Mayor Brandon Johnson nods to possible loss for Bring Chicago Home

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Mayor Brandon Johnson acknowledged Wednesday that hope was waning for the Bring Chicago Home referendum but remained defiant that his progressive agenda would go on, regardless of whether the tax hike to fund homelessness services prevails.

According to unofficial results from the Chicago Board of Elections, with 98.45% of precincts reporting, 53.7% of votes were against the referendum, to 46.3% in favor.

The Bring Chicago Home initiative was a key pledge from Johnson, who hoped it would be the first win from his economic agenda that he said would make wealthy residents and corporate interests pay their fair share. But a defeat at the ballot box would signal brewing voter discontent over the mayor’s coalition that has governed the nation’s third-largest city since May but faced relentless resistance from moderates and business interests on top of a costly response to the migrant crisis.

At a post-Council news conference, the mayor told reporters that any failure of Bring Chicago Home should not come to define his administration or leftist movement.

“This is the greatest city in the world. There’s not a fight that we have not taken on that we won’t have the ability to win,” Johnson said. “The progressive agenda — again, from dealing with mental health, dealing with education, dealing with workers — that progressive agenda is expansive, as it should be. Forty-plus years, decades of disinvestment.”

The mayor touted “the transformation that propelled me into office” while reminiscing on how he was polling at single digits during the start of the mayoral race.

While he noted votes are still being counted, Johnson also signaled other, unspecified ideas to fund homeless services may take precedence should Bring Chicago Home fail this time. He also refused to extend an olive branch to the real estate lobby and claimed the biggest opposition came from communities with “the same people who want to see Donald Trump … be president again.”

“It was cowardly. Cowardly,” Johnson said about the referendum’s opposition attacking his tenure as mayor. “Look, you can have your position. Whatever it is. There are 68,000 people who unhoused in this city. 70% of them are Black. … It was cowardly. But I’m still here, still standing. And I will be punching back.”

The Bring Chicago Home campaign released a statement Tuesday evening that stopped short of conceding but acknowledged the lackluster performance. The group had no updates Wednesday.

“While tonight’s election results are disappointing, we are nowhere near the end of our journey,” the statement said. “Whatever the final count, one thing is abundantly clear tonight: how determined our opponents are to continue profiting from displacement and inequality.”

A key opponent of the ballot initiative that represents major downtown buildings did not declare victory Tuesday evening but said the industry remains focused on solving homelessness “while bolstering our city’s competitiveness.”

“We are grateful to everyone who spoke out against the constant real estate tax increases in our city,” Building Owners and Managers Association of Chicago executive director Farzin Parang said in a statement. “This massive tax increase would hurt homeowners, renters, union workers, and businesses across Chicago.”

Should the ballot measure falter, Johnson and supporters could try again via the state legislature or a similar effort on another ballot, perhaps as soon as November. But it would be difficult to build the political will for another attempt after the first came up short.

Early returns show the opposition to the ballot question came from downtown, the city’s bungalow belts near the Southwest Side and Far Northwest Side airports, the Southeast Side and the north lakefront.

The South and West sides as well as progressive areas along Milwaukee Avenue and the Far North Side were the referendum’s strongest backers, according to unofficial totals. But there were also indications that pockets within Latino strongholds on the Southwest and Northwest sides as well as some majority-Black precincts on the West Side that went for Johnson in the April runoff refuted the tax referendum.

Little Village Ald. Michael Rodriguez, 22nd, said Wednesday that Latino precincts in his ward supported the referendum more than others with that makeup but lamented low turnout and confusion over the referendum.

“The most motivated voters in this election tended to be a little more conservative,” he said. “Maybe the worst part of the strategy is not tying it to the general election where you have higher turnout and a much more representative vote of the public.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, just 22.6% of the city’s registered voters had cast ballots, a turnout far below that of both the mayoral primary and runoff last year.

At the coalition’s election night headquarters inside a West Side sports arena, the mood was a far cry from Johnson’s victory party last April that gave the city’s long-excluded progressive movement its biggest jolt in decades. The mayor and many top surrogates were not in attendance Tuesday evening, but referendum backers put up a unified front as they chanted, “I’m in this till the wheels fall off,” before eventually packing up for the night.

Supporters listen to speakers during an election night watch party for the Bring Chicago Home referendum campaign, March 19, 2024. (Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune)
Supporters listen to speakers during an election night watch party for the Bring Chicago Home referendum campaign, March 19, 2024. (Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune)

The results won’t be official for weeks. Chicago Board of Elections spokesman Max Bever said after polls closed Tuesday that 109,975 mail-in ballots remained outstanding. Those late-arriving tallies rarely change the outcome except in very tight contests, however.

The measure that sought to raise the city’s real estate transfer tax for property purchases above $1 million took a bumpy and winding road to voting booths across the city. It survived a previous administration that grew hostile toward it as well as an eleventh-hour legal fight brought by the real estate lobby that threatened to toss it out.

The coalition of homeless advocacy organizations, labor unions and other progressive groups that christened themselves the “Bring Chicago Home” campaign first mobilized behind the idea in 2018. Proponents coalesced around the belief that the city must address its dearth of affordable housing, settling on an idea to raise a one-time levy on higher-end property purchases.

In making the case for Bring Chicago Home, Johnson — as both candidate and mayor — had evoked the personal story of his brother, Leon.

“My brother had untreated trauma, and died addicted and unhoused,” the mayor said during a visit to the Jesse Brown Veterans Affairs Medical Center this month. “People have an opportunity to show up and vote on March 19, to tell the story to the rest of the world that we actually care about the unhoused.”

If the city’s voters do not follow suit, the defeat would certainly be cast by opponents as a referendum on Johnson’s tenure as mayor just as much as on the specific proposal to raise taxes — always a thorny ask. The ballot question’s structure could have also been too confusing to pitch to voters, while the March primary that saw uncompetitive races and an unpopular incumbent at the top of the ballot may have been the wrong moment for Bring Chicago Home to strike.

Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42nd, said Wednesday the early returns show the Johnson administration’s progressive wish list “is pretty much dead in the water” until fiscal and public safety concerns take the forefront.

“This was a citywide repudiation of the mayor’s flawed tax policy, and I think more so, it was really a message to the mayor to pump the brakes on his anti-business agenda,” said Reilly, a frequent mayoral critic. “I’m looking at this result as a report card on the mayor.”

The Bring Chicago Home campaign sought to distinguish itself from the burgeoning humanitarian crisis surrounding the 37,000 migrants who have come to Chicago since 2022. But their plights that included stretches of sleeping outside police stations, coupled with mounting fiscal alarm over the $300 million taxpayer bill to house and feed them, surely hung over the minds of many voters deciding on Bring Chicago Home.

And though United Working Families and other progressive groups had a formidable ground game, Gov. J.B. Pritzker — and his political war chest — stayed away from the Bring Chicago Home race after seeing his graduated tax amendment fail in a 2020 statewide referendum.

Bring Chicago Home centers on a levy hike tied to the purchase of all properties that sell for above $1 million, paid once by the buyer. The city currently charges a flat 0.75% rate on property purchases.

The original proposal called for two rates — the same 0.75% on home sales below $1 million, and 2.65% on properties above $1 million. But Johnson’s team last summer devised a new version that instead called for establishing three tax brackets and a marginal rate, meaning only the additional dollars above that bracket would have been subject to the higher tax rate.

Under the proposal that was on the ballot, properties purchased for less than $1 million would actually see the real estate transfer tax paid by sellers cut slightly to 0.6%. Purchases between $1 million and $1.5 million would have a 0.6% levy on the first $999,999 of the price and 2% on the rest. Properties above $1.5 million would be taxed 0.6% on the first $999,999, 2% on the next $500,000 and 3% on the rest.

Backers estimated 93% of sales would be subject to the lower tax rate, while larger commercial properties such as offices, large apartment buildings, stores and industrial sites would shoulder a much bigger burden.

It was that very revamp by the Johnson administration that ended up causing an explosive, weekslong legal battle for the referendum — and would likely be scrutinized during the campaign’s post mortem should the tides not turn soon.

In January, opponents including BOMA, the Chicagoland Apartment Association and the Neighborhood Building Owners Alliance filed a lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court against the Chicago Board of Elections. The referendum’s three-part question combining a tax increase with a decrease was the basis of the suit, which argued that was logrolling: bundling an unpopular proposal with a popular one to garner voter support.

The escalation was no surprise. The groups have long argued that if the referendum passed, it would dampen sales in an already-fragile market, hurt mom-and-pop residential landlords and not adequately address the homelessness crisis.

While the real estate interests won an initial victory with its lawsuit in Cook County court, it ultimately lost on appeal. However, the weeks following Cook County Judge Kathleen Burke’s ruling in BOMA’s favor — invalidating the question until the Illinois Appellate Court reinstated the referendum — may have dealt damage to voter turnout.

The Bring Chicago Home campaign had continued to encourage Chicagoans to vote “yes” in the hopes of a successful appeal, while hurling accusations of voter suppression at the judicial system. Meanwhile, opponents tied the referendum to Johnson’s trustworthiness as the city’s leader, capitalizing on other crises gripping the city.

The $4.9 million-plus that flowed into campaigns for and against the question was roughly split between both sides. The leading opposition campaign funds raised $2.3 million, while the sole political fund that supported the referendum received $2.6 million as of Tuesday afternoon.

Johnson’s campaign fund contributed $100,000 to the pro-referendum organization in the week before the primary, according to the state Board of Elections.

The 2024 budget, Johnson’s first as mayor, allocates more than $250 million on homelessness services. The city tallied more than 6,100 homeless Chicagoans at one point in time last year, with most residing in shelters and just under 1,000 on the street.

The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, the nonprofit torchbearer of the Bring Chicago Home drive, has argued the city’s homeless count is actually more than 68,400 because it also counts those couch-surfing with relatives or friends.

The ballot question laid out the following use for the additional revenue: “The purpose of addressing homelessness, including providing permanent affordable housing and the services necessary to obtain and maintain permanent housing in the City of Chicago.”

The mayor has declined to elaborate on the breakdown beyond that, telling reporters this month it would be incumbent on City Council to gin up the specifics.

The Johnson administration estimated the rate change would yield an average of $100 million annually, though officials acknowledged the one-time transaction tax has historically been quite volatile. The mayor’s budget team declined to provide a final analysis of 2023’s real estate transfer tax revenue total before the March primary.

Chicago was not the only city to consider this type of levy increase. Earlier this year, Los Angeles also hiked a transfer tax to fund homeless services but has failed to see results. But in other cities such as Evanston, similar measures simply took time to become more fruitful.

Chicago Tribune’s A.D. Quig contributed.

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