March 2018 Primaries: The Issues for Renters

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We want to start this off by saying that this is not a voter's guide. We had planned to do a voter's guide. In the previous articles in this series we said we would do one. Upon examination of the ballot we've decided that there are just too many races for us to cover in a single article. So while we will mention a few individual candidates here we will not be giving endorsements. (Since we're a business we really shouldn't be giving endorsements anyhow.) Rather, we will be looking at some of the main issues at stake in the March 2018 Chicago primaries and things that renters should consider as they review the candidates.

Rent Control (100/HB 2430)

State Representative Will Guzzardi's campaign to repeal the statewide ban on rent control has been in process for two years now. Some of our regular readers may in fact be surprised that we have not yet done a full article on the issue here in the blog. We have, however, addressed it in our monthly newsletter way back in March of 2016. It is our belief that while rent control is a great concept in theory and that it might work for other cities and towns within the state of Illinois, it will not work well for a city as segregated as Chicago. Rent control is a way for the government to cap rent increases in privately-owned rental housing. In an ideal world, tenants in a rent controlled apartment would be able to stay in one place for a long time without worrying about exorbitant rent increases. Landlords are, however, able to raise rents to match market rates again once the rent-controlled tenants move out.

The coalition driving the push to repeal Illinois' 21 year ban on rent control is largely focused on the impact that rent control would have in disadvantaged, predominantly minority-occupied neighborhoods such as Garfield Park, Albany Park and Humboldt Park. It is our opinion that encouraging neighborhood stasis is not the best idea in a city divided along color lines.

Subsequent legislation would be required to go from a ban repeal to actual rent control within the city of Chicago including a new state law and a city ordinance. We are doubtful as to whether or not the rent control advocates would be able to actually make a system work before the market forces that have driven recent increases become a non-issue again.

However, it is important to consider that the politicians who support the rent control repeal are the ones who are trying to keep the best interest of renters at the forefront. Guzzardi is not the only one with his name on HB 2430. Given the complete absence of actual renters on the ballot, we do think that those legislators who support rent control should be given the benefit of the doubt for being "on the side of renters" even if their current actions are somewhat misguided.

Rent control is an issue that will not only affect renters' choice of primary candidates, but it also appears in its own right as a referendum in some specific areas of the city. We have included a map below of the 73 precincts where the rent control ban repeal will be on the ballot. If you live in one of these areas, make sure to talk to your renting friends about it before you head to the polls. If you live in one of the 1,996 precincts where it isn't on the ballot, you need to track down anyone you know who lives in the lucky 73 and let them know what you think. (You may also want to ask your local elected officials about why you weren't given a say in the matter.)

NOTE from April: The map has been updated to show the results of the voting by precinct. Color Key:

  • Red: less than 60% voted to repeal the ban.
  • Orange: 60-70%
  • Yellow 70-80%
  • Green 80% or more wanted to repeal the ban.

This issue affects: State Representatives, State Senators, Governor.
In future races it could affect: Aldermen, Mayor.

Sealing Eviction Records (100/HB 4760)

Far more recent than the rent control issue is the new House Bill 4760, introduced in February of this year. It hasn't really made the news. No politicians have mentioned it in their platforms. But it is definitely a big issue that renters should consider at the polls.

If enacted, eviction records would be sealed for the first 30 days after filing and again five years after the case closes. Tenants going through eviction cases have for years been prevented from finding new housing because of the easy access landlords have to the entirety of Cook County eviction records. We are neutral on this matter.

As users and advocates of open data we are always going to lean towards keeping all records accessible. However we understand the difficulty tenants face in finding new housing when an eviction case is in process. Given that eviction cases in Chicago can take up to six months we are not sure what good it would do to seal records for the first 30 days only. However, given that some landlords will jump straight to an eviction filing as a "warning shot," staining the record of a tenant even if the case is later dismissed, we can understand why this part of the bill is in place.

As for sealing eviction records five years after the case closes, we support this effort entirely. Landlords tend to view a single eviction as a sign of chronic non-payment. While some renters should be earning frequent flyer miles for their trips to eviction court, most who go through it do so only under duress.

Renters are often young and reckless when they first enter the housing market. We do not think a 26 year old should necessarily bear the scarlet letter of an eviction from when they were 21. We also do not think that a single mother who is evicted when her kids are small should still suffer for it once those kids are of school age.

We do use the eviction filings ourselves as part of our rental safety reports to gauge how "eviction happy" a landlord might be. However, as we only look at the past 12 months of filings our research would not be hindered by the passage of HB 4760 as it stands.

Most of the candidates who sponsored the rent control repeal are also co-signers on HB 4760. They are joined by a huge number of Chicago incumbents. Think about how you feel regarding this issue before choosing to vote for supporting incumbents or their opponents.

This issue affects: State Representatives, State Senators, Governor, Attorney General, Judges.
In future races it could affect: Cook County Clerk of Court.

Equal distribution of Property Tax Assessments

Current Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios has, of course, been in the news lately. He is in hot water for accepting excessive political contributions from property tax attorneys, staffing his office with friends and family, granting unnecessary property tax exemptions to his staff and unfairly assessing minority neighborhoods at overly high rates.

That last issue - unfair assessment of property in minority neighborhoods - is the main one that applies to renters, as property taxes have a large impact on their rent rates and on encouraging/discouraging new landlords who may want to buy into an area.

In this case it is difficult to separate the issues from the individual. The office of County Assessor needs a good scrubbing top to bottom. Berrios is up against two opponents in the primary, Fritz Kaegi and Andrea Raila. Raila has suffered from being removed from the ballot and then restored very recently, which means that some early voters may have given her a pass after seeing signs at the polls stating that a vote for her would not count. With her now restored to the ballot there is a risk that voters who want to see Berrios removed from office will split their votes between his opponents, allowing Berrios to get the nomination. There is at this time no Republican candidate to go up against Berrios in November.

Raila's attorney has said he plans to request a special election given the clouded nature of his client's candidacy. However given the dire state of the Assessor's office and the debatable outcome of the attorney's plan, we hope that the matter is firmly decided at the primary.

Kaegi's platform seems to be more focused on improving the hiring practices and cleaning up the corruption. His language in interviews and questionnaire responses is very emotionally loaded with lots of mud thrown at Berrios. Raila is taking a much more mathematical approach, explaining the methods she plans to use to equalize assessments using standardized practices. Unfortunately while we feel she may be the more qualified candidate, we worry that she does not have the street appeal necessary to win over voters.

This issue affects: Cook County Assessor, Cook County Treasurer, Cook County Board of Review

State Income Tax

Every taxpaying resident of Illinois owes the same percentage of their income to the state each year: 4.95%. We're one of the eight remaining states that still do income taxes this way. Most have switched to a sliding scale income tax rate, with individuals making more money taxed at higher rates.

For some Chicago renters this is a non-issue. Many are paid cash under the table, and not all of those report their full income to the state. (It's illegal to do this, by the way, but we know that some of y'all are paying 4.95% of whatever you feel like declaring.) For the rest who do file taxes, the majority would benefit from a sliding scale state income tax as renters' incomes tend to be on the lower end of the spectrum. However, we worry that introducing a sliding scale income tax would have a negative effect on the storefronts of Chicago, and in turn, employment opportunities for Chicago residents.

Landlords who own mixed-use buildings with ground level storefronts and upper level apartments have long taken advantage of tax breaks offered by the county assessor. These breaks are granted to landlords who lose income due to empty commercial space, provided that those landlords make a good faith effort to fill the spots. A bill (99/HB 4363) introduced in the Illinois House in 2016 sought to crack down on landlords who let their storefronts sit empty year after year for this tax break, but it seems to have died in committee with the last action dating back to January 2017. Without this sort of vacancy fraud reform we worry that we will see even more landlords taking advantage of it to offset higher income tax rates. The end result will be more empty shops throughout the city landscape.

Do we support a sliding scale income tax? Certainly. Yes. But not without vacancy fraud reform to go with it.

This issue affects: Governor, State Senators, State Representatives

Legalization of Recreational Marijuana

For many voters this is the big one for this primary. Governor? Great. Assessor? Whatever. We suspect a lot of the increased voter participation in this election is due to the referendum regarding the legalization of recreational marijuana on the ballot. It's a non-binding referendum - the electoral equivalent of an opinion poll. The government does not have to act on the results. However, the outcome will demonstrate to elected officials the general sentiments of the population at large.

As a whole after seeing the results of legalization in other states we largely support the idea. However, we should note that landlords can still ban smoking marijuana in their properties in the same way that they can ban cigarettes and pets. There are certainly alternatives for consumption that does not disturb the neighbors. We spent enough time coming and going from assorted Chicago apartment buildings to know that legalization won't cause an increase in marijuana use. (Again, like the income tax thing, we know y'all are doing it already even if it is currently illegal.) If anything, looking at the tax rates that Chicago imposes on cigarettes, we think it may actually cause a decrease.

We do have to consider the effect that smoke-free clauses have had on the Chicago rental industry. When they became popular a few years back, some landlords saw increased demand for their vacancies by advertising tobacco-free policies. However, many smaller landlords skipped this trend because of the difficulties involved in changing their leases.

While at the core the concerns a landlord would have for smoking tobacco vis-a-vis smoking marijuana are similar - surface accumulation of soot and disruptive odors - the emotional baggage that accompanies each substance is varied. We would expect to see many of the landlords who skipped the smoke free clauses to jump on the bandwagon when it comes to ruling out marijuana use. We also expect that if they're going to go to the trouble this time, tobacco-free clauses will come along with it.

It has long been our opinion that local elections such as this upcoming primary have a far greater effect on the lives of average citizens than the big spectacles of federal elections. Chicago renters have within recent years been heavily criticized for their apathy when it comes to civic involvement. The complete absence of renters from elected office means that they must make a concerted effort to choose politicians who remember that Chicago has a renting majority. We'd like to see more renters in office, but baby steps are better than no steps at all.

In an era where the federal government is moving largely in an opposing direction to the Chicago status quo, it is more important than ever for everyone to remain involved in choosing the direction of local politics to the best of their ability.

We hope that our own efforts over the past few weeks have driven home the importance of participating in not only this election but in all of them. As for those who felt they had nothing to gain from this series, don't worry! Next week we'll be back to our own status quo of talking about apartments.

Thanks for reading! Now go vote!

Published by

Kay Cleaves