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Bring Chicago Home

Brian Rodgers participates in a rally prior to a court hearing Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2024, on a Chicago ballot measure that would raise a one-time tax on luxury properties to fund services for homeless people in Chicago.

Charles Rex Arbogast

Illinois appellate court says ‘Bring Chicago Home’ referendum votes will count

An Illinois appellate court ruled Wednesday that Chicago voters will be able to decide whether the city should raise a one-time tax on high end properties to fund homelessness prevention.

The unanimous decision from a three-judge panel reverses Cook County Circuit Court Judge Kathleen Burke’s ruling, who last month sided in favor of real estate groups and properties owners opposed to the tax and invalidated the ballot measure. The reversal is a major win for organizers behind the so-called Bring Chicago Home campaign and Mayor Brandon Johnson, but it may not be the end of the legal fight if real estate groups appeal the decision. The March 19th primary election is less than two weeks away.

“I’ve said all along that the people of Chicago should determine how we address the unhoused crises in Chicago,” Johnson said at an unrelated press conference Wednesday afternoon. “Organizing in this city is a major part of what has helped transform our city over the course of decades. That history is still intact. I’m encouraging everyone to vote in this upcoming election cycle.”

In an opinion written by appellate court Justice Raymond Mitchell, the court argued it cannot interfere with the legislative process by removing the question from the ballot, and called the complaint “premature.”

“The holding of an election for the purpose of passing a referendum to empower a municipality to adopt an ordinance is a step in the legislative process of the enactment of that ordinance. Courts do not, and cannot, interfere with the legislative process,” the opinion read. “Courts are empowered to rule on the validity of legislative enactments only after they have been enacted.”

The court concluded its opinion with a “gentle reminder” that justices deemed necessary in light of “contention” over the issue.

“Nothing in this decision is intended to suggest that we have any opinion one way or the

other on the merits of the referendum at issue. That is a question wisely entrusted not to judges but to the people of the city of Chicago,” the opinion stated.

Appellate justices Freddrenna Lyle and David Navarro concurred with Mitchell on the opinion.

Under the proposal, portions of property valued above $1 million would be taxed at higher rates, while property valued under that amount would see a tax cut. At least $100 million annually is estimated to be generated from the tax, which the city plans to use to address homelessness.

The plaintiffs — a collection of real estate and business groups — argued that the referendum question violates the state constitution by combining multiple questions into one, and that the ballot language was too vague.

The Building Owners and Managers Association of Chicago, one of the groups who sued, said they will be reviewing the order to determine whether they will appeal to the state supreme court.

“We are disappointed in the outcome of this case, but felt it was important to challenge this misleading and manipulative referendum question,” Executive Director Farzin Parang said in a statement. “We have already ramped up our efforts to educate the public about the negative impacts of this tax increase.”

In circuit court, Burke sided with real estate industry groups after reading out loud each side’s filings on motions for hours, but she provided little rationale or explanation for her ruling – a point the appellate court noted.

“Like the parties, we are left guessing as to the bases for the circuit court’s ruling because the lower court gave no reasons for its ruling,” the appellate justices wrote.

Burke had also denied the city’s request to intervene as a party in the case, a move that the appellate court wrote was “an abuse of discretion.”

The city has “a clear and direct interest in defending the referendum, which is the product of a City Council resolution,” Wednesday’s ruling read.

The lawsuit had been filed against the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, which also appealed. The board, which administers city elections, argued it was not the proper party and that it is outside of its authority to determine the referendum’s legality.

With the question reinstated to the ballot, “all votes cast for the citywide question will be counted and reported,” on election night, Max Bever, a spokesman for the elections board, said in a statement Wednesday.

Opponents and supporters had continued to campaign on the issue despite the legal back-and-forth, and encouraged voters to still weigh in on the ballot question. Political action committees for and against the referendum have each raised over $1 million to fund their outreach.

Maxica Williams, chair of the End Homelessness Ballot Initiative Committee and board president of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said Wednesday in a statement that work will continue.

“We look forward to keeping up our efforts to reach hundreds of thousands of voters about their opportunity to vote yes for a fair and sustainable plan to fund housing, care for the homeless, and ask wealthy real estate corporations to pay their fair share,” Williams said.

For years, organizers have argued the city needs a dedicated funding stream to address the rising numbers of people experiencing homelessness. They unveiled the tiered approach with Johnson last year and have cast the proposal as a “mansion tax” to have the wealthy pay their fair share.

But the tax increase — which would be four times the current rate for property valued over $1.5 million — will apply to all properties. It’s a point the real estate industry contends will primarily hurt the commercial sector downtown as it still recovers from the pandemic. They’ve framed the one-time tax as a property tax increase to voters.

Asked again about the Wednesday ruling as he finished an unrelated press conference at City Hall, Johnson disputed the tax’s characterization.

“I’m not familiar with a mansion tax, by the way,” Johnson said.

Tessa Weinberg and Mariah Woelfel cover Chicago politics.

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