Owners and Advocates - Closer Than You Think


Stacie Young, Preservation Compact Director, Community Investment Corporation
Summer, 2020



My dad’s personal philosophy was based on the premise that people are basically good, and will try to do the right thing if they can. They want to be understood, not defined by stereotypes and misconceptions.

While I tried challenging him over the years, I find myself echoing this to my kids, and have found that many others believe something pretty close.

Indeed, the COVID-19 crisis in particular has revealed the good in people. We have seen it firsthand with friends and neighbors putting their lives at risk to help others and serve on the front lines. We have heard stories about how times of crisis change relationships and bring people together.

My dad’s personal philosophy was based on the premise that people are basically good. They want to be understood, not defined by stereotypes and misconceptions.

Yet one institutional relationship has become more fraught than ever: rental building owners and tenant advocates.

The relationship was never great, but once COVID-19 shattered our stability, mild concerns twisted to certain threats, and misconceptions magnified fears. Tenant advocates fear that owners are looking forward to evicting as many tenants as they can. Owners fear that tenant advocates are telling tenants to stop paying rent.

Ironically, while fears loom large, many owners and tenants are now talking more than ever. Many building owners are proactively reaching out and being more flexible. They are helping tenants access unemployment, and assistance to help with food and utility payments. Yes, collecting rent keeps buildings and businesses afloat. But most owners also genuinely care.

Tenant advocates fear that owners are looking forward to evicting as many tenants as they can. Owners fear that tenant advocates are telling tenants to stop paying rent.

Similarly, most tenant advocates are advising tenants to talk to their housing providers – not to skip rent. Most tenants who struggle to pay rent are really trying. They are doing their best to meet the terms of their leases. They will pay if they can.

You might debate my version of real versus misconceived problems. But the colossal real problem is not up for debate: COVID-19. Nearly overnight it crushed lives, businesses, and society as we knew it, with disproportionate impacts along racial and economic lines. COVID-19 doesn’t persist because of bad housing providers or bad tenants, but because we don’t have a vaccine.

You might debate my version of real versus misconceived problems. But the colossal real problem is not up for debate: COVID-19.

The federal government has spent trillions to ease the economic consequences of this global pandemic. But the disaster hasn’t ended, and neither should the federal assistance. A massive amount of new federal rental assistance is needed so tenants can pay rent and remain stable, which in turn keeps buildings, blocks, and neighborhoods stable.

The City of Chicago and State of Illinois should be commended for committing $20 million and $150 million for rental assistance, respectively, with the state’s $150 million estimated to serve 30,000 renters. Yet nearly 1.2 million Illinois workers have applied for unemployment. Even if only one quarter of those 1.2 million needed rental assistance (a very conservative estimate), simple math says we would still need ten times more in assistance.

Let’s start with the fact that both groups share a common goal: We all want successful tenants, solid buildings, and strong blocks.

Speaking of unemployment, the job sectors most affected by COVID-19 are also those that employ the lowest paid workers – mostly renters, who live in the most vulnerable neighborhoods. Those sectors could take months to come back, if they come back at all. Tenants need income to pay rent, and the expanded federal unemployment benefits that paid the bills will run out at the end of July. Those expanded benefits need to be extended to avoid a steep and devastating cliff.

So what do government programs have to do with owners and tenant groups?

With partners hailing from many different sectors, it is not uncommon for ideas and values to conflict. In fact, disagreement often fuels successful strategies.

Let’s start with the fact that both groups share a common goal: We all want successful tenants, solid buildings, and strong blocks. We can pursue that common goal by defining the real problem (COVID-19), and the real solutions (meaningful and sustained government assistance).

The Preservation Compact is familiar with pursuing shared goals. As a policy collaborative, we work with many diverse stakeholders, including both owners and advocates, to craft solutions that preserve affordable rental housing. With partners hailing from many different sectors, it is not uncommon for ideas and values to conflict. In fact, disagreement often fuels successful strategies.

Building owners and tenant advocates do not have to agree on everything, but we do need to remember the root problem, and work together to advocate for the surefire solution.

Building owners and tenant advocates do not have to agree on everything, but we do need to remember the root problem, and work together to advocate for the surefire solution

In the spirit of keeping eyes on the prize, kudos to NBOA for resisting the temptation to fall in line with traditional allies in a recent lawsuit. Instead, NBOA emphasized that housing providers will continue working with tenants when they can.

Certainly proposals that seem reasonable to one group will continue to trouble the other group.

It is government dollars, not misconceptions and arguments, that will keep tenants, buildings, and neighborhoods strong.

You may not agree with my dad about all of us being good people trying to do the right thing. But please, let’s focus on what matters – and who can make it happen.

It is government dollars, not misconceptions and arguments, that will keep tenants, buildings, and neighborhoods strong.