The Fight to Bring Chicago Home Isn’t Over

A majority of residents didn’t back the measure to fund housing services by taxing the rich—but organizers are already preparing for the next round.

Kari Lydersen

Bring Chicago Home posters. Bring Chicago Home / Facebook

Bring Chicago Home.”

It was a rallying cry that grew in volume and urgency over more than six years and three mayoral administrations — a demand for a dedicated funding stream to house the city’s homeless residents, numbering over 68,000 according to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, including up to 20,000 students. The source of the funds would be an increased (but still modest) transfer tax on property sales over $1 million. 

The campaign started in 2017 during the tenure of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, dubbed Mayor 1%” for his record of investing in wealthy neighborhoods and downtown at the expense of the city’s diverse working class population. Lori Lightfoot, a Black lesbian former corporate lawyer, promised to institute Bring Chicago Home (BCH) during her upstart 2019 campaign for mayor. But once elected, she ensured the program would not be enacted. 

Current Mayor Brandon Johnson, a progressive organizer and former Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) member, made the initiative central to his campaign last year, and continued to back it after taking office in May 2023. A coalition of more than 100 community organizations and social service agencies — along with dozens of unions, elected officials and faith leaders across Chicago — worked together to get the measure over the finish line. The coalition was led by people with lived experience being unhoused, and organizations including the CTU, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and Communities United served on a steering committee. 

Since it involved a change to tax code, state law mandated that Bring Chicago Home could only be implemented if a majority of Chicagoans approved it in a popular referendum. In November, the Chicago City Council passed a resolution 32-17 allowing that referendum to be placed on the ballot during the city’s March 19 municipal elections. But when it appeared in front of voters that day, Bring Chicago Home failed to win enough support to pass. In the wake of this setback for a progressive measure aimed at raising funds for housing services, organizers are regrouping, taking lessons from the experience and preparing for the next round of the fight. 

A well-funded contest 

Polls and outreach by community organizations showed that the plan enjoyed significant support in the year leading up to the referendum. But the real estate industry wasn’t having it. Powerful real estate and property owner organizations declared that Bring Chicago Home would chill development and kill jobs. A dark money Political Action Committee (PAC) called Chicago Forward (formed in 2014 to support Emanuel’s re-election as mayor) contributed $800,000 to a separate committee called Keep Chicago Affordable,” which opposed Bring Chicago Home, according to an In These Times analysis of Illinois State Board of Elections records between October 2023 and the March 2024 election. 

The Illinois REALTORS® trade association contributed $654,000 to a committee formed specifically to oppose the measure, called REALTORS® In Opposition to Real Estate Transfer Tax, during that same time period. Other donations to Keep Chicago Affordable totaled almost $97,500, for more than $1.5 million in contributions to committees opposing the referendum. 

Additionally, the National Association of REALTORS®, which in its magazine called opposing the referendum an uphill fight,” made $850,000 in grants to Illinois and Chicago realtor organizations fighting Bring Chicago Home. 

The Illinois realtors association aired a 30-second ad on streaming services warning that the city wants even more of your money,” and sent a three-page mailer to households accusing the Johnson administration of mismanaging city money, and warning that landlords would raise rent if the measure passed — a claim contradicted by a study from the University of Chicago School of Public Policy which found that the new tax system will have very little effect on rent prices.

The Illinois Policy Institute, a free market think tank that stridently opposes the Johnson administration, published multiple blogs denouncing Bring Chicago Home. In one, it warned that Johnson’s real estate transfer tax hike could be a slush fund for CTU leaders who want to use the funds generated for their own purposes.” 

Editorials opposing Bring Chicago Home were published in multiple mainstream media outlets including The Chicago Tribune, where an Illinois Policy Institute associate argued that the measure would tax grocery stores, bowling alleys and even the beloved Mr. Beef restaurant that inspired the popular FX show The Bear. 

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The Illinois Policy Institute published a breakdown of 5,412 Chicago commercial properties that would be hit with increased transfer taxes under Bring Chicago Home, based on data from the Cook County Assessor’s office. The list included 1,156 industrial properties, more than 3,000 unspecified commercial properties, 124 shopping centers, four bowling alleys and one golf course.

Crain’s Chicago Business also editorialized against Bring Chicago Home, citing commercial vacancies plaguing downtown and saying the policy would be tossing [downtown] an anchor instead of a life preserver.”

The coalition of community groups and unions supporting Bring Chicago Home, however, was also well-funded, and awash in people-power. 

A committee called End Homelessness, supporting Bring Chicago Home” that was formed to support the referendum received over $1.9 million in contributions, according to In These Times’ analysis of state election board records. The Chicago Teachers Union contributed $400,000; SEIU Healthcare Illinois Indiana’s PAC contributed $200,000; the Michael Reese Health Trust contributed $500,000; and the State Power Fund, a national organization aimed at eliminating poverty, contributed $637,000.

Coalition members knocked on more than 300,000 doors, made over 600,000 phone calls, sent over one million texts, and raised more than $250,000 in small, grassroots donations, according to the coalition. 

People were just eager to know what it was about, how it would affect them, what did they have to do, how soon did they have to vote,” said Electa Bey, housing outreach organizer for the grassroots group Communities United. People wanted to volunteer, there was just an all-around good vibe. When you knock on a door and people say, I know about this,’ that makes you feel great.” 

The coalition and their allies published their own opinion stories in support of Bring Chicago Home, including one by housing justice leader Anthony Perkins in Crain’s Chicago Business.

But real estate interests augmented their public relations battle with a legal attack. 

A group of building and construction company owners filed a lawsuit against the Chicago Board of Elections in January, alleging the ballot measure was unconstitutional. A county judge ruled in their favor. But since proponents appealed, the binding measure remained on the ballot. In dramatic fashion, a state appellate court ruled in favor of the referendum and then the state’s Supreme Court denied the building owners’ appeal, less than a week before election day. This meant votes for the referendum would indeed be counted.

Election day

In the end, 46% of voters supported Bring Chicago Home while 54% opposed it, effectively killing the measure — for now. 

“Am I surprised the system is stubborn? No. Am I surprised the real estate industry used a lot of money to torpedo something that would help people? No. All of those things make sense in terms of the system we are engaged in.”

The great majority of Chicago property owners would actually see their transfer tax go down under Bring Chicago Home, based on the coalition’s analysis of 13 years of sales data.

The current Chicago transfer tax is 0.75%, and under Bring Chicago Home it would rise to 2% for properties sold for between $1 million and $1.5 million, and 3% on sales amounts above $1.5 million. The transfer tax would decrease — to 0.6% — for the 95% of city properties that sell for less than $1 million. The transfer tax is only paid at the time of sale, as opposed to property taxes which are paid annually. 

So why didn’t more Chicagoans embrace a referendum that would have helped them personally, along with providing badly needed funding to address homelessness?

Supporters point to the uncertainty created by the lawsuit, that may have caused voters to assume the measure was dead, and sit the election out. 

Perhaps even more damaging was the lengthy, in-the-weeds language on the ballot. The referendum listed three bullet points and 15 separate numerical figures; voters not already familiar with the proposal could have been hard-pressed to decipher its ramifications. 

The measure might have fared better with much simpler ballot language and more straightforward messaging throughout the campaign, perhaps more boldly echoing the mansion tax” branding used in Los Angeles where voters in 2022 passed a 4% transfer tax increase on property sales above $5 million, and 5.5% on sales above $10 million, to fund affordable housing. (Chicago’s proposal was also sometimes informally called a mansion tax.) 

Going forward

Coalition members and other proponents of Bring Chicago Home said they were disappointed by the election results, but not shocked or demoralized. 

We’ve been dealing with an unhoused population in this country for generations,” Chicago Teachers Union President Stacy Davis Gates tells In These Times. Am I surprised the system is stubborn? No. Am I surprised the real estate industry used a lot of money to torpedo something that would help people? No. All of those things make sense in terms of the system we are engaged in.” 

In the weeks after the fateful vote, residents have vowed to continue the fight for Bring Chicago Home.

The feeling around the non-passage has only made us more determined to make sure it happens,” said Kerry Fleming, leader of the community organization ONE Northside. Those homeless people are still out there, it’s up to us to make sure we do everything we can to get them in housing they can stay in, because we provide the money for the services to help them thrive.” 

We’re just going to push forward, to keep going,” added Bey. We just believe this is going to happen.” 

“Homelessness is not just a tragic apolitical thing that happens. There are actually political interests who benefit—from gentrification, rising rents, destruction of public housing, the loss of hundreds of thousands of Black Chicagoans out of the city over the past 30 years. Those who have profited have responsibility to participate in the solution.”

City Council would have to pass another resolution for the referendum to appear on a future ballot. For voters to see the referendum on the spring 2025 ballot, City Council would need to pass a resolution this fall. Emma Tai, former executive director of United Working Families and a leader of the Bring Chicago Home coalition, said members pondered next steps during debriefing sessions. 

The question we should all be thinking about is the classic [popular education pioneer] Paulo Freire question: What do we have to do today to make possible tomorrow what we cannot do today?’” said Tai. What is the organizing required to make housing a human right?” 

Davis Gates noted that the teachers union has always used our collective bargaining table as a way to push forward policies that impact the lives of our young people. We will continue to do that. Our young people and their ability to be housed remains a subject of bargaining for us until those young people have homes.” 

In 2019, the Chicago Teachers Union gained supports for unhoused students in their contract, leading to more resources including at elementary schools on the city’s South Side which have high numbers of unhoused students, Davis Gates said. The current teachers’ contract expires this June, and the union is preparing to negotiate with the city. 

Bring Chicago Home is a headline for housing the unhoused,” Davis Gates said. We will continue to advocate for young people and their families who do not have housing, whether it be through a ballot referendum, at the negotiating table, through door-knocking, or legislative initiatives like the one that just passed the City Council.” 

Davis Gates was referring to Johnson’s recent move to leverage $1.25 billion in bond funding for affordable housing and economic development. The bond would allow flexible investment in affordable housing on the South and West Sides where it is needed most. 

Proceeds raised by $625 million worth of bond sales would help the Department of Housing spend “$360-390 million for the construction and preservation of affordable rental homes, $210-240 million for the construction and preservation of homeownership, or affordable owner-occupied housing, and $20-30 million for the preservation of single-room occupancy structures,” according to a city press release.

While coalition leaders don’t yet know exactly what their next moves will be, they expressed support for the concept at the heart of Bring Chicago Home — taxing the rich — as a realistic way to address homelessness year after year. 

What I loved about this campaign is the way it gave us a very clear story to tell,” said Tai. Homelessness is not just a tragic apolitical thing that happens. There are actually political interests who benefit — from gentrification, rising rents, destruction of public housing, the loss of hundreds of thousands of Black Chicagoans out of the city over the past 30 years. Those who have profited have responsibility to participate in the solution.” 

Some of the same organizations that fought Bring Chicago Home have also worked for decades to institute, and then defend, an Illinois state law banning municipalities from implementing rent control. A coalition of Chicago community organizations known as Lift the Ban has been fighting to change that law, so that Chicago and other municipalities could decide whether to institute rent controls. Multiple non-binding referenda have passed in Chicago precincts showing overwhelming support for rent control, and last year a bill to lift the ban was introduced in the state General Assembly. 

Leaders of both the rent control movement and Bring Chicago Home have noted that there’s likely no way to win powerful real estate interests over to ambitious affordable housing proposals. So the only way forward is to take them on. 

Who benefits from the idea that the rich shouldn’t pay their fair share in taxes, to bring down the cost of housing to people?” Tai asked. I think there is an idea of an expansive public sector with a role to play in housing people. And there is a set of people permanently opposed to that idea.” 

It is a fight, the people we are fighting are the real estate lobby, the real estate developers who are more than happy to spend millions of dollars to scare people, rather than pay a little more so people who need homes can have them,” said Fleming. 

They’d rather let those kids go to school hungry, they’d rather let people live in tents than pay a little more money. They could be part of the solution if they chose to be — they chose not to. We’re not fighting Brandon Johnson, we’re not fighting City Council, we’re certainly not fighting the voters. We’re fighting those people.” 

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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.

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