Bring Chicago Home: Mayor alludes to using real estate transfer tax increase for homelessness and housing, but intention and plan remain unclear

Advocates call on her to clarify her position and adopt a viable strategy

At Thursday’s budget speech, Mayor Lori Lightfoot laid out potential ways to address the city’s budget shortfall. Among the plans she presented was her proposal to raise the real estate transfer tax (RETT) on high-end properties, and immediately followed that statement by saying, “We are committed to addressing homelessness and housing instability, and putting real resources toward these problems.”

The Bring Chicago Home coalition, while heartened that she lifted up homelessness as an issue that she plans to address, is left with questions about what commitment she made, and what her plan is to turn that commitment into reality.

Throughout her campaign, the mayor committed new resources to be generated from a progressive RETT increase to create a dedicated revenue stream for homelessness and housing. However, she had recently withdrawn that commitment, instead saying that she planned to use that revenue for the budget shortfall.

Her statement on Thursday further complicates her stance, since the mayor did not explain what she meant by “real resources,” or why she brought up the RETT and homelessness consecutively.

Advocates remain insistent that the mayor keeps her commitment to create a legally-dedicated revenue stream for homelessness at a scale that will have a meaningful impact. Without dedicated revenue, advocates will have to argue for these resources every year, putting people’s housing at-risk. Furthermore, future administrations could easily cut funding unless there is a dedicated revenue source. Other cities, such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, have recently enacted such revenue streams, giving them tools to combat homelessness that Chicago needs as well.

Additionally, advocates call on the mayor to embrace a strategy that will result in a successful attempt to increase the RETT. Mayor Lightfoot has floated the possibility of looking to Springfield to increase Chicago’s RETT, despite many indications that statewide legislators do not have an appetite for the proposal. But in the meantime, time is running short on the possibility of Chicago increasing its RETT any time soon, since state law dictates the process that municipalities must follow in order to increase their RETT. A referendum question must be placed on the ballot, which voters must then pass in order to give the City Council the authority to enact a RETT increase.

In July, Bring Chicago Home introduced a resolution in the City Council to put a question on the March 2020 ballot, and if the legislative process does not move forward in September, then the timetable for putting this question on the next ballot will expire. Mayor Lightfoot must act immediately to support Bring Chicago Home’s efforts, otherwise, she is relying on Springfield to take action – a strategy that is far from guaranteed, and, if it fails, would mean that the mayor would be leaving this funding on the table.

“While we were encouraged by the mayor’s statement regarding the need to address homelessness in her ‘State of the City’ speech, now is the time to turn words into action through a winnable strategy. We stand ready to work with the Lightfoot administration to create the dedicated revenue stream at scale for homelessness and housing she committed to in her campaign,” said Doug Schenkelberg, executive director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, a member of the Bring Chicago Home coalition.