“We cannot allow this power that tenants have to be rolled back. We can’t go back to the way it was. We can’t allow people who pay their rent every month to live in unlivable apartments or face unfair financial penalties from their landlords without having a way to fight it. The most powerful among us have the lobbyists and the political connections. The least powerful among us have the Tenants Bill of Rights. We must uphold it, and just as we had to fight to pass it, we must fight to protect it.” -David Orr
It is impossible to tell the story of tenants in Chicago without telling the story of the Chicago Residential Landlord Tenant Ordinance (RLTO).
The RLTO is now 30 years old and counting: it was enacted by the Chicago City Council on September 8, 1986. The story of the Ordinance reveals the power of community organizing and a moment in the city’s political life when the rights of tenants were championed by Mayor Harold Washington. The Ordinance became law in a city often regarded as a haven for the real estate industry.
One key element of the history behind the Ordinance is the impact of organizing in the Rogers Park community on Chicago’s north side. In that community, with its heavy concentration of rental properties, tenant issues were prominent in the 1970s. In 1979, they elected David Orr as Alderman of the 49th Ward. In the ensuing years, the Rogers Park Tenants Committee (and other smaller groups in Rogers Park) grew and organized on key tenant issues, including escalating rents, repairs and lead abatement. During this period, groups in many communities around the city – some funded by local foundations – also worked on tenant issues, including Austin, Englewood, Logan Square, South Shore and Uptown.
Orr, now Cook County Clerk, recalls those days. “The only way to defeat the clout of the Machine was building community clout,” he said. “Community organizing was crucial in the movement to pass the Ordinance.”
While community groups targeted aldermen to support the Ordinance, they also put considerable pressure on the city’s Housing Court, an institution that was characterized by years of mismanagement. A new organization, the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing, emerged to help fight the battle in Housing Court. Meanwhile, in 1981, an activist group called the Housing Agenda addressed tenant issues through a committee. That committee spun off and became the Metropolitan Tenants Organization (MTO) in 1985.
Early on, supporters of tenant rights also proposed a Fair Rent Commission, which would create a place to appeal unfair rent increases. While important, this issue did not gain sufficient support at the time, though it remains a concern among many activists and tenants today.
In the early 1980s – the time of “Council Wars” in Chicago’s City Hall – efforts to address tenant rights in the City Council languished. Work continued however, an ordinance was drafted using one that had passed in Evanston as a model, activists targeted aldermen whose support could make a difference, and nonprofit developers were also using various tools, including the city’s Tax Reactivation Program, to further the cause of affordable housing. And significantly, Harold Washington, an ally and advocate, was elected Mayor – he did not though have control of the city council.
That changed in early in 1986 when special aldermanic elections were held in accordance with a new ward map. In those elections, Luis Gutierrez (now a U.S. Representative) was elected as an alderman, giving the mayor’s allies a council majority. By May, Washington and his allies had control of the Council. He identified the tenant bill of rights – which became the Ordinance – as a priority.
By September of 1986, it became apparent that the Ordinance was about to pass – in a big way. It wasn’t comprehensive (the Ordinance exempted owners in owner-occupied buildings, for example) but it went much further than any measure had before. As it become clear that there were enough votes for the Ordinance, numerous aldermen who had originally opposed the measure decided to support it. The Ordinance passed 43 to 7. With the Ordinance, tenants finally had legal backing to support their issues.
In the months that followed, there were a couple of challenges to the Ordinance. First, real estate interests tried to challenge its lawfulness in federal district court – but lost. Later, there was another effort to turn things around in Springfield. That failed as well.
Over the years, sustained opposition to the Ordinance has never materialized – nor has it completely gone away. In the current council, efforts are being made in the Housing Committee to weaken the measure’s enforcement mechanism. That Housing Committee is now headed by Alderman Joe Moore, Orr’s successor in the 49th Ward.
Currently, the only way to effectively enforce the RLTO is to take the landlord to court. This requires an attorney. If landlords violate the law and lose in court, the landlord must pay for the renter’s attorney fees. Attorneys are willing to represent renters because they know if they win, the landlord has to pay.
The Realtors are proposing a change to the law so that even if they lose they may not have to pay attorney fees. This will make it impossible for low and moderate income tenants to afford attorneys and will only lead to more evictions and displacement. This is just one of the many reasons tenants will take to the streets and flex their renter power on September 22nd. Monied interests should not control who has the ability to live in a safe, healthy home. Every Chicagoan deserves a roof over their head.
One out of every three Americans has an arrest record. Nearly 50% of children have a parent with a criminal record. Housing policies that ban people with records disproportionately affects people of color and people with disabilities.
The Just Housing Amendment will ban discrimination in real estate transactions based on one’s covered criminal history, help reduce recidivism and make Cook County a safe place, as well as protect children and families from the consequences of housing instability. People re-entering their communities with access to stable housing are seven times less likely to recividate than those facing homelessness.
Home is the cornerstone from which people build better lives for themselves and their families. People with criminal records, like everyone else, deserve a place to call home. Housing is a right!
Without the protection of laws like Chicago’s Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance, renters in unincorporated communities in suburban Cook County are often the victims of unscrupulous landlords and property managers.
In March, that fact became an urgent problem for renters in an apartment complex in Rosemont, many of them long-time residents, when they began receiving eviction notices from Tri-United, the property manager & real estate investment trust that purchased the buildings. Tri-Unity plans to renovate the apartments, raising the one-bedroom rents from $750 to $1,300 a month.
Ownership of the buildings changed in early April, but tenants were never notified. Many residents report the wife of the former owner (Dominic Santoro) showed up demanding cash pre-payments of their May rent, which several of them paid, but which Santoro was not entitled. When Tri-City took over on April 15, tenants were informed May rent was payable to them, and that it had no record of payments to the former owner.
Tenants also reported that Caroline Echo, representing Tri-Unity, showed up at their door and demanded May rent payments, telling tenants if they didn’t pay she’d return with police to forcibly evict them. Residents said Echo had with her two members of the auxiliary police unit, affiliated with the City of Rosemont.
The “auxiliary police” operate independently of the Rosemont Police Department (RPD). RPD has told residents that the Auxiliary Police do have a record of being at the complex. RPD also pointed out that only the Cook County Sheriff’s Department has statutory authority on evictions, and even then they cannot be implemented without a court order.
MTO has helped residents organize a community meeting to discuss their options – which are limited in the absence of local laws addressing landlord-tenants issues; and MTO has helped residents secure an attorney who has formally demanded a meeting with the new management company to address the situation. The deadline for a response to the letter from the attorney was Monday, June 20.
So far, Tri-City has stonewalled tenants, MTO, and the press. Updates to follow…
Demonstrators interrupted Mayor Emanuel’s speech Wednesday morning during Crain’s #FutureChicago Conference to demand passage of the #KeepingThePromise Ordinance. Wealthy business leaders and other members of Chicago’s elite met to discuss the “future” of the city, but there was no seat at the table for those most affected by their policies. As more and more Chicagoans take up residence under viaducts or in tents, Rahm’s CHA continues to bulldoze and sell off public housing, all while sitting on nearly $450 million in unspent federal cash given to the city specifically for affordable housing. The language of “fiscal responsibility” is often used by those in power to hide policies that result in real human devastation.
Activists made this point by disrupting the Mayors remarks inside while demonstrators outside held a press conference and distributed information to passersby. Wednesday’s action sought to to raise the profile of the housing crisis facing low-income communities of color, who are being displaced from countless Chicago communities as market rents skyrocket and wages fail to keep pace. Just today, the MacArthur Foundation released a study showing that three-quarters of city residents believe we are still in the middle of the housing crisis or that the worse is yet to come. Inside the swanky Palmer House Hilton demonstrators – including Al, a 90-year-old World War II combat veteran – disrupted the Mayor as he addressed Chicago’s elite. Watch Below:
“The mayor is failing to keep the Plan for Transformation’s promises to rebuild public housing after demolition, instead continuing to demolish, convert, and privatize the city’s remaining public housing,” said Liz Brake of the Jane Addams Senior Caucus. “Unless the mayor changes course, he will deepen the city’s affordable housing crisis, which is displacing people of color. That’s not sustainable or equitable.”
By holding the Chicago Housing Authority to higher standards about CHA’s use of federal and city funds, we can literally provide housing to tens of thousands of Chicago families currently struggling to provide their children with a decent, stable home. According to CHA’s latest financial report (FY2012), the Chicago Housing Authority is sitting on surplus cash of more than $432 million— To put that in perspective, CHA’s cash stockpile is larger than the whole City of Chicago’s budget deficit for 2014.
Despite the insecurity and pessimism about the housing crisis, Chicago residents believe the situation can improve. MacArthur’s housing study found that 70% of city residents think a great deal can be done to solve the housing crisis. There is no one solution, but there are many things that we can do today to improve housing. First? We can pass the Keeping The Promise Ordinance now!
Thank you to all of the members of the Chicago Housing Initiative who participated in this action! For more information about this story or to get involved, please contact Philip at 773-292-4980 ext 246 or email@example.com
After Carl (not his real name) repeatedly contacted his landlord about needed repairs in his apartment, without success, he didn’t know what to do. He had rented the apartment in a Pilsen three-flat when he moved to town to accept a job as an associate professor at a local community college. As someone who always paid his rent, he never expected to have an issue with his landlord.
Carl was sure he had a right to demand that repairs be made, but he didn’t know how to make that happen. Eventually, he heard about Metropolitan Tenants Organization’s Hotline (773-292-4988) and called seeking help – that was in September 2012. After discussing his situation with a Hotline Counselor, he was counseled that for his next step he might want to consult a lawyer.
MTO referred him to Joan Fenstermaker, an attorney who often represents clients referred by MTO. She drafted a “demand letter” for Carl and sent it to his landlord, asking for the needed repairs to be made and informing the landlord that he would be reducing his rent check until the repairs were complete (following the guidelines that are part of the city’s Residential Landlord Tenants Ordinance).
Twice the landlord refused to accept the demand letter, sent via certified mail. And, instead of sending workers to repair the building problems, the landlord sent an Eviction Notice. Fenstermaker immediately contested the eviction case, claiming it was retaliatory, and demanded a jury trial. The jury agreed, and the Judge threw the eviction case out.
Fenstermaker then filed a lawsuit of her own seeking compensation on Carl’s behalf. The lawsuit outlined all of the previously cited issues and added the new charges of illegal late fees (charged when he lowered his rent payments), an illegal lockout from his garage space, and the retaliatory eviction.
When the case went to trial in February, the judge ordered the landlord to pay Carl $10,642.73, along with legal fees – proof that tenants do have rights, even if they sometimes have to fight for them.
Every day the Metropolitan Tenants Organization works with renters who are facing the negative effects of gentrification and other economic forces that threaten their housing. Thousands of low-income renters and homeowners are displaced every year by a property law system with misplaced priorities. As a society, we all pay when people are involuntarily displaced because of increased crime, skyrocketing medical costs and a failing educational system. It is imperative that as a nation we confront this housing crisis and ensure that everyone has a home.
The insights of visionary Black leader Malcolm X, who would have been 91 this year, are key to the discussion around gentrification and housing. Malcolm X championed a new vision, reframing the character of the struggle for equality from civil rights to one of human rights. He also raised the concept of self-determination as essential to any struggle for equality. I want to use the lens of human rights and self-determination to contextualize gentrification and look for solutions to the nation’s housing crisis.
The foundation of current gentrification can be traced to the very beginning of the United States.
What is gentrification? From the perspective of the community members, gentrification is the loss of community (and individual) control over the land they live on, a forced displacement of residents from their homes and their communities. It generally occurs in low-income neighborhoods in which people of color reside. Gentrification is not a haphazard process that happens by accident. It is systemic in nature and sanctioned by a faulty legal system.
Gentrification is not just a modern-day occurrence. The foundation of current gentrification can be traced to the very beginning of the United States. In 1823, the US Supreme Court in Johnson v. McIntosh legitimized the concept of ownership through conquest. In Johnson, the Court held that “savages” (the Court’s term for Native Americans) had no right to sell or control the land because the land was “discovered” by settlers. Only the US government could give Native people the right to sell or transfer the land.
The case is important to understanding gentrification because the Court declared that the indigenous population does not have any inherent right to determine the use of their land. In this case, the Court ruled that the colonization of the continent had in fact erased the slate and thus nullified any Native people’s claims to the land. It made the government the sole arbiter of sale or transfer of land. At the same time, it legitimized the government’s use of force to take over the continent and gain control of indigenous people’s land.
Furthermore, the Court’s opinion is indicative of the primary role that race plays in community development. The Court called indigenous people “savages.” Intrinsic in this name-calling is the idea that Native Americans are the “other” – that European culture is superior – and that as an inferior community, they could not possibly make good decisions as to how they use their land. This inherently wrong, racist decision enshrines the legal and conceptual basis of gentrification, or what I have called ownership through conquest.
Many of the first people to move into a changing neighborhood are described as “pioneers.”
If we look at what is happening today in major cities throughout the United States, the same principles and legal precepts are at work. Now, instead of military might, overpowering economic forces are pushing low-income people of color out of their neighborhoods and often out of the cities and into the suburbs. This is happening because public and private investments in the downtown business core have made these areas extremely important and valuable. As the core of the city expands, the neighborhoods that abut the downtown area and those along transportation lines leading to downtown have dramatically increased in value.
Investors and their partners in the public institutions have “discovered” these communities and swooped in to take control of abandoned and vacant properties, at first; but soon all properties in these neighborhoods become targets for takeover. The outside investors then develop the land to fit the needs of the downtown elite. They build new and high-cost apartments and high-rises and demolish and get rid of properties suitable for people of more modest means. Many of the first people to move into a changing neighborhood are described as “pioneers,” the same term used to refer to the initial invaders of North America who imposed the White man’s ways on the Native peoples.
This means families who have often lived in these neighborhoods for decades are forced to relocate. Tenants in particular, because of the lack of a secure tenure, face an onslaught of economic pressures to move. Outside investors will often close buildings and evict all the tenants as they develop properties to cater to wealthier non-community members in an effort to get them to move into the community. Tenants are then forced to find and move into an ever-shrinking supply of affordable housing.
At the same time, landlords are increasing the rent as the neighborhood becomes “hot.” In the end, the vast majority of the tenants will be forced out. It is beyond their means to resist these economic forces on their own. For instance, in Chicago, more than 50 percent of tenants are rent burdened, meaning more than one-third of their income goes to housing costs. Obviously, when tenants are barely able to pay rent, any changes in rent, job status or medical situations will result in displacement.
It is not only renters who face challenges. In the case of homeowners, many long-time residents are losing their properties to foreclosure or seeing dramatic increases in their property taxes, which once again force them out. The current gentrification of US cities is an economic conquest backed up by the courts.
The current gentrification of US cities is an economic conquest backed up by the courts.
Many of the same racist justifications for this conquest are still at play today. Gentrification is often explained away as a needed phenomenon. The community “needs” the often White and well-to-do invaders to move into the neighborhood to improve it. In other words, the current residents are not “invested” in the neighborhood, as they are “not good enough” to develop it on their own. The local culture is destroyed as new, wealthier people flood into a community. The newcomers take over all elements of the community, bringing in their own “superior” culture, such as more expensive restaurants and entertainment venues. This escalates and expands the dislocation to include existing businesses. It is all legal, built on decades of laws based on the rights of the powerful few and not on the human rights of the many.
It is for this reason that Malcolm X’s vision of moving toward a struggle for human rights is so important. Housing is a basic human necessity that any individual needs in order to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Without a home, it is next to impossible to find work, to educate your children and to better your conditions. Housing needs to be made into a human right, a right protected by law.
What would it mean if housing was a human right? It certainly means more than just ensuring a roof over one’s head. It means making sure that everyone has decent, safe and accessible housing. It is hardly a home if that home does not have heat during the winter, or is infested with mold and other pests. Housing needs to be affordable. If housing becomes so expensive that a person needs to decide whether to eat or pay the rent, then they will always be at risk of losing their housing. Housing also needs to be stable. People should be able to choose where they live. No one should be forced to move just because someone else wants to live there.
So, how can we change policies and begin moving toward a human rights framework based on community needs, as it relates to gentrification? To begin with, we could implement:
Laws to end lockouts, self-help evictions outside of the legal system: No tenant or homeowner should lose their home without due process.
Mandatory inspections laws: Municipalities and other government agencies need to be responsible for ensuring that all residential properties meet certain codes of health and safety.
Just cause laws: A property owner should be required to have a justifiable reason to evict a resident. No one should have their tenure interrupted because of discrimination, retaliation or any other unfair reason.
Laws to limit foreclosures: Banks and other agencies ought to be held accountable for their actions in creating the housing crisis.
Property tax laws: Property tax laws should promote stability. Tie property taxes to the purchase price of buildings, which would help keep taxes affordable for long-term residents and in addition provide low-income residents with tax relief.
Rent controls: This can take two forms. Rent increases could be regulated by law to give current tenants the opportunity to continue to live in their homes. Or secondly, current residents could receive a rental subsidy to make up for the increase in rent due to gentrification.
Create community-based zoning boards: These boards can regulate zoning changes and give communities control over development.
Create eviction-free zones: Activists and legal services providers work to prevent any eviction in these areas of gentrification to slow down the development process and challenge the investor-invaders’ assumption that they can do what they want.
All these potential policies and actions can begin to ameliorate the effects of gentrification and provide communities with a legal and moral basis to fight gentrification and promote housing stability. No one should be forced to move from their home against their will.
Adopting a human rights framework can provide individuals and communities with new tools and perspectives that offer the hope of ensuring that everyone has the right to secure safe, decent and accessible housing that is affordable. Defining housing as a human right allows for an expansive outlook that goes beyond viewing housing as merely a roof over one’s head or a commodity for sale. A human rights framework will benefit the majority and move society onto a path of social equity. As Malcolm X said, “I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against. I’m a human being, first and foremost, and as such I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.”
John Bartlett is the executive director of the Metropolitan Tenants Organization. John is a dedicated social justice advocate who has spent decades fighting to protect people’s homes and environment. John’s expertise and experience – from civil disobedience to landlord-tenant mediation – has proved irreplaceable in Chicago’s continued fight for affordable housing.
This article was originally published in TruthOut.
Fifty Years After Freedom Summer / And the Fight Goes On
This year’s Spring Event recognizes the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer — the Chicago Campaign, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to the city to help lead events that would result in the passage of a local ordinance to begin addressing the reality of Chicago’s institutionalized housing discrimination. The theme drives home the statement Dr. King made in August of 1966, when he called the city’s new fair housing ordinance “the most significant program ever conceived [in Chicago] to make open housing a reality,” yet, he accurately characterized it as only “the first step in a 1,000 mile journey.”
May 10, 2016, a Tuesday, 6 pm to 8 pm
2323 North Milwaukee; Chicago
Revolution Brewing Brand Beers, Wine, or Soft Drinks
Tickets: $65 Each; $50 Employees of Nonprofits
We are honored to be presenting a Lifetime Achievement Award to:
Timuel Black, a legendary Chicago civil rights activist who: was responsible for first introducing Dr. King to Chicago in 1956; helped organize the Freedom Trains from Chicago to the Capitol for the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and was a key ally of Mayor Harold Washington. Born to an Alabama sharecropper, Black was part of the Great Migration to Chicago, attended DuSable High School (along with classmates Nat King Cole and John Johnson), and received his Master’s degree from the University of Chicago. His memoir, Sacred Ground, will be published soon.
We are honored to be presenting Housing Champion Awards to:
Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO), which was founded in the 1960’s as an instrument for grassroots democracy in the Kenwood and Oakland communities, organizing campaigns to increase the resources and services available to residents. It continues to work as a vehicle and voice of low-income and working families.
Fearless Leading By the Youth (FLY), engages youth around issues that directly affect them. In its short history it has played a major leadership role in the successes won by the Audy Home Campaign, and the Trauma Center Campaign. FLY is a program of STOP: Southside Together Organizing for Power.
We are honored to be presenting our Ralph Scott Award to:
Willie Green, who is the President of the Lake Vista Tenants Association. Mr. Green has been working with MTO for over six years and is a longtime housing justice activist.
As of 4-15-2016
RELATED Midwest — Event Sponsor
Law Offices of Hall Adams LLC – Silver Sponsor
CIMC, Chicago Operations – Silver Sponsor
West Town Law – Bronze Sponsor
NICHE Realty / Melissa Stanley — Bronze Sponsor
The Viatorians — Bronze Sponsor
For sponsorship information, contact: 773-292-4980 X230, or firstname.lastname@example.org
BMO Harris Bank, once one of Chicago’s proudest banking institutions, moved to foreclose on the 24-unit complex at 72nd & Wentworth in April of 2015. When banks foreclose on buildings, the law requires them to appoint a “Receiver” in order to maintain the property and avoid disrepair. Millennium Properties – who BMO Harris Bank chose to oversee the Englewood property in July of 2015- has failed miserably on that requirement.
Major repairs are needed at the building, yet, according to 6th Ward Alderman Roderick Sawyer’s office, no building permits have been applied for. The only application is for the renewal of a now 8-year old permit for scaffolding. The situation is dire. Rotting floors are everywhere, including the common area, while Millennium is nowhere. Tenants throughout the building report bed bugs, mold, and competing rodents: rats, cats, mice, roaches. Other unaddressed issues include a collapsing ceiling in an apartment corresponding to the sink hole in the floor of the apartment above it.
Last week the City ordered Millennium to board up the doors that led to collapsed porches. The building is crumbling due to neglect. Tenants have no indication from Millennium on when the porches themselves might be fixed. What Millennium has done instead is move to evict tenants including an elderly veteran woman.
Confusion reigns because mandated notification requirements have been ignored. No less than three separate entities have tried to collect rent, often at the same time. If Millennium is able to empty the building by the time the foreclosure becomes final, then BMO Harris Bank will be “off the hook” in paying up to $10,600 in relocation assistance to tenants as mandated by the city’s Keep Chicago Renting Ordinance. Without immediate action, Chicago is likely to lose more affordable housing units. BMO Harris Bank’s website advertises that one of its corporate Principles is Follow Both the Spirit and the Letter of the Law. Will BMO Harris Bank live up to its principles? Please tell BMO Harris and Millennium Properties to:
1.) Follow the law
2.) Pay tenants relocation assistance, and
3.) Respect the human rights of Englewood tenants!
What You Can Do To Help: Share this story and your comments on social media
We know exactly how to eliminate lead hazards to keep children safe. Yet federal regulations that are supposed to protect families in any kind of housing, public and private, have lagged far behind current scientific research and mean thousands of children across the country are being poisoned by their homes.
In fact, it’s just as common for families in run-down private homes in Chicago to be faced with the prospect of lead poisoning, a reality John Bartlett, executive director of the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, sees firsthand. The poor families who call [MTO’s] hotline are often forced into unbearable choices in private housing. Preventative measures are even rarer in private housing, as inspections aren’t required at all. As a result, parents often have no idea what they’re moving into. “The question becomes, is it better to have a home or not,” he said. “Do you end up in a shelter situation or do you take what you can get? Tenants lack the resources to go anywhere else, but they also lack the resources to stand up to the landlord,” Bartlett said. And they might risk getting kicked out of their home rather than an actual fix.
“Oftentimes landlords, instead of wanting to get rid of the lead, want to get rid of the tenant,” he continued. That’s a particular problem in private housing, where the protections against wrongful evictions are weaker. Some cities and states have instituted proactive rental inspection programs, which require housing to be checked at regular intervals, rather than waiting for a resident to make a complaint. That not only means that lead hazards are hopefully abated before poisoning becomes an issue, but that tenants who might fear taking action against landlords don’t have to shoulder the burden.
That proactive approach is what Bartlett has been pushing his city of Chicago to adopt. His group wants the city to mandate inspections every five years to catch lead hazards before children become poisoned. “If you’re not going out and pre-inspecting things, then kids move in, and they get poisoned.”