In 2018, Chicago voted in support of rent control. Ballot questions to lift a statewide ban on rent control appeared in 12 of Chicago’s 50 wards in the March and November elections. All together, more than 70% voted in favor of lifting the ban!
The ballots cast in support of rent control are just one expression of a growing housing movement across Chicago. In the fall, neighborhood and youth organizations in Hyde Park staged a protest against the displacement that will follow the construction of the Obama Presidential Center. In Logan Square, 500 people marched against gentrification. In August, Socialist Alternative, community organization Pilsen Alliance, and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) hosted a rally and barbeque for rent control in Pilsen. Each of these are neighborhoods facing the immediate threat of gentrification.
There is massive frustration among working people over housing costs. It’s time to escalate the housing movement and to launch an all-out fight against the big real estate developers in order to win!
Fight Rising Rents
Chicago is in the midst of a building boom that is driving up rents and pricing residents out of their homes. Construction cranes have become a permanent fixture in Chicago’s skyline, with one of the highest numbers of active construction cranes in the country, second only to Seattle. While rents are not as high as in cities like Seattle, they are growing at a similar pace: median rent rose 36% between 2008 and 2016.
The crisis has particularly affected working-class black and brown neighborhoods. In Pilsen, a neighborhood whose residents are predominantly of a Mexican immigrant background, the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment rose 35% from 2016 to 2017.
A concerted effort by activists has brought rent control forward as a way to beat back the crisis. Until recently, the political establishment had successfully banished rent control from any “serious” discussion. In 1997, they imposed a statewide ban called the Illinois Rent Control Preemption Act. However, now working people have put rent control back on the agenda, and corporate politicians and the mainstream media have been forced to respond.
The reemergence of the fight for rent control has been spearheaded by a number of organizations and efforts, many of whom have come together around a coalition called Lift the Ban. Lift the Ban has largely focused its efforts around bills in the state legislature to repeal the 1997 ban. The campaign’s biggest successes so far were the series of successful ballot measures in 2018. While the results are not legally binding, the ballot measures have raised the profile of rent control and pulled more working people into the fight.
The Developers Will Fight Back
The housing movement in Chicago is part of a larger fight for affordable housing taking place across the country, like the fights to Tax Amazon in Seattle and to expand rent control in California through Proposition 10. Big business organized against both of these movements and defeated them by flexing the huge economic muscle of the real estate industry and its vast influence over both major parties.
The housing movement in Chicago will face a similar backlash from billionaires and millionaires, who are already preparing to strike back. A representative of the Chicagoland Apartment Association, an industry group of 190 companies, said that rent control “probably represents the biggest threat to the apartment industry in a long, long time.” The industry, he said, will “need to be just as aggressive” as housing activists, and that “we’re willing to do whatever it takes to get our message across.”
Some Democrats in Illinois have voiced support for lifting the ban on rent control, including a handful who are sponsoring bills in the state legislature to repeal the ban. Even Governor-elect JB Pritzker’s campaign supported lifting the ban. But waiting for Illinois Democrats to repeal legislation that Democrats passed would be a long wait indeed. Democrats in Illinois have overseen decades of devastating segregation, deindustrialization, and gentrification. Developer-friendly Democrats control the legislature, and there is no question that that they will re-elect the infamous Mike Madigan, a real estate industry lawyer, as Speaker of the House.
The fight for rent control can’t be limited to counting votes. The experience of Prop 10, Tax Amazon, and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s failed promises to expand affordable housing in New York City demonstrate that even self-styled progressive Democrats will buckle under pressure from big business. To win rent control and affordable housing for all, we will need to build a mass movement that relies on independent, working-class power. We’ll need to force the corporate establishment to make concessions by organizing mass meetings, demonstrations, and rent strikes that shut down the profits of developers, property management groups, and their financiers.
Unify for a City Wide Fight around a Bold Housing Program
Much of the housing movement in Chicago is made up of informally connected neighborhood- and ward-based organizations that cannot match the coordinated efforts of Chicago’s establishment Democrats and developers, who often operate nationally. In order to win significant gains, the fight for affordable housing in Chicago needs to become a citywide movement. A strong, city wide movement will not be built overnight, but organizations leading the fight for housing justice in Chicago need to take immediate steps to unify, expand, and bring in new people to fight the massive, organized power of the developers.
Though Lift the Ban has played a crucial role in broadening support for rent control, it has a limited presence on the streets and is focused, for the moment, on lobbying state legislators. To win rent control would require focusing these resources on campaigning in the streets, not just in Springfield. A crucial task is explaining how lifting the ban would be a positive step forward, and explaining the idea and mechanism of rent control to working people. The movement will need a broad program and to more decisively hit the streets in order to bring new people into the struggle for affordable housing.
We need a program that demands rent control now to fight rising rents, and to reduce property taxes on overtaxed homeowners. We need to build new tenants’ unions and strengthen those that already exist. We need to demand the construction of new units of high-quality, permanently affordable, publicly owned housing. We also need to clearly identify developers as the active force behind rising housing costs and gentrification: we need to tax the big developers to fund affordable housing!
Lift the Ban and the Democratic Socialists of America could take the first steps toward a citywide movement by holding mass meetings to develop and discuss a broad housing political program. These meetings could reflect on the successes of the housing movement thus far and discuss the way forward.
Democratic Control Over Housing
Ultimately, a massive working-class movement will be needed to win big concessions from developers and the establishment. This movement will need to be well organized in order to bind people together in community-based struggle.
Armed with a strong program, the housing movement will need to link up with unions and social justice groups to discuss the potential for a new, working-class party that could unapologetically fight for the needs of working people against the developers and the billionaire class as a whole. A new party would be a critical tool that could take the struggle for affordable housing to a new level.
Big business will fight back against every victory won by the movement. To truly win housing as a human right, we need an alternative to the capitalist housing market, under which housing is built to make profits for a few developers and property management firms. We need to break with capitalism and take the housing industry into the democratic control of working people, and building a democratic, socialist society where housing is built for human need, not for profit.