By Mel Whitehouse
Working at Chicago HOPES for Kids we are constantly toggling between homelessness by the numbers- nearly 80,000 people are experiencing homelessness in Chicago, their average age is 8 years old, that’s 1 in 20 students in CPS- and a more interpersonal lens through our daily interactions with our students. Inherent in this back and forth is the fact that these staggering numbers and our students are one and the same, and that while our HOPES mission is to help students “succeed despite the challenges of homelessness” the ultimate goal is to end homelessness altogether which can only happen on a structural, policy level. The city was introduced to one such policy initiative when on October 31st Ald. Walter Burnett (27th ward) announced the Bring Chicago Home campaign- a proposal to raise funds for homeless services via a tax on high end real estate purchases. However, the support of 32 aldermen and 66% of the public was not enough for the initiative to make it onto the February 2019 ballot.
The Bring Chicago Home campaign is supported by a coalition of organizations across the city, many of whom we at HOPES frequently partner with including the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Primo Center for Women and Children, Family Rescue and La Casa Norte, that aims to raise the existing Real Estate Transfer Tax (RETT) by 1.2% for properties over 1 million dollars with all the revenue earmarked specifically for affordable housing and homeless services. The RETT is levied just once at the time of sale and in Chicago the burden is split between the seller and the buyer (note: the increase in this proposal would fall entirely on the buyers portion). The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless anticipates that while this tax would only impact 4% of real estate sales in Chicago, it would generate $150 million a year. This type of a graduated property transfer tax, sometimes referred to as a “mansion tax”, already exists in other cities. Baltimore, for example voted to pass a strikingly similar transfer tax also on properties over 1 million dollars to raise funds for an affordable housing trust, and just this past November, Evanston voted to graduate their real estate transfer tax with brackets for sales over $1.5 million and $5 million.
Opponents of the measure, including the real estate community have a range of concerns, stating that the burden of this tax will end up falling to renters and that it is not a steady enough stream of revenue to effectively address the issues of homelessness. Mayor Rahm Emanuel also came out against the proposal stating that homeowners should not be “treated as an ATM machine”. Supporters have responded to these concerns pointing to the graduated nature of the tax, and stating that a reserve fund will be created to address any fluctuations and that it will be stipulated that the funds generated from this tax do not supplant those already set aside to address the issue of homelessness. At the end of the day though the merits of the Bring Chicago Home proposal will be decided by the voters as changes to the RETT must be approved by voter referendum.
However, this debate will now have another year to play out in the public sphere. While the Coalition was aiming to get the referendum on to the citywide February 2019 elections opposition within City Council delayed the proposals progress bureaucratically culminating at the November 14th City Council meeting where Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd ward) and Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd ward) called to delay the vote until the December 12th meeting definitively thwarting the proposal from the December 10th deadline to get on the February ballot. In spite of this delay the coalition has restated their aim to continue to build support and are now eyeing the March 2020 ballot. So for now, only time will tell if and when our students, their families and the rest of the 80,000 people experiencing homelessness in Chicago will get to see the increase in funding for services that this tax promises.
For more information and to stay up to date on this proposal go to: www.bringchicagohome.org