinois law changed that bans rent control.

By Patrick Butler

Can a group of fed-up neighbors halt gentrification in Pilsen?

A group of neighborhood residents and outside supporters met Sept. 18 at the former Casa Aztlan, 1831 S. Racine Ave., and went door to door collecting signatures on referendum petitions demanding repeal of a State law banning rent control.

The petitioners also want to end a City law allowing builders to buy an exemption from having to set aside 20% of any development for affordable housing.

Activists including Pilsen Alliance’s Moises Moreno and Byron Sigcho, along with outside supporters including Bronzeville’s Jawanza Malone, kicked off the campaign at a Sept. 7 “rent stabilization” rally at Dvorak Park, 1119 W. Cullerton Ave.

Speakers included State Reps. Theresa Mah (2nd) and Will Guzzardi (39th), Frank Avellone of the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing, and University of Illinois at Chicago College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs Associate Professor Janet Smith.

Since 1995, State law has forbidden the City to pass rent control ordinances. Guzzardi asked, “what business is it of the State to make these decisions? The State has denied this right to the citizens of Chicago. We need to get this law off the books,” he said, adding that HB2430, co-sponsored by Guzzardi, Mah, and six other State representatives, is intended to do just that.

“But the honest truth is that we’re being out-organized and, I expect, outspent. We’re going up against the realtors who have all the money. My colleagues [in the State Legislature] have received hundreds of letters from realtors opposing rent control,” Guzzardi explained.

‘Go organize’

“You are all organizers,” Guzzardi told his audience. “So go organize.”

While tenants may not realize it, they have more clout than they might think, Avellone said, noting “there are 670,000 rental units in Chicago. At just 2.5 people in each of those units, that’s just about half the people living in Chicago.

“They tell you renting is just a temporary status on your way to becoming a homeowner,” he added. “Well, I would bless you and say you are a full-fledged American by being a renter.  Congratulations.”

Unfortunately, the system often gives renters—especially those about to lose their homes—short shrift, Avellone said, noting Chicago’s tenants receive 30,000 eviction notices a year and get an average of 44 seconds to make their case in court. “Not much due process there,” Avellone said, shrugging.

“Chicago may be a blue city in a blue state, but it’s far from progressive,” he said.

While some kind of neighborhood change is inevitable, “the question is who will get to decide what Pilsen looks like in 20 years—you, or a handful of people with a lot of money?” Avellone asked the audience of nearly 100 local residents during the two-hour meeting.

Know your rights

Following on that theme, former Pilsen resident Miguel Jiminez of the Metropolitan Tenants Association (MTA), who urged residents to learn their basic rights as renters, pointed out the best way for renters to protect themselves is to know their rights—as well as the law.

“It’s not true that if you get a five-day notice you have five days to get out,” Jiminez said. “No. A five-day notice means you have five days to pay your rent. While you have the right to ask for repairs, we tell tenants to continue paying their rents in any case. If you don’t pay your rent, you get evicted.”

Unfortunately, a lot of people do not understand how the system works,” Jiminez said.

“And you don’t have to be out in a week because your landlord tells you he wants to rent your apartment to his sister-in-law; I could tell you all kinds of stories,” said Jiminez, who estimates the MTA receives more than 10,000 calls a year on tenant/landlord issues.

“If you don’t have the knowledge, you can’t fight back,” he said.

At least 140 U.S. cities have some form of rent stabilization. “Not so much a freeze as control,” Smith said, noting developers and realtors oppose rent controls as an “interference” in the market and because too many tenants become “immobile,” staying in the same apartment for years.

“I don’t see that as a problem, do you?” Smith asked, to resounding applause. 

Another argument sometimes raised against rent controls is that “the people you’re trying to benefit may not benefit, while some rich person stays in his rent-controlled apartment for decades,” Smith added. “But that’s probably not too common.”

Others predict rent controls would give landlords little incentive to maintain their property, Smith said. Yet annual “proactive” inspections of all rental apartment buildings could handle that problem easily, he added.

Campaign against HB2430

Groups such as Illinois Realtors, which has described itself as “the only advocate for private property rights at the State capital,” already have launched their own campaign against HB2430, warning, “rent control is widely discredited by many, if not most, economists and many housing advocates. Rent control is destructive and counterproductive in many ways, is very complicated to administer, and would have many unintended consequences.”

Among them, according to Illinois Realtors, would be “a complete disincentive to investment in rental property,” obviously capping any investment returns.”

Real estate group members are among those who feel rent control would discourage landlords from maintaining or upgrading their properties. That outcome would aggravate Chicago’s already “extreme financial distress,” as property values drop, Illinois Realtors argued in a letter it urged supporters to mail to local lawmakers.

Last but not least, the letter warned, would be an almost inevitable and illegal black market in rent controlled units.

Moreno countered that the “time to save Pilsen as we know it is running out,” noting 10,000 Latino families have left the old neighborhood over the past decade, 5,000 of them by eviction.

For Diana Sanchez-Urbotegui, who introduced herself as an Aztec dancer, “keeper of the wisdom of our elders,” and a dual Mexican-American citizen, it may be too late already.

Sanchez-Urbotegui said she had rented in a building at 18th and Loomis Streets for seven years before new owners gave her “about 30 days” to leave, then hiked up the rent from $550 to $1,200.

The owners charged the next tenant $2,500 for that same apartment, she said, adding Pilsen was not the first neighborhood to go through this experience. “Lincoln Park, Wicker Park, and Humboldt Park were all barrios that ceased to be barrios,” she explained.

Developers active

Lifelong Pilsen resident Vicki Romero, whose family owns their apartment building at 18th and Bishop Streets, said she gets about four or five letters a month from developers wanting to buy the property.

“Before I just tossed them into the garbage can, but lately I’ve been calling asking them to take my name off their list,” Romero said. “We’re not interested in helping them gentrify our neighborhood. Unfortunately, some of these developers are Latinos trying to catch the wave and make money at the expense of this community.”

Concerning possible sale of her building, Romero said, “Yes, it’s very tempting. Fortunately my parents are committed to keeping our rents affordable.” She noted that a two-bedroom in her family’s building costs $800 a month, while comparable apartments in the neighborhood run for “maybe $1,500.”

One listener expressed skepticism to Guzzardi and the other panelists.

“Why should we trust any of you?” asked Luis Arita, a community organizer for a small group calling itself Geeks With Attitude.

“You shouldn’t trust any of us,” Guzzardi shot back. “That kind of hero worship stuff has got to stop. What you need to do is pressure us” and get on our case “when you see us working against your community’s values.”

Contact Rep. Guzzardi at www.repguzzardi.com/contact/ or (773) 227-9720. Contact the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing at www.lcbh.org, (312) 347-7600. Rep. Mah can be reached at www.theresamah.com or (872) 281-5775. Pilsen Alliance can be reached at www.thepilsenalliance.org, (312) 243-5440.