A group of Mac Properties tenants announced Tuesday that they were beginning a rent strike on April 1, refusing to pay rent until their demands are met. Meanwhile, the property management company and landlord sent out its own email to tenants Monday, stating that it will “work with each resident individually.”
The group of tenants, under the name Mac Tenants United, released a letter containing a list of demands and announcing the rent strike until those demands are met. Among those demands: that Mac, for the duration of the outbreak, halt evictions, cancel rent for all tenants, and not attempt to collect unpaid rent.
Zak Witus, one of the organizers behind Mac Tenants United and a graduate student at the University of Chicago, said that 32 tenants had pledged to go on rent strike as of Tuesday. (The pledges are being tracked through an online form.) About 60 people spread across 13 different Mac buildings are part of the entire effort.
The tenants also take a broader tack in the letter, arguing that Mac Properties and its owner, the real estate investment firm Antheus Capital, are attempting to “fundamentally change Hyde Park, Kenwood and Woodlawn by removing working class, black, and brown tenants, and then (replacing) them with rich tenants who can afford luxury apartments with high rents.”
As restitution, Tenants United is demanding that Mac only build new housing that contains at least 75% affordable units.
“The people who are organizing with us, many of them have lived in Hyde Park for a long time and they’re seeing these larger issues. So it’s not just in response to immediate crisis but is in response to a larger crisis that Mac has been a part of in Hyde Park, which is gentrification,” said Witus, adding that the group is also organizing mutual aid projects, offering help to elderly or immuno-compromised neighbors.
“We’re organizing to build more power in our community, and to assert democratic control over housing in our community," he added.
Peter Cassel, director of community development at Mac, said he “fundamentally reject(s) that characterization” of the company as a gentrifier that pushes out low-income people and people of color from the neighborhood.
When asked about the strike announcement, Cassel said, “We are ready and able to work with all of our residents who would like to figure out together how we get through this pandemic and the economic impact associated."
Mac sent a mass email out to its tenants yesterday afternoon, stating that it will negotiate with residents on an individual basis.
“Some of our residents will be able to pay rent as usual, and for others, due to changed circumstances, that is simply impossible. Over the past few days we have developed a procedure for residents unable to pay rent due to extreme situations such as job loss or business closure to contact us,” reads the letter. “We will work with each resident individually, according to personal circumstances. These conversations are private and will remain confidential.”
The letter also outlines three main options for tenants: a payment plan, free relocation to a less expensive apartment, and “a path to lease termination.”
One Mac tenant, Courtney Robinson, worries that each of the latter two options aren’t feasible for most people. She responded to Mac’s letter with an email of her own, in which she wrote: “Mac Properties is a multimillion dollar company that can afford to do the right thing at such a turbulent time. Do the right thing. Cancel rent.”
“It’s just not feasible for people to move from their homes. People have to pay movers, there’s a lot that goes into moving. We built our homes here, and now they’re saying you can just move to a less expensive apartment, but that might not be possible,” Robinson, a graduate student at Roosevelt University who moved to Hyde Park in December, told the Herald. “The option to cancel our leases — I don’t see people being able to sleep on sidewalks during a global pandemic.”
John Hieronymus, an organizer with Tenants United Hyde Park Woodlawn, the group that has been helping residents across Hyde Park organize in response to the coronavirus outbreak, echoed Robinson’s point.
“Their solution to this is to offer people to break their lease. They would rather people leave in the middle of the pandemic to find an apartment somewhere else that they’re somehow supposed to be able to afford when they’re already out of money,” he said.
“We’re shepherding people away from looking at this like it’s an individual problem to a problem that they’re having as a collective group, because we think that as individuals they’re probably not going to get very far.”
“I think there’s a whole range of ways that people in Hyde Park are experiencing the pandemic economically," said Cassel. "The service worker who’s been locked out of their job is in a very different position than the person who’s paid on Friday exactly what they received two weeks prior.
“We know that within Hyde Park and in our portfolio there are people all across that spectrum, with most probably somewhere in the middle. There’s no doubt that retirement accounts and so on have taken a hit in the stock market. There’s no doubt that even the most stable organizations are gonna be challenged economically. But neither of those things strike us the same as a person who’s lost their job.”
Cassel also cited the example of a tenant in a property owned by Mac in St. Louis, who was granted permission to terminate his lease early after losing his job at Washington University in St. Louis.
And it’s not only Mac tenants who are organizing: Hieronymus said that tenants in buildings run by TLC Management, Hyde Park Property Management and Pangea Real Estate in South Shore are gearing up for a rent strike. The TLC tenants are planning to deliver a strike letter by April 5, the end of the standard five-day grace period for rent payments.
Hieronymus noted that the work Tenants United Hyde Park Woodlawn has been doing since it formed last year has laid the foundation for this moment.
“We were not anticipating this. We didn’t know that it was coming … but we had done a lot of work to kind of get our infrastructure in place and ready to go,” he said. “As soon as people started expressing interest we were able to get them quickly pulled together into various work spaces. We’re using the experiences we’ve gained through organizing with tenants over the past year or two to give people a realistic idea of what’s coming ahead.”
Calls for rent relief are also amping up across the rest of the city, though Mayor Lori Lightfoot said last week that she could not institute a rent freeze unless the state repealed its 1997 law banning rent control. The Lift the Ban Coalition, a group of organizations who have been working on the issue for the past few years, released a letter Tuesday morning calling on Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) to repeal the law.
“We need you to immediately repeal the Rent Control Preemption Act, establish a “rent holiday” (a period wherein renters will not be obligated to pay rent), and mortgage forgiveness for the duration of the “shelter-in-place” order and the 3 months following to help families retain their earnings in order to weather this calamity,” reads the letter, whose signatories include five Chicago aldermen.
The call for Pritzker to repeal the 1997 law, however, may not be constitutional. "No executive order can repeal a state statute that forbids something. For better or worse, the General Assembly has forbidden local rent control ordinances. No executive order can go against the prohibition," said Ann Lousin, a law professor at John Marshall Law School and the author of a reference guide to the Illinois state constitution.
But until something changes, tenants say, they will not be paying rent. That includes Robinson, even though she has not been organizing directly with any of the Tenants United groups.
“We’re not paying rent tomorrow. We’re gonna wait until at least the 5th just to see what they do and see what happens,” she said. “We do have our rent. We’re one of the lucky few people, even though we’re not rich, but I would definitely (consider) just not paying rent. If not for me then for others who can’t.”
This story has been updated to include a comment from Ann Lousin.