City Council enacts ‘Keep Chicago Renting’ ordinance

June 5, 2013

The Chicago City Council on Wednesday afternoon approved protections for renters whose units have entered foreclosure. The ordinance passed in a 45-4 vote after more than a year of organizing by tenant advocates.

The measure, dubbed Keep Chicago Renting, will require the foreclosing bank to provide the tenants a rent-controlled lease until selling the property or pay them a “relocation assistance” fee of $10,600 per unit. The goal is to keep renters in their homes and keep the buildings from standing vacant and breeding crime.

María Elena Sifuentes, a housing activist with the Albany Park Neighborhood Council, said she had been working for an ordinance like this for four years. The council vote left her “overwhelmed, excited, speechless,” she said. “It’s a victory for us that we got this, especially because we’re just the little people and we beat the banks.”

The aldermen casting “no” votes were Mary O’Connor (41st), Patrick O’Connor (40th), Matthew O’Shea (19th) and Michael Zalewski (23rd).

An earlier version of the proposal, introduced by Ald. Richard Mell (33rd) last July, would have prohibited post-foreclosure evictions outright except under narrow circumstances such as the tenants’ failure to pay rent.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration worried that version might not withstand legal challenges. Instead of the eviction ban, the city pushed for requiring the banks to pay the relocation fee. Negotiations between City Hall and tenant advocates dragged on for months. The sides did not finalize the amount of the fee until last week.

The council’s Housing and Real Estate Committee, chaired by Ald. Ray Suárez (31st), held two hearings on the bill last month. Before both hearings and Wednesday’s vote, tenant activists dressed in orange T-shirts rallied outside the council chambers.

Groups representing banks, landlords and realtors tried to delay the vote. They said the measure would violate Illinois statutes, including a law that bars local governments from setting up rent control. They claimed the ordinance would also discourage lending in the city. Their arguments did not gain much traction in City Hall.

After the vote, Mell said his fellow aldermen had realized something: “They’re all plagued by vacant properties where the banks have thrown the people out. The gangbangers go in. They strip the copper out of the properties and they use them for hangouts and they ruin the neighborhood. So this is one more tool, hopefully, [to] help bring our neighborhoods back.”

The ordinance could have far-reaching effects. More than 50,000 Chicago rental units went into foreclosure between 2009 and 2011, according to the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing, which supported the measure. Crime in abandoned buildings and vacant lots has increased nearly 48 percent since 2005, according to the committee.

Chip Mitchell is WBEZ’s West Side bureau reporter. Follow him on Twitter @ChipMitchell1 and @WBEZoutloud, and connect with him through Facebook and LinkedIn.