Creating more housing stability for Chicago renters

Housing activists are clamoring for the City Council to take up a sweeping Just Cause Ordinance to rein in evictions. The ordinance was first introduced in June 2020 and is now stalled in committee.

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Housing activists hold signs protesting evictions in Massachusetts in October 2020.

AP Photo/Michael Dwyer

Renters, especially lower-income and working families, face daunting odds when it comes to finding affordable and safe housing in Chicago and in other big cities. A two-bedroom in, say, Bronzeville or Rogers Park could easily go for $1,600 a month or more. 

Landlords have their own financial headaches, such as ever-rising property taxes and  maintenance costs. Most mom-and-pop housing providers are hardly rolling in dough.

Good housing policy must be fair to both the Chicagoans looking for safe and affordable housing and the landlords who are in the business of providing it.

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In July 2020, the City Council took a good step by passing Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Fair Notice Ordinance, which gives renters up to 120 days notice before landlords can terminate a leases or raise rents.

Housing advocates saw the merit in that ordinance, which gave tenants more time to find new housing.

But activists are now clamoring for City Council to take up a more sweeping Just Cause Ordinance, which was first introduced in June 2020 and is now stalled in committee.

We support some — but by no means all — of that ordinance’s provisions.

Paying relocation costs

Between 2010 and 2019, one in 25 Chicago renters faced eviction each year, according to the nonprofit Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing. Black neighborhoods had an eviction filing rate five times higher than majority-white areas in the city, while rates in Latino neighborhoods were twice as high.

Supporters of the Just Cause Ordinance point to this eviction data as proof that the law is needed to promote housing stability, especially for lower-income renters of color.

The proposal would allow landlords to terminate a lease only if the tenant violates it, or for one of four non-tenant fault reasons: the landlord or a family member wants to occupy the unit, the unit needs substantial repairs, condominium conversion, and demolishing or removing the unit from the market.

Other provisions would require landlords to provide relocation assistance when terminating a lease if the tenant is not at fault, create a rental registry and, because it was crafted around the time of the Fair Notice Ordinance, require more notice for evictions and raised rents.

Promoting housing stability and curbing evictions are laudable goals. We strongly support the idea of providing adequate notice to renters before requiring them to move or substantially raising their rent. That’s essential for fairness, especially for lower-income renters who have fewer options when it comes to finding a new home.

But we question the wisdom of requiring landlords to pay substantial relocation costs in no-fault lease terminations. Even small amounts can be a burden on small-scale landlords — the majority of Chicago’s housing providers.

Opponents of the idea make an important point: the added costs will have to be paid from somewhere — likely from increased rents, which will hinder efforts to create and maintain affordable housing across our city.

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We also believe a landlord, as the owner of a property, has a right to terminate a lease, as long as he or she provides adequate notice. Limiting that right can only make landlords more willing to convert their buildings into pricey condos and forgo the headaches of providing rental housing.

A rental registry might make sense, but how would it be paid for and overseen? The devil is in the details.

Tom Benedetto, government affairs director with the Chicagoland Apartment Association, said that what’s needed is an honest conversation between landlords, tenants and policymakers about who is willing to have affordable housing be built in their wards and neighborhoods.

“Placing affordable housing in neighborhoods that need it and increasing the supply is the key to addressing (the housing crisis),” Benedetto said.

Thousands of Chicagoans face eviction every year, and our city must do what it can to prevent unnecessary evictions. As well, a sufficient stock of rental housing that fits residents’ needs and price range, in every neighborhood, is a huge asset for a city.

The right rental regulations can make both happen in Chicago.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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