June 21, 2020

Chicago Sun-Times

Illegal tenant evictions an early warning sign of a national evictions explosion to come

From the moment the coronavirus pandemic hit Chicago, throwing thousands of residents out of work, the fear has been that evictions would follow.

Now, as reported by the Sun-Times on Friday, it’s beginning to happen. Unscrupulous landlords are using illegal methods to push out tenants who are behind in the rent. The problem threatens to grow worse, and could explode, unless government takes action.

We favor intervention at the federal level, given the national scope of the problem, and given as well the limited ability of local governments to help without subverting market forces in ways that could make things worse.

We favor the leveraging of federal assistance or tax breaks to encourage landlords and tenants to reach an accommodation. A specific bill we support, proposed by U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., would offer forgivable federal loans to landlords who waive rent and extend leases during the pandemic.

As reported by Stephanie Zimmermann, calls to the Metropolitan Tenants Organization about illegal lockouts in Chicago roughly doubled from mid-March through mid-June compared with monthly averages.

The actual numbers are not yet high — about 41 calls a month compared with the usual 22. But only a fraction of tenants who are illegally evicted ever call for help. And in those rising numbers is a warning sign about a possible explosion in evictions once Chicago’s housing court reopens.

Illinois has imposed a moratorium on evictions due to nonpayment of rent through July 31, and the Chicago City Council recently passed an ordinance requiring landlords to make “good-faith efforts” to help tenants. But some landlords are skirting the rules, locking out tenants and cutting off utilities.

The immediate recourse for tenants is to call the cops, though there’s some disagreement about how helpful the police have been. Or call the Metropolitan Tenants Organization’s hotline.

The tenants organization has called for all mortgage and rent payments to be put on hold during the pandemic, but this is a measure we don’t support. We see that as a form of rent control, even if only temporary, that could discourage investment in the long run in affordable housing.

Housing experts predict a tsunami of evictions across the country as pandemic-related protections expire. As with so much else when it comes to COVID-19, the threat is national, the fallout is national and the best response would be national.


June 21, 2020

The (Champaign) News-Gazette

The Politics of being impolitic

Did he commit a gaffe? Or didn’t he?

That’s the question surrounding state Treasurer Michael Frerichs’ recent comments before the Des Plaines Chamber of Commerce about taxing retirees’ income.

Here’s how the Arlington Daily Herald reported what transpired when Frerichs, an enthusiastic supporter of the proposed progressive income tax amendment to the Illinois Constitution, made a joint appearance with Illinois Chamber of Commerce CEO Todd Maisch, an opponent of the amendment.

“Frerichs added one argument for the progressive income tax is taxing retirement income of those who can afford it. He said he knows people who receive six-figure yearly pensions and do not pay (state) income tax, but the current system doesn’t differentiate between them and retirees who barely get by on their savings or pensions.”

“‘One thing a progressive tax would do is make clear you can have graduated rates when you are taxing retirement income,’ he said. ‘And, I think that’s something worth discussing.’”

From a factual perspective, Frerichs’ statement was totally unremarkable — it was merely an acknowledgment that passing a constitutional amendment replacing the current flat tax mandate with a progressive one would give legislators great flexibility in setting a variety of tax rates in choosing the levels and types of incomes to tax.

But from a political standpoint, critics interpreted Frerichs’ statement of the obvious as a horrendous mistake.

“Frerichs steps on third rail,” stated a headline on the CapitolFax website.

“His suggestion plays right into the opposition’s rhetoric,” wrote CapitolFax Publisher Rich Miller, a veteran observer of Illinois politics.

The alleged political mistake follows along this line: Under no circumstances are proponents of the progressive income tax plan to acknowledge that retirees’ income — including lucrative state pension payments — might become a target of revenue-hungry legislators.

Why? Because retirees vote in greater numbers than other segments of the voting population, and they’ll potentially be repelled by the idea of supporting a progressive income tax that could cost them a whole lot of money.

Voters will decide the issue in the November election, and the measure requires a super-majority to become law. So if seniors vote in disproportionate numbers against a progressive income tax, it will be much harder for it to pass.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker desperately wants the progressive income tax to become law, and he’s prepared to spend many millions of his multibillion-dollar fortune to get it done. He sees it as key to gaining access to billions of dollars in new revenue to support his spending plans.

So far, proponents are sticking to the argument that Pritzker and legislators will only raise taxes on “millionaires and billionaires,” not middle-income earners. Indeed, they’ve already passed legislation that hits those with incomes above $250,000 with higher tax rates.

But, as Frerichs notes, passing a progressive income tax would allow legislators to target retirees’ income, as they can do now under the flat tax system, by placing higher income tax rates on higher levels of pension income.

Illinois currently has a flat tax rate of 4.95 percent.

Quentin Fulks, chairman of the Vote Yes for Fairness Committee, has emphasized that Pritzker’s current progressive income tax plan “does not tax retirement income,” and he’s right.

But that doesn’t mean, as Frerichs noted, that it could not be revised to set a variety of rates on a variety of levels and types of retirement income.

There’s a reason why opponents of the progressive income tax amendment call it the “blank check” amendment. It would give legislators a totally free hand to set a variety of tax rates on a variety of levels and types of income.

Given Pritzker’s spending plans combined with state debts, financial experts have argued that the progressive rates now scheduled to go into effect if the amendment passes won’t generate anywhere near enough revenue. That’s why they say legislators will inevitably raise progressive tax rates on middle-income earners and/or target new sources of revenue that include retirees’ income.

But back to the original question — did Frerichs err by speaking truthfully to his audience about tax options if the amendment passes?

Not by our lights. His candor is commendable. It’s too bad so few public officials follow that example.


June 21, 2020

The Moline Dispatch and Rock Island Argus

Dreaming of a solution

On Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the Trump administration’s attempt to end the DACA program, which provides legal protections for 650,000 young immigrants.

The 5-4 decision, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, didn’t pass judgment on the legality of the Obama-era program. Instead, it ruled the administration failed to follow proper procedure in seeking to rescind the controversial program, which was created in 2012. Technically called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the initiative allows people who were brought to the United States illegally as children to stay in this country temporarily and get work permits.

It is worth remembering that former President Obama put this policy in place after Republicans and Democrats could not come to an agreement on a comprehensive immigration reform package. The hope was that, eventually, a permanent solution would be reached.

That has not happened. So thousands of people who live in Iowa and Illinois, who were brought here, on average, when they were less than 10 years old, are in limbo because our political leaders have not been able to find common ground on a solution.

The young immigrants, often called Dreamers, work in hospitals and nursing homes, labor on farms and in meatpacking plants. Lately, they have been especially vulnerable to COVID-19; yet, they continue to contribute to our well being. In Illinois, there are an estimated 35,000 people in the DACA program, and the households in which they live contribute almost $500 million in taxes each year; in Iowa, an estimated 2,500 people are in the program, contributing more than $23 million in taxes. Their total economic contribution is even higher.

It is our hope that the court’s decision will be a starting point for the president and Congress to restart negotiations to find a solution for Dreamers, who have built lives here.

The president has previously expressed his willingness to deal on this issue. And polls show there is overwhelming support across the country for protecting Dreamers from deportation. A Pew Research Center poll said 74% of Americans want to give them legal status and the ability to stay; that includes a majority of Republicans.

It may be naive to expect a solution before the November election, but we think there is political upside to both sides if a deal is reached. More importantly, it’s the right thing to do.

For now, a cloud over thousands of people has been lifted. But it is a temporary reprieve. Our hope is our political leaders will take this as a cue to fix the situation permanently.