What’s next as the Bring Chicago Home referendum hangs in limbo

Johnson rebuffed claims that the lackluster showing so far for the referendum is a referendum on him.

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson
Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson listens during a City Council meeting at City Hall in the Loop, March 20, 2024. Primary voters in the city appear to have rejected the Bring Chicago Home referendum that Johnson supported, which calls for a tax hike on the sale of high-end properties. Pat Nabong / Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson
Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson listens during a City Council meeting at City Hall in the Loop, March 20, 2024. Primary voters in the city appear to have rejected the Bring Chicago Home referendum that Johnson supported, which calls for a tax hike on the sale of high-end properties. Pat Nabong / Chicago Sun-Times

What’s next as the Bring Chicago Home referendum hangs in limbo

Johnson rebuffed claims that the lackluster showing so far for the referendum is a referendum on him.

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Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson vowed to continue the fight to raise revenue for homelessness prevention, advising opponents to “buckle up” as he rebuffed claims that the Bring Chicago Home referendum’s current trailing position indicates dissatisfaction with his job performance.

“To be the mayor of the city of Chicago, where I once upon a time took an arrest at the very elevators that now are held for me … there’s not a fight that we have not taken on that we won’t have the ability to win,” Johnson said at an unrelated news conference Wednesday. “I don’t have any regrets.”

Last week, Johnson’s political action committee donated $100,000 to the committee supporting the referendum, which had raised over $2.7 million since the ordinance had passed City Council last November.

But the millions in cash and grassroots campaign to knock thousands of doors didn’t appear to trounce real estate and business groups’ $2.8 million they had also fundraised.

With roughly 109,000 mail ballots still outstanding as of Wednesday morning, neither side had declared victory or defeat. But even supporters acknowledged the outcome likely wasn’t headed their way.

“I think we had the better argument. Ultimately, it seems like we failed in making that argument effectively with the voters, at least with the majority of them,” said Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, 35th Ward, a longtime proponent. “I do think that it will tighten. I don’t know if we’ll end up on top. I don’t think we will.”

Even while its fate is in limbo, a post-mortem on the referendum, including whether it can come back up in November if it does fail, is underway.

Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42nd Ward, whose political campaign fund donated $41,500 to a political action committee opposed to the referendum, said the business community is releasing “a great breath of relief today.”

“The voters saw through all the noise and understood this could have a negative impact on their bottom line, not just mansions and millionaires,” Reilly said.

person walks past row of tents under viaduct
A person walks past tents of people who are experiencing homelessness under a viaduct on North Clinton Street and North Milwaukee Avenue. Bring Chicago Home would raise funds for homelessness prevention through a tax on sales of high-end properties. Pat Nabong / Chicago Sun-Times

Why March instead of November? And how turnout affected results

After years of efforts to put Bring Chicago Home on the ballot, which was stymied by former Mayor Lori Lightfoot, organizers were eager to see it through. They found an ally in Johnson, who made it a cornerstone of his progressive campaign, and moved full-steam ahead to feature the referendum in the soonest possible election after Johnson took office.

“We wanted it to be before the voters many cycles ago,” Ramirez-Rosa said. “And we wanted to ensure that we were moving expeditiously to address the crisis of homelessness, because we need those funds now, not later.”

If the referendum passes, an estimated $100 million annually would be available for use as soon as 2026.

There was also a political calculation that lower turnout — which is typically seen in primary elections — would actually be good for the referendum.

“Low turnout environments tend to advantage the side with a better ground game. And in this case, that was clearly the proponents,” said Christopher Berry, director of the Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation and a professor at the University of Chicago. “So I thought the playing field was in their favor. But obviously the outcome was not.”

Voter turnout was “shockingly low,” the Board of Elections spokesman said, with the 22.6% turnout as of Tuesday night shaping up to be the lowest showing in a presidential primary election in at least 80 years.

There was also the theory that there is broad support among Chicago voters for progressive tax structures. In the November 2020 general election a proposed graduated income tax failed statewide — but was favored by 71% of Chicago voters. But that election also saw much higher turnout, with a little over 1,052,200 city voters weighing in on the question.

Meanwhile, only a little over 309,900 people — or 20% of active, registered voters — cast a vote on the Bring Chicago Home referendum, according to unofficial returns that did not yet include outstanding mail ballots. 

What went wrong for Bring Chicago Home

A WBEZ analysis of precinct-level data based on unofficial results as of Wednesday shows the referendum fared well across majority-Black and progressive white areas of the city in the South, Northwest and Far North sides, but faltered in the Far South and Southwest, downtown and Far Northwest sides, which are more conservative, wealthier areas of the city.

Volunteers Rami Faraj (left) and Aida Conroy take a selfie as they canvass in support of the so-called Bring Chicago Home referendum in the city’s West Ridge neighborhood on Jan. 7, 2024.
Volunteers Rami Faraj (left) and Aida Conroy take a selfie as they canvass in support of the so-called Bring Chicago Home referendum in the city’s West Ridge neighborhood on Jan. 7, 2024. Mariah Woelfel / WBEZ

The question featured a three-tier structure, which was first unveiled this summer under Johnson’s administration, and took up nearly an entire ballot page.

The complicated tax structure and framing from opponents that it was a property tax increase confused some voters. Ramirez-Rosa said he spoke to people who said they couldn’t vote for a “property tax increase,” despite the fact that, under the proposal, 93% of homeowners would have seen a cut on the one-time tax levied when property is sold. An early mailer from opponents of the referendum read that it “is designed to confuse you into voting for a new property tax.”

An 11th-hour lawsuit that briefly put the referendum’s status in flux was the real estate industry’s attempt to “throw spaghetti against the wall,” said Dixon Romeo, executive director of Not MeWe, a community group that advocates for affordable housing and works to combat displacement in the South Shore neighborhood.

“There are some folks, like the real estate lobby and other folks, who intentionally spread lies and misinformation to intentionally confuse folks,” Romeo said. “So some of that is on them.”

But on Wednesday, numerous critics, and some supporters, argued that organizers behind Bring Chicago Home failed to adequately articulate how the money would be spent — leaving voters with more questions than answers.

“I think people, in general, want to have confidence in government and what we’re doing with funds,” said Ald. Andre Vasquez, 40th Ward, who supports the measure. “So the more we’re able to provide transparency and detail, the better we can make that case.”

Miguel Chacon, a real estate broker and board member of the Neighborhood Building Owners Alliance, which opposed the referendum, said he is surprised by the initial results. He was “impressed” by Bring Chicago Home’s unwavering ground game, noting the campaign raised millions of dollars, sent out thousands of mailers and knocked on doors.

“Despite all that, their message didn’t resonate with Chicago voters,” Chacon said. “I think it’s a lack of a really solid plan as to how the money was going to be spent.”

The ballot measure, and a draft ordinance, said the funding would be used for “addressing homelessness, including providing permanent affordable housing and the services necessary to obtain and maintain permanent housing in the City of Chicago.”

Referendum on Mayor Brandon Johnson?

In the weeks before election day, Chicagoans were blanketed with campaign ads tying the Bring Chicago Home proposal to Johnson’s job performance.

“Mayor Johnson wants you to vote for his big new tax,” a woman says over ominous music. “Trust Mayor Johnson with more taxes? Just vote no,” concludes the ad, paid for by the “Keep Chicago Affordable” political action committee, which is largely funded by a nonprofit that allows donors to not disclose their identities.

Reilly said Tuesday’s vote was a chance for voters’ to grade Johnson’s time as mayor so far.

“I think the mayor got a report card last night, and he did not pass,” Reilly said.

Johnson said Wednesday such attacks against him were “cowardly” as he was limited by how politically involved he could be.

“I wanted to campaign more. I wanted to be out there,” Johnson said. “That sucks, when you’re a gamer and you knock down shots and you can’t be out on the court … It was cowardly. But I’m still here, still standing. And I will be punching back.”

Brandon Johnson speaking to reporters
Mayor Brandon Johnson speaks with reporters after touring the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center and participating in a roundtable discussion on homeless veterans and the Bring Chicago Home referendum on March 7, 2024. Ashlee Rezin / Chicago Sun-Times

Johnson indicated he was prohibited, by the city’s ethics ordinance, from campaigning for the measure in the way he wanted. He cited such limitations again when asked whether he sought endorsements from Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker or Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle for the referendum measure.

City officials are prohibited from using their official capacity for electioneering. Steve Berlin, the executive director of the city’s Board of Ethics, pointed to sections of the ethics ordinance that specifically bar soliciting votes and distributing campaign materials for or against a referendum question using city resources or time.

Berlin added “the law does not prohibit City employees or official[s] from engaging in ‘prohibited political activity’ when city resources or property are not being used.”

Whether the ballot results are a measure of Johnson’s approval rating or not, messaging that Chicago politicians can’t be trusted as financial stewards is an easy sell, Berry said, because of a long trend of political corruption in Chicago.

“I think voters are not right now in a place where they’re feeling a lot of trust with their politicians, nor should they. I think the city council is a national embarrassment,” Berry said, referring to the roughly three dozen current or former Chicago aldermen that have been convicted of a crime since 1969.

Ultimately, there is more work to be done to convince residents to vote for complex and nuanced solutions to “complex problems,” Ald. Maria Hadden, 49th Ward, said, adding she doesn’t believe it’s an indication of political leaning.

“I don’t think it speaks to how progressive voters are,” said Hadden, who was one of the leading sponsors of the ordinance and whose political committee contributed $2,500 to a political action committee supporting the referendum.

What’s next for the Bring Chicago Home effort

The election results are still not final, and outstanding vote-by-mail ballots could change the referendum’s outcome. The bulk of those ballots are expected to be counted and made public in the next few days.

“The vast majority of outstanding VBM ballots come back on Election Day, today, and tomorrow,” Chicago Board of Elections spokesperson Max Bever said Wednesday. “Ultimately, the picture for contests will be much clearer by this weekend.”

Proponents and organizers of Bring Chicago Home on Wednesday did not yet commit to pushing for another ballot referendum in a future election, including the November general, if the proposal does fail.

Bever said the next deadline for any referendum questions to be certified and sent to the board is Aug. 29. Any attempt would assuredly face staunch opposition once again from business and real estate groups.

And if organizers do make another attempt, they haven’t said whether they would simplify the ballot question or add more details as to what revenue would be spent on. Emma Tai, Bring Chicago Home’s campaign director, and Doug Schenkelberg, executive director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and treasurer of the political action committee supporting the referendum, declined to comment.

“The goal doesn’t change. I don’t know if the method will remain the same, right? We will certainly have to have time to really dig into the details and figure out what’s the best strategy,” Hadden said. “But it’s still going to be: We’ve got some programs that we know work. We know they need funding. We don’t have the funding and how are we going to get it?”

Ramirez-Rosa said it gives even more credence to Johnson’s $1.25 billion borrowing plan that would rely on expiring tax increment financing districts to fund affordable housing and economic development. An initial hearing on the plan is scheduled for Friday before the council’s Finance Committee.

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa during City Council meeting
Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa is a proponent of Bring Chicago Home. Pat Nabong / Chicago Sun-Times

Critics urged the administration to take a step back from progressive campaign promises, which Johnson has moved swiftly and forcefully on in his first 10 months in office.

“My hope is the administration will pump the brakes, and take a more moderate view of things, slow down their progressive agenda and allow this economy to recover, because people are still struggling. And this is not the time to layer on more tax burden,” Reilly said.

Ultimately, Romeo said he was proud of how the campaign brought the issue of homelessness out of the “shadows” and to the forefront of the conversation.

“As of tonight, like today, it’s not fixed, but I think we’re closer than we were before,” he said. “So that’s a good thing.”

Mariah Woelfel and Tessa Weinberg cover Chicago politics. WBEZ’s Amy Qin and Alden Loury contributed to this story.