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Rent control gets new lease on life from two Democratic gov candidates

State Sen. Daniel Biss of Evanston holds a news conference on Tuesday. Photo by Mark Brown.

Rent control, until now the domain of Chicago’s far political left, could be going mainstream with two major Democratic candidates for governor endorsing the concept.

State Sen. Daniel Biss of Evanston and Chicago businessman J.B. Pritzker each say they would support legislation to lift a statewide ban preventing local governments from limiting how much rent landlords can charge.

Lifting the ban, which was enacted by the Legislature in 1997, would allow home rule units such as the city of Chicago to enact ordinances controlling rent increases.

Advocates say rent control is needed to preserve affordable housing and slow the gentrification that is rapidly transforming some neighborhoods by pricing out longtime residents.

But any such proposal is certain to face strong opposition from real estate interests who argue rent control laws unfairly constrain the rights of property owners and have proven unworkable in other cities.

On Tuesday, Biss used a luxury high-rise development being constructed by one of his opponents, Chris Kennedy, as the backdrop to make his case for repealing the state’s rent control ban.

Biss and his lieutenant governor running mate, Rep. Litesa Wallace, were joined at the press conference by Rep. Will Guzzardi, who is the main sponsor of the repeal legislation, and Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th), who said he wants the city to enact rent control.

Biss said he will introduce his own repeal measure in the Senate in an effort to allow “working families to stay in their homes and to push back against this dangerous wave of gentrification.”

Such rhetoric is not unexpected from Biss, regarded as the most liberal of the surviving major Democratic contenders.

But he’s found surprising company on the rent control issue from Pritzker, who also has staked a claim to it as he tries to burnish his own progressive credentials and fight back against Biss’ portrayal of him as just another out-of-touch billionaire.

In an interview last week, Pritzker told me he also favors removing the state “moratorium” so that local communities could “choose to have rent control.”

“That’s one example of how we might be able to begin to fight gentrification,” he said.

Pritzker also pointedly noted: “That’s not something that Chris Kennedy has advocated.”

A Kennedy spokeswoman confirmed his opposition to rent control and accused Biss of “political pandering.”

“Chris supports affordable housing and the need to put an end to strategic gentrification. Rent control is not a solution solving either of those issues. In fact, studies show that rent control worsens income inequality in gentrifying cities,” she said.

Although Guzzardi is a Biss supporter, he said he was “really excited” to find a second Democratic candidate on board in Pritzker.

“I think ‘pleasantly surprised’ is the way you might describe me. I think that this issue is getting momentum. We’re seeing more and this chorus of people saying rents are out of control, and we have to do something about it,” Guzzardi said.

A coalition of community groups has put an advisory referendum about lifting the rent control ban on the ballot in 10 different Chicago wards for the March 20 primary.

Among the wards targeted for the referendum is the 33rd Ward, where Ald. Deb Mell has said she supports the idea of rent regulation.