Jose Lopez and the Gentrification of Humboldt Park, Part 2

Note: This is the second half of a piece that began earlier this week.

Humboldt Park garage

Which brings us to Lopez himself. For the moment, I’ll leave aside the question of whether or not his goals are “good”; I think I pretty much summarized my feelings in the last post, and I have a piece that takes a much longer look at this sort of problem coming out some time soon.

Instead, let’s take the goals for granted and consider his methods.

His plan for fending off gentrification largely involves shoring up the community…. Lopez rattles off a list of goals that includes strengthening schools, securing loans for Puerto Rican business owners, offering job training for parents, and expanding affordable housing for low-income Latinos….

Over the years, Lopez has managed to put up considerable roadblocks to outside development. In 2004, for example, he worked with Alderman Billy Ocasio to establish the 26th Ward Affordable Housing Committee. That initiative prevented developers from building anything in the district bigger than a single-family home without the committee’s approval….

Lopez has his own ideas for the kinds of businesses Humboldt Park needs: a bicycle factory (he also wants to increase the number of bike lanes and create a bike-share program), weekly markets where residents sell their produce, Puerto Rican bars that serve Caribbean spirits, and a theater that produces the work of Latino playwrights. “Developers should be about creating a city where people can coexist,” he says.

There’s a lot here, with varying levels of plausibility. Start with “shoring up the community.”

To the extent “shoring up the community” means making the people who currently live in Humboldt Park wealthier, more educated, etc., it will certainly increase their housing options. That means rising housing prices in Humboldt Park are less likely to displace them – but it also means they have more purchasing power to move elsewhere on their own. Traub is right that ethnic neighborhoods very rarely remain magnets for people of that ethnicity as the community’s income rises; even the most enduring ethnic neighborhoods in the city – the black communities of the South and West Sides – have remained so disproportionately black not because their residents haven’t left for other places, but because white, Hispanic, and Asian people have been unwilling to replace them.

fun cakes, stars area, candy ap

To the extent “shoring up the community” means creating new businesses, bike lanes, bars,  theaters, and so on, Lopez is actually encouraging the very housing cost increases, and displacement of the poor, that he’s so opposed to. That doesn’t mean those are bad policies, or that they don’t accomplish other goals, like institutionalizing Puerto Rican culture in Humboldt Park. It just means that adding amenities to a neighborhood that has too few will make the neighborhood more desirable, which will raise housing prices almost – almost - by definition.

Creating more subsidized housing can counteract that effect somewhat; given that eastern Humboldt Park is clearly in the path of gentrification, it’s not a bad idea to build as much of it as possible while land is relatively cheap to act as a bulwark against the tide of economic stratification that is sure to come. But short of building the kinds of massive public housing projects that the city, and country, have committed themselves to tearing down, there’s no way that subsidized housing will ever account for more than a small fraction of all housing in the neighborhood. In other words, it won’t stop the vast majority of displacement.

Which is why it’s so unfortunate that Lopez also supports exactly the kind of market-rate housing policies that have allowed prices in Wicker Park, Bucktown, and now Logan Square, to skyrocket and turn those areas disproportionately white. Preventing new housing units from being built just means that, when the gentrifiers come, they will have only one choice: the homes that are currently occupied by working-class Puerto Ricans.

Because the bottom line is this: there are no tools to prevent white people with money from living where they want. There are no laws, no community organizations, no cultural institutions that can turn them away. If that is your goal, you’re done before you started. (Why is that? Why can’t we just convince gentrifiers to stay out? Because the reason they’re moving to Humboldt Park is that they are being priced out of their own neighborhoods. The twentysomethings with college degrees but relatively low earnings who live in Humboldt Park now are doing so because they can no longer afford to live in Logan Square; the ones in Logan Square moved there after Wicker Park became too expensive; and the ones in Wicker Park were fleeing rising prices in Lincoln Park. The changes in Humboldt Park are just one rung on a ladder that’s being pushed further and further away from the center city, affecting everyone in its wake. There’s a sense, of course, in which the people moving into Humboldt Park have more resources, and so perhaps more agency, to make housing decisions than the people who already live there; but in a larger sense, they are also being manipulated by housing policies that create ever-escalating bidding wars in an expanding ring of neighborhoods.)

What you can try to do is make room for both those newcomers and the older residents of lesser means who might otherwise be displaced. When the gentrifiers arrive, they can either find housing by outbidding current residents for their own homes – that is, raising housing prices – or they can move into newly-built apartments and condos. If those new units are built on an empty lot, no one has been displaced; if they’re built more densely than the building that was torn down to make way – say, an eight-unit building replacing a two-unit one – then they’ve displaced far fewer people than would have been otherwise.

Humboldt Park

And that’s the best you can do: make it as easy as possible for those who would like to stay, to stay. Nothing Jose Lopez or anyone else does is going to convince those with means not to live as close to the center of the city’s wealth as is affordable for them. The dominant Puerto Rican culture of Humboldt Park is certainly going to change, although supporting Puerto Rican businesses and cultural institutions can help it maintain a presence. Subsidized housing can shelter a small minority of residents from market forces. Allowing more construction to house the newcomers can, potentially, shield many more from seeing their own apartments’ rents go up dramatically.

Public meeting tomorrow

Those of you who live in or around Logan Square: I will be speaking about the need to allow more housing to slow rising rents and displacement in the neighborhood at a public meeting tomorrow about a proposed housing development across the street from the California Blue Line stop. If you’re around, and you want to make your voice heard, please come by! It’s tomorrow, Thursday, at 6:30 at Candela restaurant, Milwaukee and Sacramento.

I will also, of course, be doing my own demographic survey of the room and reporting the results tomorrow.

PS – Part two of the Humboldt Park/Jose Lopez response will come tomorrow. Delayed by working on this.

Jose Lopez and the Gentrification of Humboldt Park, Part 1

A bike festival in Humboldt Park last year. Credit: Steven Vance

A bike festival in Humboldt Park last year. Credit: Steven Vance

A few people have asked me what I think about Elly Fishman’s well-written Chicago Magazine feature on Humboldt Park anti-gentrification activist Jose Lopez. It’s hard to say. One thing that makes it hard is that it’s tough to know what you’re responding to; something Fishman does well, I think, is represent the feelings of people whose ideas about the situation have almost nothing in common. That’s true not just with respect to their ideas about what should happen – that’s easy enough to organize a debate around – but also about what is happening, how cities work, what a neighborhood means, and so on. It’s hard to build a story, or an argument, when the most fundamental facts of the case are themselves up for debate.

There is, to begin with, the perspective of the white (or otherwise privileged) outsider. In the piece, entrepreneur Brendan Sodikoff plays that role with a malice-tinged cluelessness. “It’s the next frontier – that’s how I feel about it,” is how he’s quoted. There’s a lot packed in there: there’s the sort of facile, and inflammatory, undertone of colonialism, using – as Lopez points out – language taken from a more or less genocidal period in American history.

But I think more importantly, the “frontier” language reveals something that’s under-acknowledged about most of the city’s non-white neighborhoods, which is that they have experienced a kind of social death in the  minds of the city’s white and professional-class residents. By which I mean that, socially, they might as well not exist. It not only would never occur to any of these people to go to Humboldt Park (or South Shore, or Austin, or…); it would never occur to them that anyone they might ever interact with would go to those places either. When they meet a person from those neighborhoods, they’re not quite sure how to react; they exist beyond the bounds of what they consider “normal” society, despite the fact that they make up a majority of the city. To the extent that they come up at all, it’s in the context of reasons that you should never go there, i.e., crime. What Sodikoff is saying is that he’s bringing Humboldt Park back into existence, back from social death, for people in his world: California and Augusta is a corner that they might go to now, think of as a real place. For him, and many others, that’s an unambiguously admirable thing to do.

Fishman also makes it clear, at a few points, that the white outsider is her reader – something that, given Chicago‘s reach, is a totally fair assumption. After Lopez is quoted referring to gentrifiers as “barbarians at the gate,” she writes:

It’s a funny notion: Birkenstock-wearing, craft-beer-swigging millennials as barbarians.

But that’s only a funny notion if you have no baggage about the role that upwardly mobile white people have played in the story of neighborhood change in Chicago. And that, in turn, is only possible if you have ruthlessly forgotten most of what has happened in this city for the last century or so. If you’ve forgotten about the hundreds of thousands displaced by urban renewal, and the incredible violence that accompanied Chicago’s transition from an overwhelmingly white city to one in which whites are a minority, and so on, then sure, there is no reason to be nervous about a sudden influx of white folks with economic and political capital. For everyone else, I think a sense of alarm is pretty intuitive.

Several steps removed from this are the academics. For them, looking at the broad sweep of ethnic and racial transitions in the city, what’s happening in Humboldt Park seems pretty unexceptional, and making a fuss about it seems kind of silly.

[Humboldt Park's] shift is typical, says Richard Taub, an urban sociologist at the University of Chicago who has spent his career studying Chicago neighborhoods. “It’s wishful thinking to want an ethnic pocket,” Taub says. “Cities are dynamic and they don’t stand still. There are very few places in Chicago that have been stable over a 20-year period. Change is hard to fight.”

Over the past decade, a large percentage of educated middle-class Latinos have left Humboldt Park for better jobs elsewhere. Call it bright flight. “As a general rule, Hispanics really are following the route of other immigrants who came into this country,” says the University of Chicago’s Taub. “Which is, they congregate in a particular area where the prices are right, and then they start to make it and become upwardly mobile, eventually moving to other places.”

To be clear, I think this sort of 40,000-foot view is actually really valuable: things that seem unique, or random, or confusing from the perspective of someone experiencing a changing neighborhood, actually turn out to be part of very regular patterns when seen in the larger context of the city. This happens to be true on both sides of the change in Humboldt Park: white-collar gentrifiers are moving there because it is simply the next neighborhood in the path of the high-rent zone of the city that has been growing out from Old Town, roughly, since the 1970s. And, on the flip side, Humboldt Park is losing Hispanics to neighborhoods further north and west, and to the suburbs, in a pattern that has been evident for decades, and which applied to “white ethnics” in the exact same locations prior to that.

Untitled drawing


The growth of Hispanics in Chicago and suburban Cook County. Between 1980 and 2010, many tens of thousands of middle-class Hispanics have moved from the city to the suburbs, or in some cases moved there directly from Puerto Rico or abroad.

The growth of Hispanics in Chicago and suburban Cook County. Between 1980 and 2010, many tens of thousands of middle-class Hispanics have moved from the city to the suburbs, or in some cases moved there directly from Puerto Rico or abroad.

What I think needs to be kept in mind, though, is that the fact that something is predictable or even unavoidable doesn’t make it less traumatic for the people experiencing it. As I’ve written before, it’s very far from clear that maintaining highly segregated communities is something we should, on balance, want; but it is clear that there are perfectly legitimate reasons for people like Jose Lopez to want Humboldt Park to remain mostly Puerto Rican. We’re not doing him or ourselves any favors when we dismiss those goals out of hand.

In part two: Lopez himself.

Dear journalists/community groups/alderman: please report the demographics of your public meetings. Thank you!

A while ago, the Metropolitan Planning Council held a series of public meetings to get input on how a big parking lot next to the Logan Square Blue Line station should be redeveloped. There were a lot of interesting things about these meetings – MPC has a pretty cool process, which I don’t understand well enough to expound upon, for showing participants the tradeoffs for various kinds of redevelopment – but I want to zero in on this:

Before leaving last week’s meeting, 90 residents participated in a short survey about the Logan Square train station and the adjacent parking lot…. The poll also revealed a demographic mismatch between people who came to the meeting and the overall population of Logan Square. Two-thirds of attendees were white, a larger share than the neighborhood as a whole, which is more than 45 percent Hispanic.

Now, one way to respond to this is to make whatever noises you make when you come across yet another example of white people’s disproportionate political power. (In case it needs to be said: yes, of course Latinos and other non-whites were allowed, even encouraged, to attend these meetings, but there are a million structural reasons – from work schedules to language barriers to the social networks through which news of these events moves to participatory confidence to whatever else – that white people, wealthier people, and so on, will almost always be overrepresented in these kinds of events.)

But as quickly as possible, we should transition to thanking MPC for a) caring enough about the issue of representation to actually measure how close they’re getting, and b) being open enough to actually release those numbers to the media. Those numbers partially have, of course, the effect of reducing the legitimacy of the results of meetings that MPC worked very hard on. But they also warn the media, the public, and elected officials that there is a gap, and that that gap should be taken into account in the final decision-making. In that way, MPC is actually moving closer to what I assume is their real goal, which is development that does reflect the actual preferences of the entire community, not just people who have the time and inclination to show up for three weeknight meetings about a parking lot.

The method they used to do this – a quick survey that includes demographic information – is both shockingly simple and shockingly effective at conveying crucial information that is absent from, I think, literally every other public meeting I have ever read about in my life. Every alderman and community group should adopt it immediately. And if they don’t, reporters should do a quick, rough count – age, gender, and race would all be pretty simple to get a sense of. And then they should include it in the ensuing articles. When there’s a public meeting at which actual policies are decided – what kind of housing will be allowed, what kind of businesses – who is it that’s making those decisions? Anyone reading an article about that policy process should get that information.

This does’t solve the problem entirely, of course. I think there are largely three problems of misrepresentation at these sorts of public meetings.

First, there’s the issue of demographics discussed here.

Second, there’s the problem of ideology, which in this context I’m just using to mean “how are you disposed to feel about the issue at hand.” Other people have written about this extensively, but it basically boils down to this: 90% of normal people feel only one of two ways about local development and transportation issues. (I suspect the dynamics around, say, schools, are different, though not necessarily more representative.) Either they hate it, or they don’t have very strong feelings one way or the other. Since a disproportionately high percentage of people who have strong feelings are going to be anti-whatever is under discussion, public meetings are going to skew very negative. I’ve heard from people who have worked in aldermanic offices that many elected officials build this into their expectations: if an audience breaks evenly, say, on a given topic, they assume that a solid majority of people in their district are in favor of it.

Finally, there’s the issue of geography, or a mismatch between the people who are affected by a decision and the people who are enfranchised to have a say in making the decision. In the housing context, which is obviously where I spend the most time thinking about this, that means that a decision to, say, shut down residential development in Lincoln Park – thus affecting the mobility options for people in the entire region – is made by the Lincoln Park alderman, who only cares about the opinions of the people who live in his or her ward. Many hundreds of thousands of people who might have a vested interest in the decision are legally disenfranchised from participating because they don’t live in the correct geographic unit.

Releasing demographic data from these meetings obviously only addresses the first of these. Still, that seems to be low-hanging fruit, and is certainly an improvement over pretending that the people who show up to these things are representative of “the community.” They’re not! And everyone involved in this process should follow MPC’s lead and stop pretending that they are.

Buses: they don’t have to suck

Very often when I say the word “bus” out loud, someone will volunteer that they hate buses. The conversation might go like this:

ME: Bus ridership is down. It’s not clear why.

FRIEND: Have you considered the possibility that buses just suck?

I find these conversations frustrating, because the people I’m talking to are wrong, but I can’t actually get into why that is in a casual setting without being pedantic and annoying.

Fortunately, I have this blog, where the cost of being pedantic and annoying is much lower. So here we go: buses don’t suck. They suck because we make them suck.

Let’s take, for example, the boarding situation on the Fullerton bus at the Red/Brown/Purple L station heading west. This is a stop I board at a lot, because it’s the main way to get to Logan Square from the north lakefront neighborhoods. I am not the only person with this idea, though, so there are frequently ten to twenty, or more, people waiting by the time a bus arrives. Each of these people must tap their Ventra card (or, God forbid, pay with cash) before the bus can move on. If each person takes, on average, two seconds, that’s easily 30-45 seconds spent waiting for people to board. If someone has a problem with their Ventra card, or is fumbling for cash, it can take an extra 15-30 seconds.

The Fullerton bus.

That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s pretty excruciating to wait through. If you drive, imagine sitting in traffic – not at a red light, but just waiting for no good reason – for 45 seconds. Set a timer, imagine yourself staring at a bumper, and just let the time wash over you.

Moreover, it can cause the bus to miss a green light, which can easily add another 20-30 seconds after everyone has actually tapped their cards.

Multiply this by every busy stop a bus makes – in Chicago, especially any time around rush hour, this is a lot of them – and you go a long way to explaining why buses are so slow. Or why, in the words of my friends, they suck.

But this is not a problem we have to live with. It is simply a result of having decided that everyone has to pay for the bus when it arrives, at one card reader at the front door. Although most people don’t realize it, this is not the only choice. But it’s important: imagine how much more trains would suck – trains, those things that everyone loves – if everybody riding them had to tap their card at one reader when they arrived at your station. It would take forever.

Anyway, one other choice would be to have two card readers: one by the front door, and one by the back. This is called “all-door boarding,” and San Francisco, among other places, does it. As you have no doubt already calculated, this reduces the time required to have everyone get on the bus. Over the course of a ride over a few miles when 50 people or so board, that can make a difference.


Another, even more exciting choice would be to have people pay before the bus arrives. That way, there’s no tapping at all! Just get on and go.

Chicago will actually begin using that system at exactly one bus stop in the entire city once the Central Loop BRT project is complete: one of the rail-style bus stations will have rail-style turnstiles that you’ll have to tap your card on to get through. That way, when the bus arrives, you just get on, like with trains now. Ashland BRT, if and when it happens, will probably also use that system. That’s one reason they’ll be so much faster than other buses.

A rendering of a station for the Loop BRT project, due next year.

But you can actually get the same benefit without all the cost of building a station and adding turnstiles. You can do what the MTA does in New York with a few of their bus lines: you can put little kiosks at major stations where people can tap and get a little paper receipt saying that they paid. Then, when the bus comes, they just walk on. No waiting for tapping at all! The downside is that you then need a small security detail to spot-check people’s receipts to make sure they’ve paid, but that turns out to actually not be a very big deal.

This is a pre-pay bus kiosk in New York.

This is a pre-pay bus kiosk in New York.

Either of those – all-door boarding, or pre-payment before the bus arrives – can make buses suck much less. But this post was really inspired by Sandy Johnston’s response to WBEZ’s story on bus bunching:

What was really disappointing about the Curious City piece is that everyone interviewed–from bus riders to academics to CTA drivers and officials–seemed to take the the fatalistic attitude that bus bunching is completely inevitable and very little can be done to prevent it…. But…[t]here is, in fact, one policy lever that can help the CTA (and other agencies) avoid bus bunching, but it is politically unpalatable to most actors, especially the city’s auto-oriented elite: dedicating lanes to public transit.

Yes: another way to make buses suck much less is to make the most basic gesture at believing that people who ride buses should be able to get places in less than twice as much time as it takes to drive there, and give them their own lane. When buses and cars share lanes, not only do buses get stuck in traffic not of their own making – sixty people or more regularly squeeze onto a single bus just fine, but that many people in cars could back up a road for blocks – but they have to negotiate pulling out of and into traffic every time there’s a stop, which in Chicago is frequently every block. That also wastes a lot of time.

Sometimes people object to bus lanes on grounds of fairness. On Ashland, say, people on buses make up about 20% of all travelers, I believe. Why, then, should they get a third of the road? (There are six lanes, recall: two currently used for moving cars (with buses mixed in), and two for parked cars.)

That is one way to look at it. Another way to look at it is that Chicago has roughly 2,800 miles of traffic lanes on arterial (main) streets, and at the moment 4 miles of (part-time) bus lanes. (They’re on the J14 line.) That is 0.1% of all arterial lanes. By contrast, 27.9% of Chicago households don’t even have a car, and 26.7% take transit to work, meaning – doing some quick math – roughly 15% of Chicagoans take the bus to work.

Here is that idea in a graph:

Clearly, adding more bus lanes would be horribly unfair.

Clearly, adding more bus lanes would be horribly unfair.

Meanwhile, car trips do, in fact, tend to be about twice as fast as bus trips – not including wait time – and rail trips are in that ballpark, too. This, despite the fact that between a quarter and a third of our households don’t even have cars, and that the vast majority of households are not located close enough to a train station to walk there. Buses are, in fact, the only viable transit choice for the vast majority of Chicagoans. Too often, they do suck, but they suck because of some combination of: a) we don’t know that they can be better, and b) we don’t care to make them better. But I think there are a lot of people in the city who would be interested in a bus system that we could be proud of, as opposed to felt burdened by. Why don’t we get one?

Maybe one day Chicago will not waste its billions of dollars of transportation infrastructure, but until then, have this Next City article

This is the winter of my Metra-related discontent.

This is the winter of my Metra-related discontent. Credit: Eric Rogers

Service innovations like increased frequency don’t yet appear anywhere in the strategic plan, and a Metra spokesperson confirmed that the agency has no plans to move in that direction. In August, Streetsblog Chicago reported that one board member flatly rejected that kind of service expansion, claiming that running a single extra train during rush hour would cost over $30 million. (Aikins, however, reports that GO Transit spent just $7.7 annually to adopt half-hourly frequencies on its two biggest lines.)

Read it!

Why do we care about mode share, ctd.

A while ago, I pretty much lost a debate in the comments with transit writer extraordinaire Alon Levy. At issue was whether mode share – the percentage of commuters who use transit, cars, biking, etc., to get to work – was the best way to measure the effectiveness of a city’s public transportation. The debate was provoked by yet another ranking of cities by transit mode share, and my discomfort with the triumphant reaction from some quarters.

The argument in favor of mode share is basically that people will do whatever is easiest and most convenient; if very few people are using transit, that’s a pretty good indication that it isn’t easy or convenient for the vast majority of people.

My counter-argument was that mode share measures relative ease and convenience: if 10% of people take public transit, that tells you that transit is more convenient than driving for roughly 10% of commuters, but it doesn’t tell you if, for the other 90%, transit service is perfectly acceptable, but driving is just easier; or if transit service is actually terrible.

I think, though, that the new report on jobs accessibility from the University of Minnesota should reopen the debate for at least as long as it takes for Alon to convince me again that I’m wrong. In particular, Jacob Anbinder’s interpretation of the study at Real Clear Politics, which looks at the percentage of regional jobs accessible by public transit within an hour (the original report focused on raw numbers). And, when you do that, it becomes clear that the massive, older regions with very high transit commute share – New York, Chicago, DC, etc. – have a problem: namely, that getting to jobs outside their dense cores is very, very difficult. At the same time, smaller regions with little to no reputation for public transit – Salt Lake City, Milwaukee, Denver – look much, much better.

Transit access in Chicago: great in the center, not so much elsewhere.

Transit access in Chicago: great in the center, not so much elsewhere. Click for interactive map.


There are a number of things at work here, I think, which all boil down again to the fact that mode share measures relative convenience, not absolute. In the dense centers of America’s largest, older cities, transit is relatively convenient, and driving is relatively inconvenient for reasons of traffic, parking, etc. But as you leave the center, transit becomes dramatically less convenient – especially if you’re not going to the center, which is often served by commuter rail lines – and driving becomes dramatically more so. What that means is that for a relatively large number of people who live in the core, transit is the better option, leading to high mode shares; but outside the core, transit service isn’t just less convenient than driving, it’s actually pretty bad.

In some smaller metropolitan areas, though, transit may be so-so over a much larger percentage of the region, while driving is basically always convenient. These cities lack the cores that give places like Boston a high mode share, but provide decent enough transit service over a large enough portion of the region that if you really want to use transit – because you want to save money, or you’re too old/young, or you just don’t like driving – it’s not a disaster.

Here is this idea in graph form:


That’s how you arrive at the fact that the average commuter can get to 25% of jobs in metropolitan Salt Lake City within an hour, but only 15% of New York’s.

Now, there are a number of caveats to this. In particular, using total commute time as a cutoff (jobs accessible in an hour) inherently disadvantages geographically large metropolitan areas like New York or Chicago. First, obviously, because the larger the area, the longer it takes to get places, all else equal. But also, as a region expands, the challenge of making any given point-to-point trip doable on transit requires much, much larger investments in infrastructure: while a smaller region might be able to get away with a well-organized bus system, and a medium-sized region with buses and a few radial rail or BRT lines, a region the size of Chicago or LA needs an extensive bus system, radial rail routes, and some kind of cross-town rapid transit service.

More significantly, as a good leftist, I believe that inequality matters. It may be that in Salt Lake City, a 60 minute commute on public transit would take only 20 minutes by car, while in New York, a 60 minute transit commute would be 45 minutes by car. In a region where the expectation is that commutes will be relatively short, transit accessibility that requires dramatically longer trips will probably relegate transit to a sort of welfare service, patronized only by those who absolutely, absolutely have to. That kind of stigma is a problem for all sorts of reasons: to begin with, I’m against stigmatizing people; but also, from a political perspective, it probably makes it harder to lobby for improvements to public transit if it has the reputation as a service exclusively for poor people.

Still, I think this report adds some strength to the idea that mode share is a very incomplete look at a region’s transit effectiveness. Also, happily, the widespread attention it’s received is a pushback against the kind of urbanist lifestyle fetishism that frequently accompanies rankings based on mode share. (See, for example, the story I quote at the beginning of my earlier post.) A functional transit system ought to be about making day-to-day life easier for regular people, and focusing on job access highlights that. Yay.

“Don’t let anyone else in.”

While I work on a few other pieces, my friend Steven Vance of Streetsblog and Chicago Cityscape fame (I assume everyone reading this knows about Streetsblog; but if you’re at all interested in development, preservation, or exclusionary zoning issues, you should be following Cityscape too) pointed me to this Tribune article from 1986. The article covers the campaign to change Lincoln Park’s zoning to prevent the construction of new, relatively high-density residential buildings.

It’s notable both from a historical perspective, in that it’s a primary document from one of the most consequential eras for housing policy in the last few generations – the decision to close off the north lakefront to further development and repopulation – but also because it contributes to my collection of people being refreshingly honest about their interests in zoning fights. (Previously in this ongoing series: people who don’t care about density, but want their neighbors to be of the homeowning class, not the renting class; and people who want their neighbors to be people who can afford to pay expensive rents.)

Anyway, this time, the honesty takes this form:

“I never thought I`d say: `This is enough. Don`t let anyone else in.` But it`s become almost impossible to drive,“ said 21-year resident Marjorie- Lee Perrine at a recent public hearing on the plan.

So here we go: residents campaigned to essentially cap the population of the city’s most desirable neighborhood – ensuring, by the way, that housing prices would skyrocket, and that it would become the ghetto of the privileged that it is today – so that they could drive more comfortably.

Now, I don’t want to reject out of hand that decent driving conditions are a reasonable goal for city policy. All things being equal, I think that’s probably right: people have a perfectly legitimate interest in mobility, and they are absolutely within their rights to lobby their government to protect those interests.

The question, though, is whether it is in the interest of the city as a whole to set a legal ceiling to the population of a neighborhood that on many scales – access to jobs, good neighborhood schools, safety, access to public transit – is one of the most advantageous in the region. Is it worth protecting the ease of driving for a few tens of thousands of people – people who are among the richest in the city – if the tradeoff is a) restricting the residential mobility of nearly everyone else and b) reducing property and sales tax revenue for the city that might be used to provide amenities for all voters?

And if those are the tradeoffs – if this local decision affects nearly everyone in the metropolitan area, especially when replicated across nearly the entire North Side – why should the only people who have a say be the ones privileged enough to already live in Lincoln Park West? Why should their elected representative be the one deciding?

These are obviously, for me, rhetorical questions: my answer is that they shouldn’t. But for most people in Chicago, including most people in power, the answer is different. And I think they – everyone from neighborhood groups campaigning against new residential development to the aldermen who listen to them – need to explain why. I am not, of course, under the impression that local anti-development groups are going to change their minds. What I am asking, though, is that we as a city be honest about what the tradeoffs are to these kinds of policies – beginning with the fact that there are tradeoffs, and that “not letting anyone else in” has consequences far beyond the neighborhood being walled off from the rest of the region.

Teardowns and the Valley of the Small Apartment Building

A new study on teardowns in the Chicago suburbs has been making the rounds on urbanist Twitter, and provides an excuse for looking at the phenomenon of zoning-constrained redevelopment outside the city. In Chicago proper, it’s a little hard to do this precisely, because a) common zoning limits vary from single-family homes to two-, three-, and four-flat apartment buildings, and so a given permit for a three-unit building might represent densifying a lot that used to have a single-family home, or it might represent a “teardown” replacement of an older three-unit building; and b) the huge amounts of development downtown mask the very spare development of large multi-unit buildings in the neighborhoods.

But the suburbs, by having much more restrictive zoning, make this easier. First off, unlike Chicago, the overwhelming majority of existing lots are single-family homes, so a three-unit permit is much, much more likely to represent densification; and second, they’re mostly small enough that the downtown-neighborhoods dichotomy doesn’t matter nearly as much. (Which is not to say it doesn’t exist, as we’ll see with Evanston; just that when the city’s total area is only a few square miles, concentrating development in one area is much less consequential.)

Anyway, just as the city of Chicago’s zoning encourages developers to tear down older single-family homes, two-flats, and three-flats, and replace them with buildings of equal or lesser density built for wealthier customers – because they’re not legally allowed to build a larger number of potentially cheaper units – I strongly suspect that suburban teardowns are encouraged by zoning regimes that don’t allow for densification of single family home areas. In the absence of the option of building more units, it makes economic sense to just build bigger single family homes.



The chart above shows what it says – residential building permits in five suburbs from 2000 to 2013. The bottom four are all identified by the teardown study as being particular hotbeds of teardown activity. Evanston is not, but we’ll come back to what makes it interesting in a moment.

One thing that stands out is that Wilmette and Winnetka have literally not allowed a single new apartment building since the turn of the century.

But what I think is most relevant here about all five suburbs is that there is virtually no construction whatsoever of small apartment buildings of two to four units. In fact, Glenview is the only town that issued enough permits for those kinds of buildings for them to even be visible in the chart.

Fascinatingly, when these suburbs do allow new multi-unit apartment buildings, they are virtually all of the large, five-or-more unit variety – and I strongly suspect, having been to these places, that if we could set the threshold higher – say, ten or twenty or forty units – that we would see that virtually all new multi-unit projects are very, very large indeed. This reflects a peculiar dichotomy in zoning in places like Evanston and Park Ridge: neighborhoods are either zoned for single-family homes, or very large residential buildings. The large building areas in these suburbs tend to be in very high-demand areas that have historically been denser than the rest of the town – downtowns centered on an old commuter train station, say – or some out-of-the-way parcels, often separated from the rest of town by a large road or train tracks, where the town decided they could brook lower-income apartment development.

Evanston's zoning map illustrates the issue: everywhere except for the blue Downtown zones in the center - and the darkest R5 and R6 zones around it - multi-family development is either illegal or requires extremely impractical minimum lot sizes.

Evanston’s zoning map illustrates the issue: everywhere except for the blue Downtown zones in the center – and the darkest R5 and R6 zones around it – multi-family development is either illegal or requires extremely impractical minimum lot sizes.

What that means is that the sort of gradual, small-scale densification that might make sense in a residential neighborhood where rising prices are creating pressure for redevelopment – replacing a single family home with two to four units on the same lot – is ruled out. Instead, developers either have to build big within a very small geographic area, where those areas exist at all, or they have to do a single-family teardown.

Interestingly, Evanston – which, relatively speaking, has taken the build-it-big philosophy to heart, allowing more large residential construction, and thus more added density, than any other mature Chicago suburb – is also not identified as a place with a teardown epidemic, despite having real estate prices that are definitely comparable to places that are. Whether that’s because of regulations that prevent teardowns, or a release of development pressure via huge condo and apartment projects, I have no idea. But it is notable.

I should also note that this dichotomy isn’t necessarily terrible: especially if dense development is focused around transit stations, it’s a perfectly reasonable way to allow housing supply to grow, and thus help keep prices from skyrocketing, while protecting large single-family-home neighborhoods, if that’s a local priority. That, for example, is something like the Toronto model, where skyscrapers are allowed within a quarter mile or so of outlying subway stations, surrounded by a sea of relatively low-density housing. That said, of course, the scale of density that’s required in those islands for it to balance restrictions elsewhere is pretty massive, and it seems clear that even Evanston isn’t close to reaching those levels.

Which means that it’s a shame that smaller-scale densification that might be more palatable to single-family neighborhoods is off the table. There are many examples of neighborhoods throughout the metro area where single-family homes and two- to four-unit apartment buildings coexist quite peacefully; we ought to be creating more of them.

NB: I should note that the city of Chicago also has a “valley” of medium-sized development, but it’s in the sort of four- to ten-story midrise building, rather than three-flats. The basic dynamic is the same, though: zoning allows for either very little, or no, increase in density, or a massive increase in density in a very small geographic area. Gradual densification of the sort that has typified urban development for most of our history is off the table.

Dept. of That’s Not How That Works

Update: Only two people have written to object to this, but I think they have a point, so: when I wrote “Since that [neighborhood wealth] ends up being more or less the main criteria by which the city determines where subsidized housing goes…”, I was being more than a little glib. In fact, most project-based affordable housing in Chicago, as elsewhere, is built by community development corporations through the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, or LIHTC, which the city does not administer. My actual issue is that one of the main affordable housing programs that the city does administer – the inclusionary zoning ordinance – which could potentially be creating affordable units in middle-class neighborhoods, is set up in such a way that it is clearly easier for developers to pay the “in-lieu” fee instead of building the affordable units on site. That fee is then used by the city to subsidize other affordable housing, which for various reasons – mostly just the fact that you can get more units per dollar in low-income areas – are almost always built in low-income areas. I don’t think that’s a particularly radical conclusion. That said, implying that the city has a significant say on where all, or even most, of Chicago’s affordable housing goes is not correct. Just wanted to be clear about that.


So the Puerto Rican Cultural Center bought a couple vacant buildings along the Paseo Boricua and is going to turn them into a performing arts space, studios, and a piano lounge. That’s great! But then the local alderman, Roberto Maldonado, said something pretty weird:

“The acquisition of those properties is a major step in trying to commercially and culturally anchor our community as it faces the onslaught of an ever-encroaching gentrification process which seeks to erase our historical memory from the Greater Humboldt Park community,” read an announcement from Ald. Roberto Maldonado’s office.

In a way, this made me happy, because it was so interesting sociologically, and because it so clearly reflected the “taxonomy of grief” re: gentrification that I wrote up a while ago.

 The old Ashland Sausage building has been purchased with hopes of turning it into an arts center.

The property in question.

But as a statement of policy from an elected representative, it’s kind of worrying. That’s because Alderman Maldonado seems to be combining two sometimes-conflicting reasons why people oppose gentrification: a rising tide of housing prices that push out older residents (a problem that, at its margins, Humboldt Park is certainly facing), and – separately but relatedly – a loss of cultural community as a result of new types of people moving in. I say sometimes-conflicting because frequently, those two issues rise or fall together; but in this case, the solution Maldonado has found to the latter is almost certain to exacerbate the former.

That is, if I were to tell you that an arts organization had bought out a vacant warehouse in a transitioning neighborhood and was going to turn it into a piano lounge – and then told you that I expected that move to prevent gentrification - you would probably make some sort of confused face at me. With good reason! There may exist a world in which turning vacant buildings into performing arts centers doesn’t raise the surrounding neighborhood’s housing prices, but we do not live in it.

In this case, though, the fact that it’s a Puerto Rican arts organization is sort of obscuring that problem. The move is simultaneously addressing the issue of cultural community, by institutionalizing an explicitly Puerto Rican organization in the middle of the neighborhood’s main commercial street, and accelerating the rise in rents that are likely to eventually push the area’s demographics away from Puerto Ricans and towards whites and maybe Asians.

I said as much on Twitter yesterday, and someone asked: Does that mean low-income communities should avoid improving their neighborhoods? To which the answer is: definitely not! But it does mean that a) we need to be clear about what we mean by “gentrification,” especially when we have multiple goals (like, say, cultural community and affordable housing) that might all fall under that name; and b) we need to drop the charade that the affordable housing side of the gentrification issue can be dealt with with anything other than housing. Basic economics would suggest that any improvement to neighborhood amenities – new arts programs, or retail, or less crime, or better schools – will raise housing prices, unless you allow increased demand to turn into more housing units, and/or have non-market housing that doesn’t respond to market forces. This is especially true if, like eastern Humboldt Park, you’re right on the edge of an already-gentrified area.

Although Humboldt Park has more non-market housing units than the neighborhoods to the east, from which the current wave of gentrification is coming, they don’t make up any really significant portion of the overall housing stock; and, more ominously, I haven’t seen any indication that the area’s elected or unelected leaders are interested in allowing the total amount of housing to grow. As a result, I would expect the neighborhood’s demographics to change in the 2010s roughly as West Town’s did in the 1990s, when the total number of nonpoor families grew by over 2,000 while the number of poor families fell by over 3,000, and the total number of housing units stayed relatively flat. (By contrast, the South Loop, which saw a boom in new units beginning in the 1990s, gained several hundred nonpoor families and saw no decrease in the total number of poor families.)

Just as bad, the reason that Humboldt Park has a relatively high number of non-market housing units is that it has, up until now, been far outside the city’s wealthy zone. Since that ends up being more or less the main criteria by which the city determines where subsidized housing goes – that is, not anywhere near the growing professional-class bubble – now that the neighborhood is clearly gentrifying, it’s unlikely to see much more subsidized development. And so on both the market and non-market sides, the area is going to be increasingly squeezed, and increasingly segregated along white, professional-class lines, over the coming years.

That is, unless Alderman Maldonado and people like him give up the idea that gentrification can be shown up by affirming “our historical memory,” and decide that a crisis of affordable housing needs to be dealt with by reforming, you know, housing policy.