The South Side: Not actually an unmitigated sea of misery

As I’ve written before, the South Side is a much more diverse place than people give it credit for. This is true both in the ethnic sense – you can find Asian, Hispanic, white, black, and, yes, integrated neighborhoods there – and in the sense that for each of these ethnic categories, there’s a range of economic conditions.

Pete Saunders has a nice post reminding people of this second fact, by pointing out that the kids on the Jackie Robinson Little League team (and US champions, by the by) mostly come from neighborhoods that don’t actually fit the storyline some media outlets have chosen to put on them. That is, they did not all emerge from broken homes, dodging bullets as they cut through trash-strewn lots to the baseball diamond, which was the one outlet they had to seek relief from their impoverished ghetto.

No, in fact, this is what the houses across the street from Jackie Robinson Park look like:


And here’s a random block from a few streets away:


If you look at the maps of the black middle class I made a bit ago, you can see the far South Side neighborhoods that make up the area around Jackie Robinson Park lit up in blue:


Now, that’s not to say that these neighborhoods don’t have problems. Like many, if not most, working- and middle-class neighborhoods in America, they’ve seen significant losses of well-paying jobs over the last several decades. Like most black neighborhoods in America, they’ve been shaped by a legacy of segregation that’s dramatically increased the concentration of poverty there, compared to working- and middle-class neighborhoods that aren’t black, and they have some of the issues that come with relatively higher poverty rates, like relatively higher crime rates. But they’re also, as Pete points out, not generally dangerous in the way that outsiders imagine every black neighborhood on the South Side is.

Roseland – one of the neighborhoods where a lot of the Robinson players are from – also happens to be home to Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep, which Chicago Magazine named the fifth-best public high school in the city, just below the four super-elite test-in academies, and higher than another North Side selective-enrollment school, Lane Tech. Its average ACT score is even with Niles West, a well-regarded north suburban school that serves a significantly more affluent population.

Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep

Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep

Near Brooks is Poe Elementary, which that same issue of Chicago Magazine ranked as the fifth-best public elementary school in the city, above many of the neighborhood schools – and even a handful of selective enrollment schools – in places like Lincoln Park and Lakeview that have become the default option for the city’s “global city” class. Three other Far South Side schools made the top ten, two of them in black neighborhoods.

There’s something to all this – to my laying out the case that you should think of the South Side as a place where people live, and where they accomplish things that they and other people find admirable, like keeping tidy lawns, or playing baseball extremely well, or supporting high-achieving schools – that’s very noxious. That is to say, it assumes that a) the personhood, and respectability, of these people is in doubt, and b) that the esteem of the people who doubt it – the North Siders and suburbanites and newspaper writers and readers all around the country – is necessary, that it’s not enough that the residents of these neighborhoods are, in fact, people.

My indignance – not to mention the prospect of freeing up more time to write about things that shouldn’t be obvious – makes it tempting to declare that the esteem (or, at the moment, the ignorance) of the rest of the world doesn’t matter. Unfortunately, that’s plainly not true.

Brooks College Prep, the fifth-best public high school in the city, was at the receiving end of that ignorance last year, when parents from Walter Payton College Prep (number two on Chicago Magazine’s rankings) forfeit a game of baseball because they were too terrified of Roseland to allow their children to go to Brooks’ campus to play.

And if Payton parents – whose views, I imagine, are broadly representative of those “global city” households downtown and on the North Side, and in analogous neighborhoods across the country – won’t go to Roseland on a chartered bus to play a scheduled high school baseball game at one of the city’s elite selective enrollment high schools, they’re certainly not going there to spend any money at the local businesses, or to open businesses, or to visit the local sites, like the Pullman Historic District. Their ignorance demands that these places, and these people, be completely shunned.

Lobby at the Hotel Florence in Pullman. Credit: Eric Allix Rogers

Lobby at the Hotel Florence in Pullman. Credit: Eric Allix Rogers

And while the parents themselves certainly deserve some blame for this, I’m going to go ahead and add it to the j’accuse from “The Dignity of Fifth-Graders” and ask that media outlets in Chicago and nationwide consider how their coverage of crime on the South Side has contributed to this situation. If you spend years telling your readers that the South Side is a “war zone,” then you don’t get to be surprised when your readers treat it like a war zone.

We don’t get to celebrate one baseball team’s worth of black kids from the South Side while we’re shunning all the rest.

Gentrification and Integration in Chicago Public Schools

Is the topic of a piece I have over at Next City. (I’ve written about this before here.) Excerpt:

More remarkable, maybe, is that only a mile from Blaine is Audubon Elementary, where “exceeds” scores have increased from barely 1 percent to nearly 16 percent among low-income students over the same period. And then walking distance from Audubon is Burley, whose numbers have jumped from 4 percent to more than 19 percent. All told, there are 10 elementary schools, all clustered in the same region of the city, whose low-income students have collectively improved more than twice as fast as their peers in other public, non-selective Chicago elementaries.


The world beyond the blogosphere

Last week, I published a piece on the history of zoning as a civil rights issue at the Washington Post:

For years, activists and researchers have known that restrictive zoning is among the most powerful forces behind racial and economic segregation in the country….

In the aftermath of Brown…, civil rights activists took up the cause of what became known as “exclusionary zoning.” After the passage of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, President Richard Nixon’s first HUD secretary, George Romney (father of Mitt), actually devised a plan to deny federal money to cities and suburbs that engaged in exclusionary zoning….

The 1970s saw a tidal wave of high-profile civil rights lawsuits taking aim at restrictive zoning laws…

[I]n places, the fight has continued. Researcher-activists such as Douglas Massey and Myron Orfield have bolstered the academic evidence that restrictive zoning laws promote segregation, and reporters such as Hannah-Jones are keeping those stories alive….

Part of the impetus for writing it was a sense that proponents of maintaining restrictive zoning – from the Gawker article that I cited in that piece, to the lefty activists the Gawker article was ostensibly supporting, to Jim Russell and Pete Saunders – score a lot of their rhetorical points by linking people who would like to see cities legalize a wider array of building types to “bad guys,” from greedy developers to self-absorbed yuppies and hipsters.

Gawker, for example, characterized zoning reform supporters as “tech bloggers, Redditors, Hacker News trolls, and politically-connected venture capitalists.”

Jim Russell has written that “Urbanists want to gouge tenured African-American residents in order to secure cheaper access to the city,” and, on multiple occasions, that loosening zoning restrictions would “exacerbate segregation.”

Pete Saunders, for his part, has claimed that the entire idea that zoning causes problems is a “millennial fallacy,” promoted by “young urbanists” who are more interested in “where want to live” than in the broader economic health of the city.

What’s interesting here is a view of the world that completely erases decades of fair housing fights on exactly the lines that Gawker, Russell, and Saunders are more or less openly claiming to champion. In this world, the NAACP never waged a decade-plus fight to overturn restrictive zoning in New Jersey. In this world, civil rights lawyers in the Obama Administration aren’t fighting to overturn restrictive zoning in the New York suburbs right now. In this world, the country’s most respected researchers on racial and economic inequality, like Douglas Massey, haven’t authored their own studies linking exclusionary zoning to segregation.

These people seem pretty sure that restrictive zoning helps them keep out black people.

These people seem pretty sure that restrictive zoning helps them keep out black people.

The erasure is so complete that Jim Russell can use sociologist Robert Sampson’s research to “prove” that allowing more housing construction makes segregation worse – and Saunders can endorse this as a “fantastic” takedown – without ever realizing that Sampson himself has written that the exact opposite is true. (Of course, this is not an isolated incident for Russell: his very first post on the subject used research by Joe Gyourko to claim that increasing the supply of housing wouldn’t significantly reduce the price of housing, without ever disclosing that much of Gyourko’s career – including the paper that Russell quoted – has been based on proving the reverse.)

To be fair, as Surly Urbanist has pointed out, it’s not as if the more selfish motivations that these writers and activists perceive don’t exist somewhere. The rise of housing supply restrictions as a concern in places like Slate and so on surely is, to some extent, a result of rising rents becoming a bigger problem specifically for young, relatively well-to-do journalists and their social circles. Beyond that, loosening zoning regulations definitely appeals not only to fair housing advocates, but also to libertarians (who are amenable to any argument against government regulation) and developers (who see an opportunity to make money). As histories of civil rights struggles around zoning show (Our Town, for example), this has always been the case. It happens to be an issue that attracts a wide variety of people with a wide variety of interests that are, in other policy areas, usually in conflict.

The problem with the Gawker/Russell argument, besides the occasional ad hominem, is that making zoning reform a position that only villains would take doesn’t just benefit from this erasure of fair housing work; it requires it. Because once a reader realizes that, in fact, civil rights lawyers and activists have been pushing to overturn restrictive zoning for decades, the “tech blogger”/”millennial fallacy” framing just falls apart. As it should.

[EDIT: I wanted to acknowledge that Pete Saunders, in particular, has talked about a lot of fair housing issues, from redlining to contract buying. While I'd like to see him include the history of zoning fights into that narrative, I don't want to imply that it's completely absent.]

But keeping that history hidden – the history of zoning, but also, in some cases, the broader fair housing fight of which zoning was a part – deals a huge blow to anyone who would like to see housing and segregation return as a major issue on the national stage. The incredibly dramatic story of the 20th century fair housing movements is both a source of great inspiration, as well as a nearly endless well of lessons to be learned about activist strategies, the impact of discriminatory laws and attempts at reform, and so on. Without that history, we’re left to grope in the dark.

It would be nice, then, to see more people who are sympathetic to anti-segregation zoning reform making reference to the fact that they have inherited an issue with a long history. For every report by Nicole Hannah-Jones or Doug Massey, there’s a piece by Ed Glaeser or Ryan Avent who, while making compelling arguments against restrictive zoning, do so mostly without making reference to the civil rights aspect of the issue. There’s been some progress on this front: Jamelle Bouie, who writes for Slate, has introduced some of these ideas there. But I’d love to see that become a standard part of the left-urbanist (or anyone-who-opposes-segregation-urbanist!) spiel against status-quo zoning.

The dignity of fifth-graders

In a timely development, the Columbia Journalism Review just published a long essay on how media outlets cover violent crime in Chicago. They interview a lot of very smart people, including some who have done some of the city’s best reporting already; the whole thing is worth a read.

There seems to be general agreement that the current coverage falls short in a variety of ways: that’s it too obsessed with “box scores” (X Killed Over Y Hours This Weekend), and can be too light on humanizing victims – both the people who are shot, and the family, friends, and neighbors who are also traumatized – and on explaining the larger picture, the social and economic forces that create Chicago’s landscape of crime.

But I think Natalie Moore, the South Side bureau chief for WBEZ, got to the heart of the issue best:

“What do we want people to know? Are we just trying to tell them to avoid the neighborhoods with many homicides?” Moore asks.

Obviously, ideally, you’re checking many boxes: that crime is a major problem in many neighborhoods; that its victims are real people, with families and lives that every reader should be able to empathize with, even white North Siders; that in most places, crime has been falling; that the concentration of crime in Chicago is the more or less predictable result of decades of segregation and economic decline; that in most ways, despite the violence, normal life continues in these neighborhoods: people go to work, to school, have birthdays, and so on.

But I think nearly as important as coming up with an ideal list is acknowledging that choosing one path over another involves tradeoffs. That sounds stupidly obvious, but I think it may be obscured by the coverage philosophy taken by both the Tribune and Sun-Times over the last several years. Both papers have committed themselves to covering every homicide in the city at a level of detail that, as Alex Kotlowitz says in the CJR piece, they have not, historically. The principle, as I understand it, is that each victim deserves the dignity of being recognized, of having their passing officially and publicly acknowledged, and that to do otherwise is an abdication of our collective responsibility to face one of our city’s ongoing tragedies.

That’s an admirable principle for a news organization to hold itself to, and it’s certainly an improvement over ignoring the issue, or pretending it’s not a big deal. But if that is the focus of scarce journalistic resources, then what does that say about our implicit answer to Natalie Moore’s question? More to the point, what are we saying we don’t think is important? Or – to really get down to it – whose dignity aren’t we upholding?

A class of fifth-graders in South Shore has some ideas about that:

We saw your news trucks and cameras here recently ad we read the articles, “Six shot in South Shore laundromat”…. You don’t really know us.

Those who don’t know us think this is a poor neighborhood, with abandoned buildings everywhere, with wood covering the windows and broken doors. They see the candy wrappers and empty juice bottles and think that we don’t care. Uneducated, jobless and thieves. You will be scared of these heartless people. When you see us coming, you might hurry and get in your car and lock the doors. Then speed through these streets at 60 mph like you’re on the highway, trying to get out of this ghetto.

We want you to know us.

The authors of those lines are ten and eleven, and they already know that they and all of their friends and all of their neighbors are pariahs. That is also a tragedy, and not one that any paper I’ve seen has seen fit to dedicate any journalistic resources to at all, prior to this op-ed.

Their pariahdom, of course, was not invented by the media. Its roots go back to the way white people reacted when black people began moving into their neighborhoods, not so long ago – the panic, the desperate attempts to use laws, violence, or anything within reach to keep black people as far from their homes as possible. In short, racism.

The South Shore Drill Team. Credit: Eric Allix Rogers

The South Shore Drill Team. Credit: Eric Allix Rogers

But a social phenomenon as widespread and powerful as the pariahdom of Chicago’s black communities requires ongoing rationalization, and by far the most powerful at the moment is an overwhelming fear of violence that is completely untethered from the reality of daily life in those neighborhoods. Visiting the South Shore Cultural Center, or getting a meal at Lem’s BBQ on 75th St., does not actually involve taking your life into your hands; but a huge number of North Siders, suburbanites, and non-Chicagoans who have been fed a steady diet of “war zone” stories for years think otherwise.

Fifth-graders in South Shore, and every other black neighborhood, are children like their peers everywhere else. They are not thugs to fear and mock. But a huge number of North Siders, suburbanites, and non-Chicagoans fear and mock them. And the fifth-graders know it.

That is also an affront to dignity.

I’m not, of course, under the impression that newspapers have the power to erase the legacy of racism. But I think that if the answer to “What do we want people to know?” doesn’t include “That you don’t have to be terrified of everyone, including fifth-graders,” we need to think about that some more. And if we think about it and decide that that is still our answer, we need to acknowledge what, and who, we have chosen to shortchange, and we need to have some very good reasons for it.

Things that are true about crime in Chicago

I can’t find the tweet, but the other day Chris Hayes (backed up by @prisonculture) was talking about how several facts that are often presented as contradictory are, in fact, simultaneously true. Here’s a partial list:

1. Crime is too high. This is the point from which discussions should begin, both to acknowledge that these conversations are, in fact, about the really intense suffering of human beings, and also to preemptively tether any further points to the very serious and sad reality they’re trying to describe.

2. Crime has fallen dramatically, both in the city as a whole and in the vast majority, if not all, neighborhoods. I’ve written about this; Andrew Papachristos, who has better credentials than me, has written about it.

3. Crime statistics in Chicago, as in many other cities, are manipulated. The two-part Chicago Magazine piece that came out a bit ago is the best place for details on the Chicago version, though if you’ve seen The Wire, you basically know the story. Note, though, that even the authors of the Chicago piece acknowledge that what they’ve uncovered doesn’t mean crime hasn’t been falling, even over the three-year period they investigated.

4. Chicago is nowhere near the “murder capital” of the United States, nor is it anywhere near as dangerous as wartime Iraq or Afghanistan. The media, by and large, has simply failed to do its job on this front, repeatedly claiming or strongly implying that Chicago is the most dangerous city in the country. It’s not even remotely true.

5. Chicago’s “murder inequality” has gotten worse, and may be worse than other cities’. I’ve written about this before.

You rarely see any one person make – or even acknowledge as true, despite what I would consider overwhelming evidence – all of these points at the same time. I suspect that’s because for reasons both general (police departments don’t like to admit to their own funny business; neighborhoods suffering from crime are loathe to be told things are getting better) and specific to Chicago (extreme, and mostly earned, distrust of the police; distrust of Mayor Emanuel; a strong national narrative about Chicago’s crime rates going back to the 1920s), conversations about crime tend to break down into “sides.” On one side – blatantly generalizing – are city officials and their supporters, who would like to emphasize that things are getting better, while acknowledging more quietly that things are still pretty bad. On the other are people who believe that city officials aren’t doing everything they could to prevent crime, and emphasize the extent to which the status quo is traumatic and unacceptable.

There are, of course, lots and lots of people who don’t fit easily into either of these camps. But to the extent you do, you’re likely to resist acknowledging some of the facts above, because you don’t think they help your side. If you’re Rahm Emanuel or with the CPD, you don’t necessarily want to talk a lot about the extent to which crime is a disaster in huge parts of the city, or the extent to which crime is suffered unequally – other than when you have to, for example after the Fourth of July weekend, at which point you’ll pound a lectern and then try to move on. If, on the other hand, you’re trying to press the case that Emanuel hasn’t done enough about crime, you might think that someone who talks about the fall in crime – or the fact that Chicago isn’t actually the most dangerous city in the country – is making excuses for policies that are costing people’s lives.

Since Rahm Emanuel and Garry McCarthy don’t make a habit of responding to this blog, I mostly get pushback from the latter group. When I write about Chicago’s fall in crime, or about the extent to which people exaggerate Chicago’s crime relative to other cities, I often hear from people who aren’t just incredulous about whether I’m telling the truth; they accuse me of actively wanting to sweep the problem under the rug. Given that I’ve written about how serious Chicago’s crime problem is on this blog and in national outlets, that seems a bit weird; but it’s true that if you see every conversation about crime as a debate between two “sides,” these facts don’t necessarily help theirs.

That said, they’re really important. Partly that’s just because they’re the truth, and promoting a culture that says it’s offensive to talk about facts that might not mesh with a given political program or narrative is a really terrible idea for all sorts of reasons. But it’s also because in the larger picture, the widely-believed falsehoods about Chicago crime – that it’s getting worse, and that it’s exceptionally bad in an American context – are actually devastating for the very neighborhoods that their deniers are dedicated to serving.

Fleck’s Coffee on 79th in Chatham. One of many really pleasant corners of the South Side that more people might know about if they weren’t so terrified. Credit: Strannik45, Flickr

As Robert Sampson wrote in Great American City, neighborhood reputation has an enormous impact – larger, in many cases, than the actual crime and poverty that reputation is supposed to reflect – on a community’s future trajectory: whether people will move in or leave; whether people will spend their money at local businesses; whether, in other words, the neighborhood thrives or suffers. Misinformation about crime is certainly not the only contributor to the negative reputation of Chicago’s black neighborhoods on the South and West Sides (and, to a lesser extent, Latino neighborhoods there) – there’s the heavy baggage of racism, among whose many tentacles (if you’ll forgive the mixed metaphor) an eagerness to believe in mythological quantities of violent crime is only one.

But myths about crime is one of them, and it is hard to read the coverage – and listen to how people talk about it – and read Sampson’s research, and conclude that it doesn’t have an effect.


Inclusionary zoning, again

Last week, Payton Chung wrote a really good response to my post on Chicago’s inclusionary zoning ordinance:

We saw very few examples of successful policies that worked in a high-rise context. And since a large share of the development in Chicago, then as now, was in downtown high-rises, we needed to find some way to get buy-in from high-rises…. So, given these difficulties — and given the CDCs’ thirst to capitalize a housing trust fund that could significantly expand their efforts at helping low-income families in neighborhoods (rather than moderate-income singles downtown), we went with the “cash-out” provision that pretty much exempts downtown high-rises.

It’s not that long, but it’s a bit hard to summarize, so you should just read it.

In addition to the high-rise issue, Payton points out – as Alex Block pointed out in comments in the original post – that affordable housing advocates generally have one (or both) of two not entirely compatible goals: 1) to create affordable units in high-rent or gentrifying communities as a way to promote integration, and 2) to create as many units as posssible, which frequently means creating them in already poor neighborhoods, making segregation worse.

My preferences lean towards goal 1, because of the evidence I’ve seen that concentrated poverty is just an overpowering disaster for everyone involved. But goal 2, when there are lots and lots of people who need housing they can afford, isn’t ridiculous.

That said, goal 2 isn’t close to being met, either. The Chicago Rehab Networks’ quarterly housing reports suggest that over the past several years, the city has produced somewhere between one and two thousand affordable units, total, across all programs. Again, given that the need stretches into the hundreds of thousands of units, we’re just not even close – even if we don’t care that the vast majority of those units are being produced in areas that already have concentrated poverty.

Chicago’s subsidized housing policy – like its market-rate housing policy – is still just completely broken. One way to help IZ – that would make progress on both integration and increasing the total number of units produced – would be to allow more medium- and large-scale market housing building in areas where it’s demanded, so the IZ ordinance is triggered much more often. (Recall that it only applies to buildings with at least 10 residential units.) I strongly suspect – although here Payton is certainly more informed – that there is room to raise the opt-out penalty without making a huge amount of market rate construction no longer workable, so that more builders choose to create the units themselves, and even those who don’t help create even more units elsewhere.

Anyone here who wants to talk to me like I’m stupid about residential development finance?

On the subject of Metra

Got a couple other things in the works, but for the moment, a developer read my post at Streetsblog last week about how Metra needs to get some people near its damn stations and proposed a 20-story rental tower across the street from a station in suburban Park Ridge. Park Ridge is not amused:

“Something like this is not going to be well-taken. And it’s not well-taken by me,” said commissioner Jim Argionis.

“We can’t make this work. This can’t be done,” Kocisko said. He added that though the city may generate added property tax from the development, there would also be an increase in city services required for so many new residents.

Kirkby called the plan “preposterous” and compared the design to something that might be found in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood or in Dubai.

A couple thoughts.

1. That is one ugly building. (There’s a rendering in the article I linked to.)

2. Park Ridge is exactly the kind of suburb/neighborhood that is hugely desirable and yet has used its zoning laws to keep out the kind of people for whom moving to Park Ridge would be a major advancement in terms of neighborhood safety, access to jobs, and high-quality public education. As of 2010, Park Ridge was 93% white, the median family income was $110,000, and the median house sold for $420,000. It’s got to be less than half an hour on Metra to downtown Chicago. And yet Park Ridge – like, say, Lincoln Park – actually lost population between 2000 and 2010.

3. In the real world, Park Ridge is never going to approve a 20-story glass box in the middle of a small, low-rise downtown surrounded by single family homes. But there is, in fact, a middle ground. Instead of saying “We can’t make this work,” a commissioner might say something like: “This plan as submitted doesn’t make sense for Park Ridge. But we know that we have to let our town grow. Come back to us with something that won’t look like it was airdropped in by mistake. Come back with a midrise, in other words, whose aesthetics match the expectations of the community.” There are ways to add density without sticking your finger quite as deeply into the eyes of your new neighbors.

Just for fun, here’s Park Ridge’s zoning map. See if you can find the places where apartments aren’t illegal! (Hint: It’s almost nowhere.)


Two for Thursday: Milliken and Metra

I have two pieces up elsewhere today. At the Washington Post, a look back on the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision that reversed Brown v. Board of Ed:

In other realms, Roth’s logic – that political boundaries must be subservient to larger questions of justice, including segregation – is taken for granted. Think, for example, about Congressional districts. To start with, they’re redrawn every ten years to adjust to shifting populations. Not only that, but there are lots of rules designed to make sure the new districts aren’t unfair in ways that violate anyone’s civil rights. If they are, they can be thrown out by a judge, and ordered to be redrawn.

We go through all of this because we understand that unfair Congressional districts can be devastating for minority communities, denying them political power and, along with it, the ability to fight for policies that improve their lives.

School districts, of course, play just as large a role in determining their residents’ life chances, but share basically none of these rules.

And at Streetsblog Chicago, a post on ridership trends and the incredible wasted potential of Metra, Chicago’s commuter rail:

A coordinated effort between Metra, Chicago, and the suburbs to increase service and encourage development around walkable stations that serve relatively high population density could go a long way to improving access to jobs and amenities via transit for hundreds of thousands of people — and at a fraction of the cost of new rail construction.

At its most ambitious, that might look like the long-sought conversion of the Metra Electric line to true rapid transit — promoted most recently by the Transit Future campaign. But short of that, Metra could take a page from our sister city to the north, Toronto, whose commuter rail agency recently announced it would increase all-day frequency to every 30 minutes, making off-peak trips there much more convenient.


I wonder why we have an affordable housing shortage

Chicago is still in the business of promoting segregation with its housing policy, and not just with inclusionary zoning:

WICKER PARK — Two dozen townhomes are being proposed in Wicker Park for an oblong-shaped stretch of vacant land near The Bloomingdale Trail, sources say…. “I would much rather have units that are townhomes there than rental apartments,” Cord said, referring to two previous plans by MCZ Development Corp., dating back to 2012, that included bringing up to 54 apartments to the area…. The developer’s previous plan to build apartments did not receive a necessary zoning change from Ald. Joe Moreno (1st) due to the neighbor concerns.

JEFFERSON PARK — A plan to build a 12-unit apartment complex on a long-vacant lot near Montrose and Cicero avenues is being revised after it drew criticism from nearby residents, authorities said…. Noah Properties, which wants to build two, three-story buildings and 18 parking spaces at 4812-18 W. Montrose Ave., is weighing a plan to build condominiums rather than rental apartments,

So in these two sites – both of which are in close proximity to the L, and along major arterial streets – Chicago’s policy of giving an effective zoning veto to anyone who has the time, energy, and cultural-political confidence to show up to a meeting and harangue an alderman has resulted in the loss of rental units that would have been much more affordable than the owner-occupied units they were replaced with. This is especially the case in Wicker Park, where apartments were replaced not just with condos, but townhomes.  Not to mention, of course, that the density of the site was cut in half, further restricting the already-tight supply of housing along the gentrifying Milwaukee Avenue corridor.

The Jefferson Park project, which probably isn’t seeing a drop in the total number of units, is almost worse for it. The neighbors there aren’t even pretending that their objection is related to density: they just want condo units instead of rentals. Or, more to the point, they want people who can afford condos, not people who can afford rentals. They want the city of Chicago to use its legal powers to keep lower-income people out of their neighborhood. And the city of Chicago is more than happy to oblige.

But it’s not just these two. There’s almost literally no end to these stories:

Several residents including Domingo Miranda, who lives about a block away from the proposed development, expressed dismay that the building would provide rental units rather than condos….

“Was there any consideration to going from rental to ownership?” Miranda asked at the meeting. “While I understand your situation, once the concrete is on the floor, it’s easy to lower rents. I’m concerned that the mix of transient residents rather than permanent residents may not be the best for the neighborhood.”

Now the pretense that this is about anything other than segregation falls even further: the neighbors don’t just want condos; they want assurances that if the project is going to be rental, that rents will stay high.

The neighborhood paper’s editorial on the project also contained this incredible line:

PMG plans call for 130 rental units and no condominiums, assuring a transient population of residents who can do as they please. Newman Center plans called for housing for 280 students, a stable population guaranteed to stay until they earned their degrees, with strict rules for behavior.

“Who can do as they please”! As if not living under “strict rules for behavior” were an unearned privilege that adult citizens of a supposedly free country shouldn’t expect in their own homes, in their own neighborhood.

To be clear, these people have every right to express their desire to keep their neighborhood free of poor and working-class people. They even have the right to lobby their government to pass laws that will promote segregation.

But I also reserve the right to point out that for the city to actually follow through on those requests – to actively promote segregation, as it’s currently doing – is a total betrayal not only of the interests of a majority of Chicagoans, but of the basic principles of fairness that, when we’re not at local zoning meetings, we all profess to have believed since at least the 1960s.

Just, you know, a reminder:


This is a joke, right?

Right? Surely that’s the only explanation for this:

Mayor Emanuel and Alderman Ray Suarez (31st ward) today announced the establishment of an Affordable Housing Task Force consisting of community leaders, aldermen and developers to make recommendations to reform the City’s Affordable Requirements Ordinance (ARO) [more commonly known as inclusionary zoning - DKH] and add 1,000 affordable housing units over the next five years.

One…thousand. Units. Of affordable housing.

Over five years.

To put this in perspective, there are one million, sixty-one thousand nine hundred and sixty-four households in the city of Chicago. Although it’s not the best metric, the standard “housing should take up 30% of your income” rule of thumb suggests that somewhere around half of them need some sort of affordability relief.

Half of one million, sixty-one thousand nine hundred and sixty-four is five hundred and thirty thousand nine hundred and eighty-two.

This is what that number looks like, compared to one thousand:

Oh, but wait! I forgot:

This would represent a fivefold increase over the 187 units created by the ARO since 2007 and ensure that more affordable housing options are offered in high growth neighborhoods.

Great news! They’ve already created 187 units over the last…seven years. So let’s update that chart:

Cool. Looks like we’re well on our way.

There are two major reasons why Chicago’s inclusionary zoning ordinance is so worthless. The first is that developers who trigger IZ have the option of paying $100,000 per unit into the city’s affordable housing trust fund in lieu of actually producing subsidized apartments; given the average price of real estate in city neighborhoods where development takes place, paying that $100,000 “fee” is almost always cheaper than actually giving up revenue on market-rate units.

The second is that IZ only applies to projects with at least ten residential units. Unfortunately, Chicago has made it illegal to build projects with more than ten units in the vast majority of the city outside of downtown. Shockingly enough, if you make it illegal to trigger IZ, then not very many people will trigger IZ.

In combination, these two issues cripple what could be a semi-promising program. They’re why it’s produced only twenty-five affordable units a year since 2007, and why it’s taken over a decade for IZ to produce a single unit of affordable housing in Lincoln Park, a neighborhood that needs them more than almost anywhere in the city.

Actually, though, it’s worse than that. Because once that $100,000 per unit is given to the city, the money is spent on subsidized housing projects that are almost uniformly built in segregated neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty. In effect, our IZ ordinance is encouraging economic – and racial – segregation. On the one hand, that’s obviously the opposite of what it’s “supposed” to do. On the other hand, Chicago has a long and storied history of promoting racial segregation, so it’s sort of hard to see this as an aberration.

Unshockingly, subsidized housing is extremely concentrated in low-income neighborhoods.

Unshockingly, subsidized housing is extremely concentrated in low-income neighborhoods.

If Mayor Emanuel and Alderman Suarez are serious about turning this ordinance into something that might make even a small difference to Chicago’s affordability and segregation problems, they will either raise the “fee” dramatically, or – better yet – remove the option of paying a fee entirely, and just make everyone build the actual units. They’d also legalize larger developments – ten to twenty-five units, say, or roughly the size of a traditional Chicago courtyard building – in large swaths of the city’s more desirable neighborhoods, since IZ only works by piggybacking off of mid-size to large private development. (They could also, of course, lower the unit threshold to trigger the ordinance – but there’s probably some limit to how small the development can be and still pencil out to be profitable. Besides, if the goal is more affordable units, you’re not going to get there by holding down the size of new projects.)

Then again, if they were serious about this, they wouldn’t have announced a goal of 1,000 units over five years.

More broadly, though, things like this are why I’m generally pessimistic about making traditional affordability programs like inclusionary zoning the centerpiece of housing policy: they’re just vanishingly tiny, compared to the need. And while Chicago has a particularly pathetic version, recall that Los Angeles, which had one of the most ambitious affordable housing programs in the country (a trust fund, in their case), produced only 10% of its needed units before the Great Recession – a number that has since fallen to about 2%.

You need either a truly massive non-market program – taking a third, half, more, of the entire city’s housing out of the market – or you need to allow fairly massive private construction, plus a smaller subsidized program. (The latter, to recap, increases affordability by 1) Allowing lower-cost housing, like apartments, to be built where now only single family homes can be; 2) Increasing the supply of housing; and 3) Allowing the kinds of private projects that generate inclusionary zoning-mandated affordable units.) To be honest, I don’t know that I have a preference between those choices; they both have fairly obvious downsides. But given the political realities of 21st century America – not to mention the financial realities – spending many billions of dollars in a single city to take large amounts of housing off the market seems unlikely, to say the least. If that’s not a realistic option, then the more-private-development-plus-strong-IZ-type-programs seems like the only remaining viable strategy.