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Rent control gains momentum after Chicago voters again give it thumbs up

A Lift the Ban Coalition rally in support of rent control took place outside the Chicago Association of Realtors office. | Sun-Times/Alex Arriaga

A Lift the Ban Coalition rally in support of rent control took place outside the Chicago Association of Realtors office. | Sun-Times/Alex Arriaga

Debra Miller considers herself and her husband Jimi lucky.

“We were only homeless 19 months,” she said Friday, recounting how she and her husband were evicted in 2010 when she became ill, lost her job and was unable to cover the cost of rent.

Almost a decade later, rents have only gotten more expensive in Chicago.

Miller is a member of the Lift the Ban Coalition — a group of community organizations whose fight to repeal Illinois’ two-decade ban on rent control is gaining momentum. She joined dozens of protesters Friday who demonstrated outside the downtown office of the Chicago Association of Realtors, which has opposed any effort at allowing rent control.

The protesters held banners saying “Lift the ban” and “Rent Control Now.” Two men dressed in suits and ties — one labeled “realtor,” the other labeled “politician” — threw fake money at each other.

Debra Miller stands with a coalition of organizers rallying in support of lifting the ban on rent control. | Alex Arriaga

Debra Miller stands with a coalition of organizers rallying in support of lifting the ban on rent control. | Sun-Times/Alex Arriaga

“Where are we today?” Melissa Rubio, chief of staff for state Rep. Will Guzzardi (D-Chicago), said at the rally. “These giant corporations have lobbyists who go down to Springfield every single day and push misinformation with our legislators. People are suffering from not being able to pay rent.”

The 1997 Rent Control Preemption Act prohibits local governments from regulating the rise of commercial rents. It is now the focus of multiple efforts at repeal. The key section of Guzzardi’s bill is just seven words: “The Rent Control Preemption Act is repealed.”

A more comprehensive rent control bill was brought forward by state Rep. Mary Flowers, a Democrat whose district includes part of Englewood. That legislation would create six rent control boards across the state and give tax incentives to landlords for improving properties.

RELATED: Chicago lawmaker wants to enable cities to set limits on rents

“J.B. Pritzker on the campaign trail committed to this coalition that he was in support of lifting the ban,” Rubio said. “That is where we know for now things could change.”

In addition, voters in 18 precincts in four Northwest Side wards on Tuesday overwhelmingly backed a non-binding, advisory referendum asking if the state should “lift the ban on rent control to address rising rents, unjust evictions and gentrification in our community.”

Between 63 and 79 percent of voters voted “yes” in each of those precincts.

That adds to the 76 precincts in nine wards where voters favored lifting the ban in a March primary referendum last year, and three entire wards that supported it in November.

“We’ve built a movement,” said Vivien Tsou, an organizer with ONE Northside, an advocacy group for low-income residents. “It became a campaign issue when Pritzker ran, that was a huge moment. And it’s an issue in the mayoral candidates’ race.”

A Lift the Ban Coalition rally in support of rent control took place outside the Chicago Association of Realtors office on Friday. These two men dressed in costume, throwing fake money between a “realtor” and “politician.” | Alex Arriaga

Candidate Toni Preckwinkle said she supports lifting the state ban on rent control.

“I believe this power should be given back to local municipalities so they can decide how rent control would best work for them,” Preckwinkle said in a statement. “This decision should not implemented solely from the power of the mayor’s office, but should be an engaging process between activists, elected officials and all stakeholders.”

Her opponent, Lori Lightfoot, has not taken a stance on rent control. A campaign spokeswoman did not respond directly to questions on the issue Friday, but in a statement pointed to Lightfoot’s strategy of “aggressively ensuring that more affordable housing units are built all over the city.”

Lightfoot did note the problem in an television ad released Tuesday, saying that residents across the city are “struggling with repossessed cars and rising rent.”

However, the Chicago Association of Realtors continued its opposition to repealing the ban.

Association spokesman Avery Gardner issued a statement that said “imposing rent control won’t meaningfully address availability and would actually make it harder to obtain affordable housing.”

“The solution to addressing affordable housing needs lies with creating incentives for more residential development,” Gardner said. “This, along with making changes to existing and costly zoning and construction regulation in Chicago would go a long way to encouraging the creation of new affordable units.”

The push for rent control is nationwide. Oregon passed the country’s first statewide rent control law this week. A report released this week by two nonprofit advocacy groups, PolicyLink Right to the City Alliance and Center for Popular Democracy, concluded it is the best policy for stabilizing housing costs.

“Rent control is the most immediate solution to address the affordability crisis — its speed and scale, cost-effectiveness, and ability to protect a huge swath of low-income and marginalized renters are unrivaled,” the report states.

A Lift the Ban Coalition rally in support of rent control took place outside the Chicago Association of Realtors office on Friday. | Alex Arriaga