New York Took On the Real Estate Industry and Won. Illinois Could Be Next.

Organizers in Illinois can learn important lessons from New York’s groundbreaking victory on rent laws.

Max Budovitch

Organizers in Illinois, like those in New York, are demanding that housing be considered a human right. (Photo by Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

On June 14, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law new housing legislation that guarantees the strongest tenant protections in history,” extending rent regulation from New York City and adjacent counties to the entire state, finally closing rent control loopholes and eliminating the vacancy bonus” that allowed landlords to hike rents once tenants moved out.

Some form of rent regulation has been in place in New York City for nearly a century. But the laws that were meant to keep housing affordable and tenants in place by limiting rent increases had been run through with loopholes because they had to be re-legislated — usually with considerable changes pushed by the real estate industry — every four years. The new laws are permanent, ending this periodic housing marathon.”

The sweeping victory in a state that’s home to some of the biggest real estate interests in the world offers important lessons, such as how to connect urban and rural communities in the demand for housing justice. In Illinois, where a bill for statewide rent control is now being debated, organizers can learn from the strategies employed by organizers in New York, ranging from building strong coalitions to pressuring lawmakers and running insurgent electoral campaigns.

The fight for new rent regulations in New York didn’t begin in 2019. For housing rights organizers, one of the catalyzing moments came when Diana Richardson won her seat in the New York Assembly in 2015 without taking any money from real-estate interests. When the new rent laws were signed this year, organizers could also think back to the 2018 rent strike in a mobile home park near Buffalo, and when, later in 2018, insurgent candidates beat the six Democratic state Senators who for years had ceded power to Senate Republicans. And then there was Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign against subsidies for a proposed new Amazon headquarters in Queens.

Cea Weaver, the Campaign Manager for a coalition called the Upstate Downstate Housing Alliance, says that years of advocacy and protest added urgency to the insurgent electoral victories. We didn’t just win the races, we tapped into a mandate.” As the deadline to renew the rent laws loomed, Weaver said, legislators thought, If I don’t deliver on rent, this tenant coalition could vote me out of office.” When Amazon initially chose Queens for its headquarters, organizers saw another one of Cuomo’s backroom deals exacerbating the housing crisis and used it to link landlords and real estate money to corruption in Albany. From Amazon to evictions, Weaver explained, the perceptions of landlords and their connections to Cuomo soured, and the stage for the new rent laws was set.

But there was an even stronger wind in the tenants’ sails. New Yorkers increasingly recognized the importance of housing affordability as an issue, and rent regulation as a remedy. This was due in part to the Upstate Downstate Housing Alliance’s daily efforts to, as Weaver put it, build a campaign that had relevance from Brooklyn to Buffalo.” Who, after all, doesn’t have a mental image of a cramped, unaffordable apartment in New York? And who wouldn’t want to escape it by finding a regulated unit?

The organizers had a plan in case this fact of life in New York was lost on anyone: Kevin Borden, the Co-Director of Manufactured Housing Action, said that the movement is stronger when organizers step aside and let others do the talking. No one can take away the tenants’ stories,” he said. 

When Juanita Amador, a tenant turned organizer with the Kingston Tenants Union got on a church stage about 90 miles north of Times Square last January to share her story with a room full of locals, she didn’t have to strain in order to connect with her audience. She only had to tell the all-too-familiar facts.

Amador said that she grew up in the 1970s in Alphabet City and that her landlord set fire to her building when her father refused to leave. Her father rescued her from the fire by throwing a blanket over a hole in the floor. After the fire, after being homeless, after being evicted, after moving to Kingston, Amador felt much like others in the room who have seen prices rise as renters fleeing Brooklyn put pressure on upstate New York: I’m tired, and I guess I got a little radical.”

Lifting the ban

While Amador and others were setting the groundwork for the new rent laws, the stars were aligning in Illinois. In 2017, State Rep. Will Guzzardi introduced a bill that would repeal the 1997 legislative ban on rent regulation. The Illinois ban, along with a number of similar bans across the country, is the legacy of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Since its founding in 1973, ALEC has rolled back consumer protection regulations on a national scale.

In the spring of 2018, State Sen. Mattie Hunter introduced an even more aggressive bill that would not only repeal the Illinois ban but also establish regional boards responsible for regulating future rent increases. In November 2018, J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat who supported rent control on the campaign trail, won the governorship. The future looked bright. 

But as spring turned to summer and tenants in New York won radical reforms, organizers in Illinois watched their rent laws languish in legislative committees. What happened?

Money from the real estate lobby is a major challenge to tenants in Illinois. It’s one of the reasons why Illinois passed the ban on rent regulation in the first place, which gave today’s group of rent control advocates their name — the Lift the Ban Coalition. Similar to the Upstate Downstate Housing Alliance, the Lift the Ban Coalition wants statewide change. Unlike its New York counterpart, the Coalition doesn’t have significant membership outside Chicago, its respective metropolis. It is also smaller in scale — the Lift the Ban Coalition is comprised of about 20 organizations, where the Alliance brought together over 66 groups for its Housing Justice for All” campaign. But the largest developers in the country couldn’t stop what happened in Albany, so beyond these differences, there must be something else at work in Illinois.

In the spring of 2019, when Curtis Tarver, a state representative from Chicago who campaigned in support of rent control, decided to vote against it, other representatives decided not to stick their necks out either. Gov. Pritzker hasn’t mentioned repealing the ban on rent control since taking office, despite using his Democratic majorities to overhaul the tax system and legalize marijuana. Michael Madigan, the Speaker of the House and the longest-serving leader of any legislative body in the history of the United States, hasn’t said much either.

Such a muzzling of debate over rent control would never have happened in New York, where the periodic expiration of the rent laws forces legislators to acknowledge the several million people living in regulated apartments, even if the laws ultimately contained concessions to landlords. With no regulation on the books in Illinois and not a single constituent in a regulated unit, it has become easier for skeptics to respond to calls for regulation with clichéd counter-proposals for economic development policies or plans to build more housing, and Chicago’s ample supply of vacant land makes these arguments appealing. We’re not landlocked,” said Brian Bernardoni, the Senior Director of Government Affairs and Public Policy for the Chicago Association of Realtors, who thinks that cutting regulations will encourage the construction of affordable housing on empty lots.

In New York, the Upstate Downstate Housing Alliance had a deep reservoir of regulated tenants that, once mobilized, scared legislators into action. Without a single regulated unit in Illinois, the Lift the Ban Coalition is trying to create that from scratch. So, in 2018 and 2019, organizers got out the vote for three non-binding referenda in parts of Chicago, which showed overwhelming support for rent control. But many legislators still say that they won’t move on rent control until they hear from their constituents. 

The Lift the Ban Coalition has begun making robocalls and canvassing beyond its Chicago neighborhood bases. Organizers and Coalition members like Simone Alexander say they want Chicago tenants, as well as those in suburban districts that flipped Democratic in the last election, to call their elected representatives. But when an Illinois resident gets a robocall about rent control, what might they think?

Last year, as part of the effort to expand beyond Chicago, Lift the Ban Coalition members met with renters in Carbondale, Illinois — a town so far south of Chicago that if you went the same distance east, you’d be halfway to Manhattan. Jennifer Fertaly, director of Carbondale’s Center for Empowerment and Justice, recalled that the same residents who couldn’t afford their rent asked, why do we care about rent control? That’s a city thing.”

About 40 percent of Americans struggle to afford their homes, but a shared problem doesn’t necessarily create agreement on the solution. Residents across New York have an idea of what unaffordability in the state looks like, and understand that rent regulation has been part of the policy toolbox for decades. But is there a similar, broadly-understood premise — let alone solution — for Illinoisans to organize around?

Illinois is not lacking for Amazon-scale debacles that could boost rent control’s appeal. The former Cook County Assessor, Joseph Berrios, systematically shifted the tax burden onto those least able to pay by overvaluing properties in poorer neighborhoods. The skewed valuations drummed up a steady stream of property tax appeals for tax lawyers like Ed Burke, a Chicago alderman who was recently indicted, along with his assistant and retired Park District plumber Peter J. Andrews, for allegedly shaking down businesses and using the City of Chicago as a criminal enterprise.” The connections between corruption and affordability in Illinois ring similar to those between Amazon, real estate operators, and Cuomo in New York, but have yet to surface as a key element of that state’s rent control debate.

We are next”

Jawanza Malone, Director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization and leader of the Lift the Ban Coalition, is fundraising to hire a full-time Campaign Coordinator — something that Kevin Borden of Manufactured Housing Action, said in an interview was important for the Upstate Downstate Housing Alliance, along with money for travel, a press consultant and a leadership retreat. Organizers are also thinking about how best to tell a story that will capture Illinoisans’ imaginations. The Coalition has already publicized data on the toll that unaffordability is taking on renters in Chicago, and Malone has appeared in the media, once face to face with Brian Bernardoni of the Chicago Association of Realtors.

After talking with organizers from the Upstate Downstate Housing Alliance in late July, the Lift the Ban Coalition is thinking through how to apply New York’s lessons to Illinois. We had been hesitant that gentrifying neighborhoods like Pilsen might be different from places like Rockford,” says Diego Morales, a member of the Lift the Ban Coalition’s Steering Committee. But the New York experience showed that urban-rural alliances are strongest when organizers focus on how housing impacts everyone, regardless of locale. Then there’s the electoral power that tenants built in New York to kick legislators out of office. Morales wants to hold Illinois representatives like Curtis Tarver, the one who campaigned on rent control and then voted against it once in office, similarly accountable.

The challenge in Illinois is a daunting one: sweeping an old law clear off the books, rather than reforming certain aspects of existing laws, as was the case in New York. Do you promote progressive candidates or lobby those already in the state legislature? Do you push the Democratic governor or try to rally a progressive base? Do you get into wonky debates over policy, or trumpet sweeping change?

Looking at New York, Morales says it’s clearly an all of the above approach.” If Illinois follows through, he says, we are next.”

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Max Budovitch is a writer and editor currently based in New York. He holds a Masters in City Planning from MIT, and his writing has appeared in the South Side Weekly and Urban Omnibus.
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