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Chicago Rent Is Spiking — So Tenants Are Forming Unions And Pushing For Rent Control To Stay In Their Neighborhoods

More than a dozen renters told Block Club their monthly payments recently rose or are set to increase soon. Some said they are having trouble making rent despite programs to provide relief.

A resident of the North Spaulding Renters’ Association holds a copy of Tenants Talk in front of a courtyard apartment complex in the 2400 block of North Spaulding Avenue in Logan Square on July 21, 2022.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — Lynn Rye lives in a single-family home on the border of Avondale and Logan Square with five roommates. The squat bungalow is flanked by multi-unit buildings and three-flats.

In July 2021, their landlord raised their rent by $200 a month — effective immediately. Rye remembered the Fair Notice Ordinance, which requires landlords to give advance notice of rent increases.

Rye told their landlord about the ordinance, “but the landlord came back and said, ‘OK, instead of the rent going up $200, four months from now, it’s going to go up $300,’” she said. 

When Rye and her roommates reached out for legal aid, they were told they might have a case, but challenging the landlord in court would be a long fight — and there was no guarantee a judge would rule in their favor. They stayed; it took them almost a year to find an affordable place large enough to live together.

Rental prices across the country have surged in recent months, along with inflation. Asking rent in Chicago has increased by 4.5 percent in Chicago in the past year, according to Redfin  — but some tenants have seen their rent hiked as much as 20 percent.

Landlords might be increasing rent as they face a possible increase in property taxes, experts said.

Landlords have been raising rents nationwide due to the housing shortage, high demand and inflation driving up operating costs, experts have said. Locally, landlords might be increasing rent as they face a possible increase in property taxes, experts said. Some neighborhoods are becoming less affordable because of an increase in demand, real estate agent Monica Loven said.

Landlords also can hike rents because they want to, Loven said.

“There’s no regulation [on rent increases]. They have the ability to ask for more,” Loven said. “It could very well be a landlord not liking the tenant and using it as a tactic to say, ‘I’d rather you out so I can do some renovations.’”

The spike has led to tenants being forced from their homes — or forced to pay up. Some have said they’re forming tenants unions, organizing and pushing for rent control as a way to keep apartments affordable.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
A historic Wicker Park greystone 3-flat.

‘I Want To Try To Do What I Can To Prevent This From Happening To Other People’

The Metropolitan Tenants Organization hotline has seen an increase in the number of people calling about rent increases, said John Bartlett, the group’s executive director. His office typically hears about large rent increases — $200 a month or more — in the spring and summer because it’s when tenants tend to move, he said.

Calls to the hotline dipped in 2020 during the eviction moratorium and as landlords offered deals to tenants, but calls doubled from 2019 to 2021 and again in 2022, he said.

When people call the Metropolitan Tenants Organizations’ hotline about a large rent increase, the workers focus on a few things, Bartlett said: They tell them about the laws, which largely give landlords the power to raise rent however much they want. They also ask the tenants if everyone in the building is getting a large increase; if not, it could signal the tenant is being retaliated or discriminated against, which would be illegal, Bartlett said.

Bartlett lets people know about the Fair Notice Ordinance and, when all else fails, he encourages tenants to go back to their landlord with a counteroffer.

“There’s nothing in there that says a tenant can’t come back [with another lower price], especially if they’re a good tenant,” Bartlett said.

That’s what members of the North Spaulding Renters Association did after they found out their landlord was raising rent for several tenants. Tenants groups have become increasingly popular as rents have shot up and residents look for a way to stay in their homes.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Ben, of the North Spaulding Renters’ Association, holds a copy of Tenants Talk in front of Mark Fishman’s office in Logan Square on July 21, 2022.

The North Spaulding Renters Association — which represents tenants of mega-landlord Mark Fishman — has met weekly since April 2020. The group was started by a tenant who lost their service industry job at the start of the pandemic, and the group managed to negotiate with management for a free month’s rent for a dozen or so tenants. As a collective, they’ve performed repair campaigns, know-your-rights trainings around evictions and raised money for neighbors who were forced out of their apartment. 

Tenants Morgan Csejtey and Emmet McDowell recently joined because they received rent increases as part of their lease renewal. 

The renters association was holding a protest in front of the management company’s main office on Fullerton and Humboldt when Csejtey moved into her unit last year.

“I learned about the tenants union at that time, but I hadn’t been to any of their meetings until [Fishman] tried to raise our rent and I was like, ‘Wait a second. I definitely have a resource to help me out with this,’” Csejtey said. 

McDowell likewise knew about the organization, but they didn’t participate until their rent went from $1,095 to $1,250. 

To fight the increases, the group circulated a petition among tenants at two Fishman properties calling to cap rents at 3 percent. Thirty out of 45 tenants signed. McDowell presented it at a meeting with management to negotiate their rent increase, but they were told the company doesn’t participate in collective bargaining, McDowell said.

Representatives for Fishman did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But in a message to tenants, representatives said the landlord has tried to help renters by offering rent deferment, lowering rent and helping renters get government relief.

It is raising rents to make up for some of those losses, representatives wrote.

“We are asking for an increase in your rent this year so that we may try to recover some of the declines that occurred during the last two years and also to cover our significant increase in costs including labor, materials, and property taxes,” representatives for Fishman wrote. “We know that this increase is a burden and we want you to know that we very carefully considered how much your rent increase would be and did our best to keep your rent at, or in most cases below, current market rent.”

McDowell and Csejtey were able to negotiate their rents down individually, but only a by a fraction. The hassle of moving is too much, so they’re staying. They spend roughly half their income on rent, but they feel lucky to have support from their family if they need help, McDowell said.

McDowell, Csejtey and others said they hope to build steam in the coming months to educate and activate tenants everywhere.

“I want to try to do what I can to prevent this from happening to other people,” McDowell said. 

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Portage Park bungalow homes on March 1, 2022.

A Push For Rent Control

Tenants have looked for other ways to stop the surge in rent — including by pushing for rent control in Illinois. But a 1997 law makes rent control illegal throughout the state, and efforts to repeal it have yet to be successful.

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th), whose ward covers much of Logan Square, said “the big landlords have really shown the necessity for rent control.” Volunteers with his office collected signatures In 2018 to place a question on the ballot that year, asking if the state Legislature should lift its ban on rent control. It received more than 50 percent “yes” votes, but it didn’t change the law because it was a non-binding referendum.

During the pandemic, advocates again pushed Gov. JB Pritzker and Mayor Lori Lightfoot to bring an end to the ban on rent control, but the two were noncommittal, instead focusing on programs that provided millions in rent relief — but which many tenants weren’t able to use. And those programs haven’t prevented the raising of rent.

Credit: Melody Mercado/Block Club Chicago
Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Gov. JB Pritzker talk at an event to showcase Chicago as a finalist for the 2024 DNC Convention.

A citywide coalition of community groups called Lift the Ban is still fighting the rent control ban. Roderick Wilson, executive director at the Lugenia Burns Hope Center, one of the coalition’s founding member organizations, said the coalition supports the Tenant Protection Act, which was introduced to the Illinois General Assembly in January. It would cap annual rent increases at 3 percent and create a landlord registry so “we know how much [landlords] charge for rent,” Wilson said. 

The bill would also create a fund which would provide financial support to small landlords — those with 12 units or less — with grants, zero-interest loans or low-interest loans.

“We want to also incentivize landlords by investing into their pocket, as well,” Wilson said. “We don’t want to hurt small landlords — or landlords, period. But we are trying to make sure that people are doing what is best for the community and not just for themselves.”

But tenants have been left struggling while officials push for those changes.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Logan Square seen from above on Apr. 18, 2022.

Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st) said his office receives about one phone call a week from people asking for assistance when their landlord raises the rent substantially.

“Tenants are reaching out because they’re concerned that they’re at risk of being priced out of the neighborhood,” said Laura Reimers, Ald. Matt Martin’s (47th) chief of staff. 

More than a dozen renters told Block Club their monthly payments recently rose or are set to go up in coming weeks. Many said they are having trouble making rent despite government programs to provide relief.

Joe, of Andersonvillle, maxed out his credit card to pay rent after he lost his job during the pandemic. He asked that his full name not be used.

“I’ve applied for a lot of rental assistance in the past few months to no avail. I’ve tried Catholic Charities. I applied for a bunch of online rent assistance, and a lot of them are closed now with the end of COVID, even though COVID hasn’t ended,” he said.

Joe is working odd jobs and waiting to see if his name will be called from the waitlist for Section 811, which provides supportive housing for low-income adults with disabilities.  

Other tenants are being priced out of neighborhoods they love as rents surge. Amara “Rebel-Betty” Martin, of Little Village, said she was told to leave her apartment so the landlord could renovate — and she’s struggling to find affordable housing in the gentrifying neighborhood.

“I don’t see an affordable two-bedroom apartment in Little Village that’s under $1,100 or $1,200. I keep hearing people say that it’s because the tax prices are so high. But I’m just not convinced that that’s everyone’s excuse,” Martin said. “I grew up on the North Side, and I watched my whole community disappear before my eyes. I see that same thing happening in Pilsen and Little Village and … it causes a lot of anxiety for those of us who want to stay in the city.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Bungalow homes in the 8200 south block of Laflin Street in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood on May 11, 2021.

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