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Developers Want to Destroy Chicago. We Won’t Let Them.

We’re in a nationwide crisis of affordable housing. In Chicago, momentum is growing to fight back.

A rally for rent control in Chicago, IL in May 2019. Chicago Democratic Socialists of America / Twitter

On April 10, 2019, half a dozen newly elected Chicago city council members took part in a direct action with dozens of protesters, blocking traffic on LaSalle Street outside the chambers of city council. They were protesting the approval of up to $2.4 billion of public subsidies to Lincoln Yards and The 78, two massive real estate development projects along waterfronts in the city’s north and near south sides, respectively.

The 78 and Lincoln Yards developments embody the power of developer interests over political decision-making in the city. As unemployment, poverty, and physical deterioration of infrastructure afflict the west and south sides of the city, these billion-dollar deals with developers Sterling Bay and Related Midwest would fund new bridges, transit stations, streets, and bike lanes around affluent neighborhoods for the convenience of their future affluent inhabitants.

While Related Midwest has promised up to two thousand affordable units in The 78, this would be merely 20 percent of the projected ten thousand units, just meeting the city’s minimum affordability requirements. The vast majority of residential units will be luxury apartments and condominiums. These developments would perpetuate the massive displacement of Latino and black families from their neighborhoods, many through forced evictions, exacerbating the “reverse Great Migration” of black families out of Chicago.

Despite growing opposition, these funding proposals were rushed through a last-minute, lame-duck city council by elected officials, many of whom have received tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars from the real estate lobby. In Chicago, as in cities across the country, private developers are at the helm.

The reaction to these mega-developments, however, also exemplifies what could be an important turning point in Chicago politics. For the first time in Chicago’s history, six socialists will be on its city council (beating the record of three socialist aldermen elected in the 1910s), in addition to several other progressive candidates who come out of activist and organizing backgrounds.

For all of these candidates, issues of housing — affordability, new developments, and displacement — played a central role in their campaigns. Organizing around housing proved a successful way to engage residents, build broad coalitions, and begin to reshape the narrative from the confining laws of supply and demand to new horizons of community voice and economic justice. Chicago’s newly elected officials and the movements that helped propel them to power can build on these gains to move toward housing for all.

A Growing Movement

The socialists elected to city council built on the long-term work of many housing justice organizations, including those the newly elected officials helped launch. Alderman and Chicago DSA member Byron Sigcho-Lopez, whose ward includes the historic Mexican-American neighborhood of Pilsen and the working-class community of Chinatown, was one of the founding members of the Lift the Ban coalition to lift the statewide ban on rent control.

Across Chicago, more than half of households are rent-burdened, or paying over 30 percent of their income in rent. This problem is especially prevalent in Sigcho-Lopez’s ward, which has faced rapid gentrification and displacement in the last decades. The 78 development, located in the ward that Sigcho-Lopez now represents, would further escalate this trend.

In Illinois, as in other states, a wave of statewide bans on rent regulations in the 1990s led by the right-wing lobby group American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) effectively blocked localities from setting any limits on skyrocketing rents. To take on the entrenched power of real estate developers, Lift the Ban has assembled a diverse range of political, labor, and community organizations in a coalition that includes the Chicago chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America; community organizations like Pilsen Alliance, the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization (KOCO), the Lugenia Burns Hope Center, ONE Northside, and Northside Action for Justice; citywide organizations like United Working Families; housing rights organizations, tenant unions, senior rights and legal justice groups; and progressive labor unions including the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and SEIU Healthcare Illinois.

While Lift the Ban aims to pass a statewide bill, it has been building support locally through advisory referenda and direct actions in precincts across the city over the past two years. These efforts have been overwhelmingly supported by local residents, and real estate developers are beginning to take notice.

The growing movement for rent control demonstrates that rising rent is a powerful issue for organizing working-class Chicagoans. More so than inscrutable zoning laws or affordability regulations, limiting the rise in rent from year to year addresses tenants’ fears that landlords might raise rents unpredictably, pushing them out with no notice or recourse.

Rent control is a universal policy that would address the immediate crisis of housing in the homes in which residents already live. As canvassers have found in thousands of conversations in neighborhoods across the city, the cost of rent and fears of displacement are straightforward conversation starters that do not require wading into the jargon of housing policy.

And for socialists, conversations about rent are an effective way to connect a specific, everyday grievance — the cost of living in one’s home — directly to the power of corporate interests blatantly on display in neighborhoods across the city. In discussions about the power of absentee landlords and real estate developers to reshape neighborhoods with no democratic checks, the shared interests of a broad working class become apparent.

In many neighborhoods, this campaign had built support not only among renters but among homeowners and small landlords, many of them long-term residents who resent the power of developers to displace their neighbors and local establishments for profit. The lines of this class conflict are becoming clearer in the growing fight for rent control across the country in states like California, Oregon, and New York, which just passed a landmark agreement to expand its rent regulation system.

The power of this working-class movement for housing justice has already elicited strong pushback from the real estate lobby, suggesting how difficult actually winning rent control will be. The Rogers Park Builders Group in Chicago launched an aggressive anti–rent control campaign in the weeks leading up to the November 2018 referendum; since then, the opposition has mounted through the Chicago-wide Neighborhood Building Owner’s Association and a new statewide campaign, SHAPE (Supporting Housing Affordability, Progress and Equality) Illinois.

The rhetoric of these groups reveals their strategy: to position themselves as promoters of affordable housing, which they argue can only be achieved by allowing the free market to adjust to the pressures of supply and demand. Public regulations will stifle housing supply and upkeep; public housing is a discredited government strategy. In their neoliberal vision of the city, only for-profit developments can bring housing, jobs, and prosperity into communities. These groups often refer to economic studies to suggest these are not matters up for debate — they reflect immutable laws of nature.

Empirical studies of the effects of rent control in California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York do not support developers’ claims that rent control would drive down new construction, decrease maintenance, or cause rents in unregulated units to increase. Rather, rent control has been found to be a crucial tool toward housing stability and affordability for the most vulnerable  populations.

But it’s also easy to get sucked into technical policy debates and miss the forest for the trees. Successful housing organizing will have to reframe this debate not as a technical one to be determined by economists and urban policy experts, but as a moral one about democratic control of the community and the right of all people to a home.

An Issue That Touches All Issues

From a political perspective, organizing around housing on a neighborhood basis offers some unique advantages. Local housing issues that affect a resident’s immediate neighborhood can build on long-standing neighborhood relationships and a sense of community in which many local residents are invested.

The imbalance of power that shapes housing is also blatantly visible in the built environment. The dramatic disparity between a new luxury development on one block and crumbling infrastructure on another can starkly reveal the ways the private interests of capital override public interest. In a broad analysis of the role of private developers and investors in the political system, from the local to the national level, distinct conditions facing different neighborhoods can be understood as stemming from the same problem. Far from just an urban issue, housing affordability and displacement affect suburban and rural areas, some of which are already joining in statewide struggles. Organizing residents against the power of profit-seekers controlling their neighborhood can build working-class power from the ground up.

Housing is not an issue that can be separated from immigration, race, education, labor, gender, accessibility, and the environment. The most powerful housing movements will continue to integrate these fundamentally connected issues, just as many of Chicago’s new public officials highlighted in their campaigns.

Housing security is essential for a true sanctuary city, where immigrant and undocumented families disproportionately face the burden of rising rents, eviction, and displacement. It is crucial to combat the deep structures of racial injustice embedded in urban policy that have resulted in persistent residential segregation, disproportionate police brutality, disparate public funding, and an ongoing pattern of black families being pushed out or choosing to leave the city.

An end to kickbacks for private developers and new forms of progressive taxation will be essential to fund public services like schools, clinics, and infrastructure. The fight for labor rights and a living wage is directly connected to the growing burden of rent as wages have failed to keep up with the increasing costs of housing. Housing shapes the conditions of gender violence, as survivors of domestic abuse are pressured to choose between homelessness and remaining with their abusers because they can’t afford a place to live on their own.

New housing construction will be tied to struggles for accessibility, including for people with disabilities and seniors, and environmental sustainability, including eco-socialist campaigns to municipalize major utility companies. Through these overlapping concerns, housing organizers can strengthen relationships with other social justice organizations across the city and nation.

A Citywide Demand

Organizing around housing directly fed into Chicago’s recent aldermanic races in several wards. With the influx of private developments, the neighborhoods of Wicker Park and Logan Square (1st and 35th wards), Pilsen (25th ward), and Albany Park and Avondale (33rd ward) have faced rapid gentrification and the displacement of long-term working-class, especially Latino, residents.

In March 2018, residents in the 25th and 33rd wards voted overwhelmingly in support of rent control on an advisory referendum, with some precincts voting in favor by more than 86 percent. The 35th ward registered its 71 percent support in November 2018, and precincts in the 1st ward supported the initiative by between 67 and 75 percent in February 2019.

By April 2019, all these wards had elected democratic socialists as their representatives: Byron Sigcho-Lopez in the 25th ward, Carlos Ramirez-Rosa reelected in the 35th ward, Rossana Rodríguez-Sánchez in the 33rd ward, and Daniel La Spata in the 1st ward. These city council members openly criticized the cozy relationship between current elected leaders and private developer interests responsible for expelling residents and refused to accept developer dollars in their campaigns. They ran on a bold housing platform including implementing rent control, community-driven zoning, and new affordability standards and eviction laws; and protecting and expanding public housing.

In the 35th ward, Carlos Ramirez-Rosa recently shepherded a new 100 percent affordable housing development by nonprofit Bickerdike Redevelopment Corporation that would bring one hundred new affordable units to the ward, which is now being held as a model for new developments in the city and an argument against developers who decry any increase to minimum affordability requirements. Sigcho-Lopez, Ramirez-Rosa, and Rodríguez-Sánchez have also, along with another newly elected democratic socialist, Andre Vasquez of the 40th ward, shifted the council’s Latino Caucus significantly to the left.

A similar trajectory unfolded on the far north side of the city in Rogers Park (the 49th ward), a racially diverse neighborhood also facing rapid development and the displacement of working-class black and Latino residents. After voting 66 percent in favor of lifting the rent control ban in November 2018, the ward then ousted longtime alderman Joe Moore, chair of the powerful Housing and Real Estate committee, the following February.

While Moore positioned himself as a progressive in his campaign, he was responsible for blocking several ordinances to strengthen affordability requirements and increase accountability for the Chicago Housing Authority. In his career as alderman, Moore had pocketed thousands of developer dollars. To replace him, voters chose community organizer Maria Hadden, who refused to accept money from developers and vowed to bring affordable housing and more community involvement in zoning decisions to the ward.

Local housing fights on display in the aldermanic races put in sharp relief the way developer interests have dictated urban development at the expense of local residents, even if the manifestations of the housing crisis look very different in distinct neighborhoods. The campaign of Jeanette Taylor is a case in point.

Taylor is a long-term community organizer, a leader of a hunger strike against the closure of Dyett High School on Chicago’s South Side in 2015, and a DSA member. Her ward, the 20th, includes gentrifying neighborhoods like Woodlawn in the east, adjacent to the University of Chicago, as well as neighborhoods like Back of the Yards and Englewood on its western side that have experienced declining property values, neglected public services, deteriorating housing stock, and an increasing number of vacant lots.

In these western parts of the 20th ward, renters, who make up the majority of residents, have little leverage to demand that landlords maintain their properties, push back against unjust evictions, and ensure that the city invest in public infrastructure, public schools, and basic public services like garbage collection. Taylor was able to demonstrate the common ground shared by residents across the ward by running on a platform of keeping working-class black and brown families in Chicago and speaking to the feeling of abandonment by the city’s African Americans.

To address the concerns of Woodlawn residents around the displacement pressures that would come with the planned Obama Presidential Library in neighboring Jackson Park, Taylor championed the community benefits agreement (CBA) that would ensure community control over the new development. Taylor also called out the city’s neglect of its poorest communities of color like Back of the Yards and Englewood by highlighting the way political decisions in the city have favored wealthy corporate interests, including real estate developers who received millions in taxpayer-funded subsidies.

Chicago’s new socialist leaders and their progressive allies can now push for a bold vision of housing from within the halls of city government. To turn this vision into a reality, we can draw some lessons from a longer history of housing activism in the city. We will need to continue to build locally through neighborhood struggles in which residents and community organizations already have a stake. These neighborhood fights can then be connected to broader campaigns at the city, state, and national levels.

Another lesson is about narrative and framing. Housing campaigns should continue to be framed in broad terms: not solely about one specific developer or corrupt politician, but about the wider power of economic elites and a political system that allows them to run our cities.

As the arguments of the real estate lobby against rent control ramp up, we will need to keep from ceding the debate to policy wonks and stay focused on the moral arguments about the power of profits over people, and the need to build democratic socialism to confront the injustices of capitalism. This framing will be essential not only to push for rent control, but to build a much larger movement for socialized housing that will ensure housing is a right and not a means of profit-making. Finally, we will need to link housing to other working-class struggles for racial justice, labor rights, environmental sustainability, and against gender violence and police brutality.

With housing as a central issue, Chicagoans have built a mass movement of working-class residents that propelled a new slate of socialists to city leadership. Chicago now has the opportunity to demonstrate what a bold vision of housing for all looks like.