Illinois REALTORS® and the Chicago Association of REALTORS® Conduct Campaign to Defeat Transfer Tax Referendum

Illinois REALTORS® and the Chicago Association of REALTORS® Conduct Campaign to Defeat Transfer Tax Referendum

May 2024

Seeking revenue to address the city’s homeless crisis, the Chicago City Council placed a bold referendum on its March 2024 ballot.  Called “Bring Chicago Home,” it would have increased the transfer tax on homes selling for more than $1 million – by up to 300%.  Illinois REALTORS® and the Chicago Association of REALTORS® aggressively fought the issue before it made it to the ballot, and its addition triggered the state association’s most robust Issues Mobilization effort to date.  The multi-faceted campaign prevailed in the end, with help from the REALTOR® Party.

Gideon Blustein, Illinois REALTORS®’ Senior Director of Advocacy Programs, explains that the proposed transfer tax increase threatened to make Chicago’s housing, including rental housing, more expensive, upsetting the already struggling real estate market and derailing the local economy.   Even so, he knew that opposing the referendum was going to be an uphill battle with the Chicago electorate, so he reached out to a colleague in Los Angeles who offered him guidance based on recent experience.  “The three key things he advised were getting out early and defining how the issue would affect voters; collaborating with fellow stakeholders; and engaging the members.  We did all of this, and it was great advice,” says Blustein.

Through early polling and focus group research, the REALTORS® determined the message that resonated with voters explained how the referendum would increase property taxes on middle class families.  They capitalized on that message by front-loading the campaign with five direct mail pieces to a target audience deemed most likely to be convinced, putting the opposition on their back foot, says Blustein: “They were mounting an aggressive door-knocking campaign, but our mailers had beat them to it: when people answered, the first question was, ‘Why would I vote for this?’  It put our adversaries on the defensive, which was just where we wanted them.”

Polling also revealed that voters had the heart and the will to do something that would help the unhoused, but they recognized that even the short-term transfer tax reduction for less expensive homes promised by the referendum would eventually be increased.  Voters were skeptical, too, about how the tax revenue would be spent to alleviate homelessness, says Blustein.  “It wasn’t a clearly articulated plan.  This lack of voter trust, combined with a deep concern about an increased cost of living, gave the campaign a powerful one-two punch.”

Paid media, including a final week of advertising on broadcast television, worked hand-in-hand with a “Get Out The Vote” effort supported by a dedicated website, emails and phone calls.  Although the ballot date was in mid-March, Blustein says he didn’t fully exhale until April 1, when the count was finalized, because Illinois – and Chicago in particular – has such a strong vote-by-mail program.  In the end, the referendum was voted down by 53%.

The REALTORS® are relieved by the victory, but it is not a cause for celebration, notes Blustein. “It was just the wrong policy, and having blocked it, there’s still lots of work to be done:  we need to get people housed and create more housing stock.”  Looking ahead, he says, the REALTORS® will be working with the City Council to find ways to increase housing inventory at all price points.

To learn more about how the REALTORS® are working to ensure that housing policy protects property owners and supports efforts to increase housing stock at all levels, contact Gideon Blustein, Senior Director of Advocacy Programs, or 217.529.2600.

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