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Legislation to lift the statewide ban on rent control is one tool to combat housing precarity.

Community members march through the rain carrying signs that say: Housing is a human right and Rent contol.

Photo by Sarah Rhee

This year, one of my most engaged students abruptly stopped coming to school for an entire week. Once back in the classroom, he revealed that his family was evicted from their home “because the landlord wanted to raise the rent.” Half of Cook County renters pay more than 30 percent of their income on housing. That’s a travesty. Additionally, thousands of Chicagoans are in danger of being evicted because of financial hardships exacerbated by the pandemic.

The rent control debate

Real estate interests and their echo chamber in the mainstream media claim that lifting the ban on rent control would result in a decline of rental units available. Many acknowledge that gentrification is a problem and more “affordable” housing is needed. But, rent control, they argue, is not the answer.

On the other hand, “Affordability,” as defined by Area Median Income is out of reach for many low income residents. Market rate housing is 80 percent or more of all new housing stock. That creates inflationary pressure across communities. The result is rising property values, taxes and rents upon surrounding units.

HB 116 lifts the ban

In contrast, we can give municipalities and villages the right to enact rent control policies by passing HB 116. Right now, that option isn’t available due to a state prohibition. Rep. Will Guzzardi has sponsored the bill, acting as his district reels from rapid gentrification. In addition to ending the state prohibition on rent control, HB 116 would create a stabilization fund that enables landlords to continue to make modest profits from their rental properties.

Most importantly, the bill would give lawmakers a tool that is a check on rapacious price gouging by real estate interests that put low income families on the verge of homelessness. Research by the Center for Popular Democracy shows that rent control disproportionately benefits seniors, low income tenants, people living with disabilities, single moms and those with the least access to affordable housing.

Solutions to homelessness

The solution is not an either/or proposition: to build more affordable housing or pass rent control. We must do both. If we are to house the 20,000 homeless students in Chicago, prevent an imminent eviction avalanche once pandemic protections expire and bring back thousands of families languishing on Chicago Housing Authority waiting lists, we will need all the tools in our collection. Providing rent relief for our overburdened families will be central.

The mayor and Janice Jackson complain about student disengagement and absenteeism during remote learning but offer no solutions to the housing instability thousands of our students face. Yes, remote learning has been difficult, but not knowing where you will sleep at night poses even greater challenges for our students and their families.

Take Action

Call your state representative and ask them to support lifting the ban on rent control by passing HB 116. We have until the end of May to pass this important protection for our students. Find your state representative here.

Jackson Potter is a social studies teacher at Back of the Yards College Prep High School.