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State Sen. Robert Peters (D-13th) during a Thursday press conference. 

A group of Black officials and activists hosted a virtual press conference Thursday morning, during which they called for the city and state to open up vacant housing units and suspend the ban on rent control, as well as a host of other measures aimed at mitigating the disproportionate impact of coronavirus on Black communities.

The proposed legislation builds on the "right to recovery" package released a few weeks ago by legislators and community groups, which outlines a package of measures to help fight the effects of the pandemic. 

“It has become increasingly clear that communities that have suffered through institutional racism and crisis … for generations have certainly borne the brunt of this disease,” said Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson (1st).

“We are resolved as labor leaders, elected leaders, and community leaders to put forth solutions that will ultimately confront the crisis that we are in the midst of, but ensuring that we put forth the type of policies that will ultimately demand equity and justice as we move beyond the pandemic.”

One of those demands is for Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) to lift the statewide ban on rent control measures, a move that proponents say would allow either the state or city to institute a moratorium on rent and mortgage payments as a form of relief for households that have lost their income. Pritzker has said that he is unable to repeal the law through executive order, and that only the state legislature — currently not in session — can vote to lift the ban.

On Tuesday, however, the Lift the Ban Coalition — a group of organizations working to repeal the rent control law — released a memo from the law firm Despres, Schwartz, and Geoghegan, which argued that the governor can provide rent relief in a number of different ways. Under the Illinois Emergency Management Act, one part of the argument runs, the governor can suspend regulatory laws if they would “prevent, hinder or delay necessary coping with the disaster.”

This action would be similar to the moratorium on evictions he has ordered, but the memo also argues that the governor could provide relief for the duration of the stay at home order, or suspend the ban and allow municipalities to institute rent relief themselves.

Jawanza Malone, the executive director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, has been at the forefront of the coalition’s efforts to lift the ban. During the press conference, he made his case again.

“Gov. Pritzker needs to immediately call for a rent holiday and mortgage forbearance to provide relief for all the families that are struggling to keep a home the same,” he said. “We are witnessing the chickens coming home to roost. If our elected officials had exercised the political will to address the critical need for affordable housing, we would not be in this situation.”

Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) criticized the rent relief program that the city has put together, under which 2,000 families will receive $1,000 in assistance — half through a lottery, the other half through local nonprofits. “When it comes to bills in my community, the majority of calls to my office have been, ‘Listen, I’m not paying my rent, I’m not gonna pay my light and gas because I need to feed my children,’ ” she said.

Taylor also called for the Chicago Housing Authority to use any vacant units to help house homeless people, arguing that the steps already taken by the city are not enough. “Opening up hotels, opening up YMCAs, that’s great — but it’s putting a bandaid on a bullet wound,” she said. “Why not actually give people housing while we have the opportunity? There is nothing standing in the way. There’s no politics in this.”

State Sen. Robert Peters (D-13th), meanwhile, focused on mass incarceration, amid the news that Cook County Jail is the largest “hot spot” for coronavirus across the entire country. As of Wednesday, 353 inmates and staff had tested positive.

“When we think about this pandemic, it impacts everybody who’s incarcerated, it impacts everybody who works inside of a prison and in jail. It impacts the community. People who thought they were safe are getting sick,” he said. Peters called for the end of pretrial detention; Johnson, speaking a little later, asked Cook County Board of Commissioners President Toni Preckwinkle to end money bond admissions into jail and release all prisoners over the age of 50.

On Thursday, a federal judge denied a request for Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart to move inmates to other facilities. The judge did mandate, however, that Dart provide face masks to quarantined detainees, and regularly sanitize the jail.

In response to a question, Peters said that he supported the release of University of Chicago student Charles Thomas from the jail. Thomas, who has been exhibiting coronavirus symptoms, was denied release on bond last week.

“If I'm going to be someone who advocates for ending pretrial detention, someone like Charles Thomas is an example. He's being locked up and being controlled instead of getting the healthcare and the love that he deserves, and the dignity he deserve,” he said. “I think that all the actors involved need to get him out.”

Peters also called for more paid sick leave for workers. “It is literally Black workers that are keeping systems going, and we are disproportionately affected by the lack of healthcare, the lack of workers’ rights, the lack of housing, the lack of money directly in our pockets, and the history of policing,” he said.

“We see systemic failures that happen, and then we see mass incarceration sort of dealing with the racist and classist systemic failures of the past,” he continued. “These need to end and we need to remodel and imagine what it means to have safety and justice and healthcare in our communities.”


Christian Belanger graduated from the University of Chicago in 2017. He has previously written for South Side Weekly, Chicago magazine and the Chicago Reader.

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