The residual effects of the global COVID-19 pandemic have had a lasting impact on housing security. The U.S. is currently undergoing high rates of inflation, which also hurts the housing market. 

In Chicago, according to Crain’s Chicago Business, home prices have risen 5.2 percent since September 2021, when the media price of homes sold in the Chicago area was $290,000. For the month of September 2022, the median price of homes being sold in the Chicago area was $305,000.

Surging housing prices play a significant role for people who experience houselessness. 

For example, insufficient income and a lack of affordable housing are the leading causes of homelessness, according to the National Homelessness Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. A 2020 report from Housing Action Illinois found that minimum wage workers can’t afford to rent a home at a fair market rate without spending more than 30 percent of their income to do so. 

“Things are going to get worse once it gets cold. It’s going to be more dangerous. And many deaths happen during the winter, just like a lot of deaths happen during the summer when the heat is high,” said April Harris, a grassroots leader of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. Extreme temperatures put people who experience homelessness at risk for death and injury, she added. 

As budget hearings for Chicago enter their final week, homelessness is one of the items on the top of organizers’ minds. Earlier this month, Mayor Lori Lightfoot laid out her $16.4 billion proposed 2023 budget, in which she calls for increased spending on public safety and more investments in pension contributions, abortion care, affordable housing, homelessness prevention and more. 

For example, the 2023 proposed budget asks the city to spend $1.94 billion on the Chicago Police Department (CPD), up from $1.88 billion in 2022

However, the proposed budget only seeks $200 million for homeless prevention, which includes increasing shelter capacity and offering rapid re-housing. An additional $3 million would be spent to launch the first-of-its-kind tiny homes project in Chicago. 

Tiny homes are typically less than 500 square feet. The program would create two to three tiny home communities on city-owned land, according to a WBEZ news report. 

The question on many organizers’ minds is: Are the proposed investments in the 2023 budget enough to support the more than 65,000 people that Chicago housing advocates estimate are living on the streets, in shelters or staying with others.  

According to Harris and other advocates, the city needs more than a one-time investment to address homelessness.

“Housing is a human right in a just society. It’s a necessity. We’re trying to get the mayor and her people to understand,” Harris said about Lightfoot. “She wants to make a one-time payment, which will not fix the problem. We need to have a dedicated revenue stream.”

Chicago housing advocates, through their plan, Bring Chicago Home, are proposing that the city have a designated fund to combat homelessness to develop more affordable housing and wraparound services for people who are experiencing homelessness. They staged a demonstration at City Hall on Oct. 3, 2022. Photo by Ronald Browne. Photo provided.

Instead, Harris and other organizers and stakeholders with the Bring Chicago Home (BCH) coalition are proposing that the city have a designated fund to combat homelessness, one that is not subject to budget fluctuations or priority shifts with changing administrations. This type of fund would develop more affordable housing and wraparound services for people who are experiencing homelessness. 

The BCH coalition has been pushing its proposal since 2019. Harris and other stakeholders are calling on Chicago residents to contact their alderperson and the mayor’s office to support the BCH proposal, which they believe can combat homelessness. 

The BCH coalition invites residents to text “BCH” to 31313 on their mobile phones. From there, users can enter their information to send an online letter to their alderperson, expressing their support of the proposal.

The City Council must approve a balanced budget by Dec. 31. The new budget will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2023.

“It is a campaign that’s important to us because we feel it can fix the problem of homelessness in the city of Chicago,” Harris said. 

The BCH proposal calls for restructuring the real estate transfer tax on high-end property sales and imposing a one-time tax on sold properties. Currently, the revenue generated from the tax goes to the city for general corporate purposes. The BCH proposal would have the funds go toward anti-homelessness efforts.

Under the proposal, the BCH coalition says the city could invest in new housing, preserve existing affordable housing, rehab vacant properties, provide housing vouchers and more. The additional revenue can also offer wraparound services such as mental health support, job training and youth programming. 

“We can have more affordable housing and wraparound services, meaning if you have trouble with substance abuse, domestic violence, keeping a job, mental health or childcare, we want to provide all those things. So once people get housing, they stay housed,” Harris said. 

The BCH coalition is working to make its proposal a reality, and there are two ways to go about it, said Nick Jefferson, director of organizing and strategic campaigns at Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH).

One way is by getting the Illinois state legislature to vote for legislation allowing Chicago to change its real estate transfer tax.

The other way is through a ballot measure, which Jefferson said is the best option. 

The ballot measure would ask Chicago voters if the city should increase the real estate transfer tax by 253 percent for buyers who purchase residential or commercial properties for more than $1 million, and redirect those funds from the city to combat homelessness by providing permanent affordable housing and the services necessary to obtain and maintain permanent housing in Chicago.

Under their proposal, the BCH coalition projects that it would generate $163 million annually to support the thousands of people who experience homelessness in Chicago.

“We believe a ballot measure is the best option because it is a city issue, and voters can have a say if they want this or not,” Jefferson wrote in an email to The TRiiBE.  

The ballot measure needs City Council approval to appear in the upcoming 2023 Chicago municipal election, which will take place in February. The resolution for the ballot measure was introduced to the City Council’s Committee on Committees Rules on July 21, 2021. However, there hasn’t been any further action on the resolution. 

Photo from Bring Chicago Home's Facebook page.

Affordable housing in Chicago

The state of affordable housing in Chicago has been an ongoing fight for housing justice advocates in Chicago. COVID-19 exacerbated an already complicated issue, said Parrish Brown, a restorative justice practitioner and former Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO) organizer. 

“Affordable housing was always an issue. Right now, there’s a ban on rent control at the state level,” Brown said.

In 1997, Illinois passed a law called the Rent Control Preemption Act, which prohibits municipalities from enacting, maintaining or enforcing measures to control the rent charged for leasing private residential or commercial property. The law is still in effect today.

“With this ban on rent control, you cannot stop your landlord from increasing yearly because it’s illegal at the state level,” Brown added.

Eviction moratoriums and rental assistance programs during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic helped prevent people from being displaced from their homes.

However, when Illinois lifted its eviction moratorium in October 2021, eviction rates reached their highest level since the pandemic started, according to an analysis by WBEZ. Sixteen of the top 20 zip codes that experienced the most evictions following the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 were primarily on the South and West sides.  

For affordable housing to be accessible for all, Brown first suggests that Illinois lift the ban on rent control. There’s already a grassroots organization, called the Lift the Ban Coalition, fighting to repeal the law through House Bill 116. The bill passed out of the Illinois House of Representatives Housing Committee on March 24, 2021. To become law, it needs support from the state Senate.

Second, Brown says Chicagoans must hold the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) accountable for the lack of affordable housing for low-income families in the city. 

“People are not homeless because they’re lazy or because they don’t want to pay their rent. There are many faces of homelessness,” Harris said. “It could be the person sitting next to you well dressed in church or the person sitting next to you on the bus, train or on a public bench. You never know.”

is a multimedia reporter for The TRiiBE.