The Chicago Teachers’ Union and Affordable Housing: A Rant

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Happy October! The 2020 Chicago rental season is now over. The wintertime heating ordinance is now in effect. Now, tuck in with a nice cup of tea because I am about to go off about the Chicago Teacher’s Union and affordable housing.

“Trick or Treat!” We’re all going to be hearing it soon. Small children at the door asking for candy and chanting a phrase that has lost all significance over time. Originally it was a threat: “give us food or we’ll cause harm to your home.” Before that, “give us food to keep the evil spirits away, because this is the time of year when the barriers between our world and the afterlife are very thin.” Maybe the Chicago Teacher’s Union remembers the original meaning of “Trick or Treat.” They certainly are re-enacting it. “Agree to implement our plan for affordable housing citywide or we’ll strike, and hundreds of thousands of babysitters will be very, very happy for several weeks.”

With one week to go the CTU/City of Chicago employment contract negotiations have stalled over the teachers’ demands affordable housing, not only for them but for their students. You heard me. While the specific demands of the CTU have not been revealed, we can get an idea of the scope based on their website. I will include my interpretation of their demands below, with a few personal side notes in parentheses.

  • Force the city to make more affordable housing.
  • Provide money to new teachers to help them buy (not rent) housing.
  • Hire extra staff at Chicago Public Schools to help counsel homeless students.
  • Allocate a large portion of funding from various city tax pools and enact additional taxes on millionaires to fund the creation of more affordable housing units within school districts where a large percentage of the students are homeless or at risk for homelessness.
  • Utilize Section 8 and housing rehabilitation programs to create housing for 15,000 homeless students within the next fifteen months. (That’s a thousand kids a month, folks. And we’re heading into the offseason.)

Patent Absurdity

It’s a big ask under any circumstances, let alone something to be shoehorned in at the last minute as part of employment contract negotiations. And there is precedent for a lot of it. Other city employees get housing benefits. California teachers rammed some affordable housing clauses into their contract. But this coming on the heels of the Cook County Just Housing Amendment seems patently absurd to me. Several news articles and industry wonks in my Twitter feed have opined that teachers have no business meddling in the affairs of the Department of Housing. But that isn’t the absurd part to me. It’s symptomatic of where things stand politically and economically.

People turning to the city to create more housing when the city has been issuing permit after permit to convert small apartment buildings into single family homes for years is absurd.

People turning to the city to create more housing when the population of small private landlords has been shrinking year after year is absurd.

People turning to the left-wing city to create more housing when the new landlords coming in are being trained almost exclusively by workers in parasitic right wing industries (real estate agents, attorneys, property managers) with guaranteed financial conflicts of interest is absurd.

People turning to the city to create more housing because they’ve given up on getting landlords to stop discriminating against families with small children (and, for that matter, ex-convicts), is absurd.

People turning to the city to create more housing when nobody has done a recent study of landlords, their fears, their expectations, their training or even their demographics is absurd.

People turning to the city to create more housing when the city is still dragging its feet on allowing new accessory dwelling units is absurd.

People adding students to a CHA waitlist that’s already so long that the students will be adults by the time their number comes up is absurd.

What isn’t absurd is the attempt to draw a link between education and housing. That isn’t absurd in the slightest. Education has a huge role to play in solving the city’s housing problems. But not from the current trajectory followed by the CTU, which is tangential at best.

Education and Housing

I’ve worked with a lot of new landlords. I’ve worked with some established ones as well. Big ones, small ones, you name it. They have the same fear: losing actual or potential income due to circumstances beyond their control. It could be because they have to evict someone and the lawsuit winds up taking over a year. It could be that word gets around that a sex offender is living in the neighborhood so tenants refuse to rent in their buildings. It could be that a family with small children trashes their apartment because kids have limited self-control and limited supervision. It could be that something breaks and they have to hire in a contractor who may or may not know what they’re doing. It could be that CHA takes five months to inspect a vacant apartment for a Section 8 voucher holder when the place could have been rented in a single day to a market rate tenant.

If you want more affordable housing you need more small private landlords. Not the ones who are working with property managers that will tell them to keep their rents high and follow “best practices” for screening for tenants. Not the REITs who are beholden first to their investors, second to the stock market and maybe, very far down the list, to the tenants. Not the flippers. We need a return of self-managed buy and hold investors in the D-Class and C-Class markets. And if you want more small private landlords you need to provide them with a source of training that isn’t rife with fear-mongering and bias.

Teach new landlords how to find good contractors. Teach them how to represent themselves in an eviction case. Teach them to understand the CRLTO. Teach them to respond to phony claims on Yelp that they’re exchanging sex for rent. Teach them that commercial investment can be about long term growth instead of quick payouts. Teach them how to take care of their properties. And for heaven’s sake teach them in every language available. Discrimination between minority groups is just as prevalent if not more prevalent than discrimination from whites to POCs.

The “City in a Garden” must tend that garden

Rather than dumping a bunch of money into creating new city-funded affordable housing units which will first be occupied by people who have been on the CHA waiting list for years, the city needs to first focus on removing some of the barriers that have given it such a bad reputation among landlords. The private market could handle it if the private market was in any semblance of good health.

Create an administrative hearings department at the city level for evictions that fall under the umbrella of the CRLTO. Drop those wait times to under a month.

Stop issuing permits to downsize existing small apartment buildings.

Repeal the moratorium on construction of new accessory dwelling units.

Enforce snow shoveling ordinances to reduce slip and fall claims that push up insurance costs.

Reduce turnaround times on CHA inspections and rent rate assessments so that voucher holders can move in on a similar time frame as market rate renters.

Offer assistance to owners of multifamily buildings constructed during the 1990s and 2000s to properly waterproof all those split-face block monstrosities that are now rotting.

If the CTU is so concerned about homeless students and homeless new teachers, let’s turn those teachers into new landlords. Fine, have your house but it has to be a multi-unit dwelling, and you cannot deconvert.

Create classes for new and existing landlords that offer a different curriculum than the fear-charged lessons taught by online forums and people in parasitic industries with potential conflicts of interest.

Coordinate with government bodies at other levels. A lot of landlords don’t like kids, criminals, or immigrants and will go to quite extensive lengths to deny them housing. They assume that other renters will avoid buildings that have kids (noise) and criminals (safety) living within. They avoid immigrants because of concerns about continuing consistent income. They’re all fair assumptions even if misguided, and they’re instructed to be wary of “those people” by their attorneys, their agents and random strangers on Reddit.

But landlords in Chicago have this year been told by the County that they have to allow criminals, by the city that they have to allow immigrants and find housing for 15,000 homeless schoolchildren with their parents, all in rapid succession. And then there’s the state legislature’s wrangling over rent control and HUD talking about gutting support for disparate impact cases. It’s all a lot to deal with. There is no chance I would counsel anyone to become a landlord in Chicago right now.

Survey the landlords in the same way that you survey the tenants. Take a census. Talk to them. Stop seeing them as a homogeneous body. Court them, train them, cherish them, count them. Don’t assume that the millions of separate LLCs in the Illinois Secretary of State database (and for that matter the Nevada and Delaware databases) are an accurate representation of the number of landlords out there.

The CHA can barely handle the existing properties in its portfolio. The last thing it needs is more of them. They just barely came out of the court supervision arrangement that lasted for 53 years since the Gautreaux case during the civil rights era.

Fix what you’ve got first, Chicago. Yes, there are a lot of homeless students and that is absolutely terrible. Yes there is a huge gap between incomes and rent rates citywide. Yes, landlords are accepting tenants who aren’t earning enough and tenants are renting properties they cannot afford. These are all problems. But the idea of slapping a bandage on it by creating more city-owned housing is ridiculous. The idea of trying to force landlords into compliance with the ARO when every source of news and education available warns them about the perils of accepting low-income tenants with kids are something to fear is ridiculous.

If you want lower prices, add more vendors and goods to the market. If you want more vendors in the market, make the market more attractive. If you want to make the market more attractive, lower the risk. Yes, there’s a place for educators in the housing debate. But not like this.

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Kay Cleaves

Founder and owner of RentConfident. She's the primary developer of the website and research engine code. She's spent over 10 years working in the Chicago rental industry and has assisted with over 1200 leases.