State Passes Support for Renters


In Chicago, even everyday citizens have definite ideas about affordable housing or the lack of it. Throughout Illinois, activists and legislators alike are pleased with the results of the State House vote on May 4 for S.B.75, better known as the Rental Housing Support Program. “We are very excited about the passing of this bill…it is estimated that this bill could help 5,500 homeless applicants per year,” exclaimed Mimi Alschuler from the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

The Rental Housing Support Program plans to assist families earning 30 percent or below an area’s median income. In most places in Illinois, supporters say that’s about $19,000 for a family of four. More than 150 organizations statewide supported this bill. The program would be funded with a $10 state surcharge on real estate documents recorded with county recorders. All total, counties statewide could build a fund amounting to between $25 million to $30 million, though estimates vary. Those funds are expected to be sufficient annually to assist over 5,500 applicants. Each county would be allowed to keep $1 of the $10 surcharge paid for the documents recorded in the county recorder’s office, with the remainder going for the Rental Housing Support Program.

The Illinois Housing Development Authority is the clearinghouse for the program. Rules for signing up for the program have not been established yet.

The Rental Housing Support Program has some history behind it from the stand point that Illinois is not the first state to use this type of rental support plan: three other states, Missouri, Delaware and Ohio, already use recording fees to fund affordable housing.

In an email, Susannah Levine, a policy analyst for Business and Professional People in the Public Interest, wrote that “The Rental Housing Support Program is modeled after the Chicago Low-Income Housing Trust Fund. The Chicago program has been around for 12 years and subsidizes 2,000 apartments annually. They have a waiting list of landlords that want to participate in the program because the program works very well for landlords.”

Illinois is a large state, and while 30 percent of the funds generated by the Program will have a definite impact on the state’s most densely populated area – Chicago – 70 percent, or the lion’s share, will go to fund affordable housing in other areas of the state. Localized need, as is customary, will be determined by Census data.

Clearly, affordable housing is a big issue in Chicago and across the state. A year ago, the civic organization Metropolis 2020 released a report entitled “Housing as Opportunity.” The report alleged that not only did Chicago lose more than 5,200 rental apartments between 1990-2000, but during the remarkable building boom between 1970-2000, rental housing overall increased a mere 8 percent, less than half the growth rate for New York, and a fraction of the growth occurring in Dallas for the same period.

In Chicago, Mayor Daley wants to build affordable housing by giving private developers incentives. On May 26 of last year, Mayor Daley held a press conference announcing new changes in zoning regulations along with his design for building affordable housing in the city. At that time, I went to Peter Scales of the Department of Planning for a detailed explanation of what the Mayor proposed to do about affordable housing locally. When I asked Scales how the Mayor’s plan would allow those in need to access housing, Scales said, “We will allow [developers] to build an additional three square feet of market rate residential space for every square foot of affordable housing they decide to include in their plans.

“We will let them build a taller building or a building with more dwelling units if they agree to set a number of affordable housing units aside,” he continued. Scales further explained there also was a plan to allow commercial builders to contribute to an affordable housing fund, saying that, had this fund been in place during the years 1997-2002, at the height of the real estate boom, “by this time we would have generated upwards of 650 units of affordable housing together with about $25 million into an affordable housing fund.”

However, critics say that 650 units would scarcely scratch the surface needs of affordable housing in metropolitan Chicago. The Rental Housing Support Program, a state-level initiative, is expected to have a high impact on stemming the growing rate of homelessness in Chicago, where the public sees it every day, and statewide as well.

Making some inquiries around town, I was able to dialogue with different people about their opinions regarding both homelessness and this bill. I found I needed to explain that the primary focus for the majority of activists at this time is not on the so-called American Dream of home ownership. Individual home ownership with repair costs, property taxes, mortgages, labor for its upkeep and other costs is quite expensive these days and beyond the reach of many of our neighbors, friends and relations. In a word, rental is more affordable as we see how homelessness is rising.

John G. Markowski, the Chicago Commissioner of Housing, whom I have had the opportunity of meeting a number of times, had straight forward ideas about he wanted to say on the matter.

“Housing is the key to the success of any individual and family. Our goal in the Plan to End Homelessness is to quickly move people into permanent housing because we know there’s no place like a home; that kids do better in school when they are sleeping in their own bed and not on a couch. It’s easier to hold a job and take care of your health when you have a place to call home. It provides a sense of security and belonging to a community,” said Markowski.

In a way, Markowski’s comments reminded me of the passionate words of Cardinal Francis George at the Valuing Affordability Conference. “It is not just about affordable housing; it is more about structural justice. So, when we advocate for affordable we are advocating for people, families, community and opportunity. Likewise, when we develop affordable housing, we are really developing people and families, community and opportunity,” Cardinal George said.

“In short, if we truly respect human dignity, protect basic rights, support families, foster community and promote opportunity, we should value affordability.”

Jennie Rosa, who I bumped into downtown, worked as a homemaker for years, but now is on board at the Department on Aging. She said she thinks that poverty can bring out the worst in people but it doesn’t necessarily have to. She also thinks affordable housing is a critical issue.

“The bottom line is that we can as a society begin with making sure affordable housing is available to everyone who is at least trying to make something of themselves,” Rosa said.

A retired Chicago Public Schools teacher also expressed concern with the plight of those people without secure housing.

“I feel that not having access to affordable housing places one in a very precarious position,” Deborah Hughes said. “[Housing] is something which I guess that most of us take for granted. But, just think, if you did not have that one convenience and lump that together with not having close family or friends to rely on, that’s a terrible situation.”

Retired school teacher Deborah Hughes said she worries about those who cannot afford a home and who do not have a support network of friends and family. Photo by Michael Ibrahem

After everything that has been said and done, this bill proves that community activism is capable of producing positive results. And that it is useless to be victimized by pessimism.

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