Chicago Alderman Declares War on Housing Providers

February 17, 2023

Chicago property owners do play by the rules

The Metropolitan Tenants Organization (MTO), a Chicago-based housing advocacy group, has long espoused the rights of tenants. An organization which for close to four decades has affirmed its aspiration to find solutions to preserve housing, prevent homelessness, and enhance tenant-landlord relationships, it stands to reason the MTO has cultivated a relationship with Chicago’s Democratic Socialists (DSAs).

An easy and natural alliance, with the DSAs basking in the notion their ideology is a bastion of enlightened ideas and the MTO often claiming the City of Chicago is in the midst of a grave housing crisis, it should not be too terribly surprising DSAs and the MTO have partnered in another scheme to intimidate and impose further restrictions on property owners.

The alliance is so tight, in December, the self-anointed sage of Albany Park, Alderman Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez (33), introduced the “Healthy Homes Check-Up Pilot Program.

Billed as tenant-protection legislation, under Rodriguez-Sanchez’s proposal, rental units throughout the city would be required to undergo sweeping inspections a minimum of once every five years by officials with the Chicago Department of Public Health. An amendment to Title 5 of Municipal Code, the proposal would require city inspectors to specifically survey for ventilation, moisture and mold controls, toxicological hazards, pest control, and heating and cooling controls.

However, some of the basic health and safety standards of which Ms. Rodriguez-Sanchez demands are maddeningly vague. For example: Inspection on safety from injury hazards and cleanability of surfaces are, to put it mildly, hazy.

In a second amendment to Title 5 of Municipal Code, Rodriguez-Sanchez calls for the creation of registry for all rental units, of which a fee of $100 annually is imposed.

The Healthy Homes ordinance will only create a housing problem

Rodriguez-Sanchez’s call for inspections of rental units across Chicago rests on the dubious assumption Chicago’s entire rent sector is a chain of flophouses and property owners are derelict in their responsibilities to renters. A fiction, Alderman Rodriguez-Sanchez’s plan is riddled with problems certain to create less affordable housing.

Despite all Ms. Rodriguez-Sanchez’s pious claims the proposal is intended for the protection of poor and lower-middle-class renters, the proposed ordinance is a stealth tax. Buried within the grand language of the draft rests a $100 per-unit registration fee. A levy applied to satisfy Rodriguez-Sanchez’s unrestrained impulse to increase spending on affordable housing, Chicago is host to over 600,000 rental units and revenue collected through passage of this bill could reach as high as $60 million.

Furthermore, Rodriguez-Sanchez’s Healthy Homes proposal is also certain to create an administrative nightmare. The technological and administrative complexities of Chicago’s governmental structures is staggering. More rule-bound, landlords will have to navigate the byzantine complexity of waiting time, filling out of forms, and clearance processes, all of which are time consuming and often confusing. A mind-numbing imbroglio for property owners and city employees alike, the time and cost in lost output will be unimaginable.

Beyond the bureaucratic menace, mandatory inspections will eventually lead to increases in rent. With the full weight of the administrative machinery brought upon landlords, inspections which uncover any potentially suboptimal conditions will beget costly improvements. Regardless of the cost for restoration, property owners will palm off the cost to tenants in the form of higher rent.

Though Alderman Rodriguez-Sanchez has furiously sought to frame the “Healthy Homes Check-Up Pilot Program” as affording protections to vulnerable and victimized tenants, the alderman’s central animating motive behind the draft is to create a registry to archive all rental units in Chicago. A step which offers heavy hints at her next legislative gesture, there is every reason to believe the thrust behind Rodriguez-Sanchez’s demand for a citywide registry of rental units is to create conditions for rent control.

A politician who has never concealed her yearning for controlling the price of rent, Ms. Rodriguez-Sanchez is ignoring the perils associated with these onerous regulations. According to a 2021 study, “The Effect of Market-Rate Development on Neighborhood Rents” completed by the Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), researchers concluded market-rate development causes rents in nearby buildings to fall rather than rise. Similar studies have also dismantled the myth gentrification causes mass displacement of long-time residents.

Ms. Rodriguez-Sanchez’s proposal also disregards decades of research and failed attempts to enforce rent control in cities throughout the country. In Los Angeles and New York City, both of which have adopted housing registries, the consequences of overregulated housing have left both metropolises with higher housing costs, fewer affordable units, and increasing homelessness.

Bureaucratic intervention hinders the development of affordable housing

Ms. Rodriguez-Sanchez’s Healthy Homes proposal is not a good-faith gesture to address any of the challenges associated with housing in the Windy City. By contrast, Rodriguez-Sanchez’s proposal is exacerbating the problem rather than providing any solution for grievances between tenants and housing providers.

In consideration of the fact Rodriguez-Sanchez’s most recent legislative proposal will inflict more harm than good on the availability of housing in Chicago, it is fair to speculate on the purity of the intentions behind her “Healthy Homes” bill. Though DSAs and the MTO consistently promulgate the humanity and morality of their cause, Rodriguez-Sanchez’s bill apes failed legislative undertakings elsewhere and prior efforts in Chicago. Therefore, it is reasonable to call into question Rodriguez-Sanchez’s motives and assert the alderman is placing her political interests ahead of the well-being of those she divinely claims she seeks to uplift.

Broadly speaking, Rodriguez-Sanchez’s proposed legislation is yet another unwelcome infringement on the housing industry in Chicago. If we consider housing a commodity and there is a shortage of this basic good, no effort should be spared by lawmakers to remove obstacles in front of housing providers. Another example of bureaucratic overreach, if affordable housing is the goal and a shortage exists, a solution is best achieved through less restrictive measures placed on development.

If Ms. Rodriguez-Sanchez’s proposal to settle disputes between tenants and property owners was a legitimate endeavor, the alderman would potentially have strengthened existing city ordinances to ensure tenants have a safe, clean place to reside. While deadbeat property owners do exist, the City of Chicago has codified laws for the purpose of taking action against negligent landlords, the Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance, which maintains a mechanism to attend to tenant complaints with landlords. Moreover, a vast majority of housing providers do abide by established standards; they also provide quality housing, and perform both routine and voluntary upkeep.

Fortunately, there are solutions to any problems revolving around tenant concerns and housing in Chicago. Instead of arming Chicago’s heavy-handed bureaucracy with new punitive measures, Chicago should loosen zoning restrictions and land-use policies, and could track housing proposals against approved construction permits.  

For decades, the City of Chicago was able to avoid many problems surrounding housing, particularly affordable housing. That Chicago steered clear of such a housing predicament is a result of mayors and aldermen refusing to comprehensively interfere in housing matters and slap restraints on housing providers. Alderman Rodriguez-Sanchez did not invent city regulation, but she is leveraging it more aggressively than any of her predecessors. Worse, Rodriguez-Sanchez is doing so in areas of fundamental importance.

Instead of legitimately addressing what eventually could become a full-blown calamity, Rodriguez-Sanchez advanced a bill which seeks to make villains of the very people she should be turning to and placing trust in — housing providers — to offer fixes to residential issues. More troubling is the fact she is intent with applying the same policy prescriptions which have manifestly failed in other cities. That Rodriguez-Sanchez is unconcerned with the outcomes in Los Angeles and New York is regretful.

If Chicago does become swept up in a housing crisis, Ms. Rodriguez-Sanchez and her DSA allies should shoulder the blame.

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