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:

IncSegGIF

Rahm Emanuel is pranking us

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.

“The purpose to be accomplished…is to segregate them according to their income”

 

According to the Supreme Court, the people who live here are “parasites.” Credit: A Chicago Sojourn.

Been busy this week working on a few writing projects, but I came across this on Twitter (thanks, @markvalli!) and it’s too good not to share. It turns out that Euclid v. Ambler, the Supreme Court case that ratified zoning as a constitutional use of state power, actually overturned a federal district court that had ruled that zoning was unconstitutional. That district court wrote:

The purpose to be accomplished is really to regulate the mode of living of persons who may hereafter inhabit it. In the last analysis, the result to be accomplished is to classify the population and segregate them according to their income or situation in life.

Recall, please, that the Supreme Court overturned this decision by arguing that apartments, and the people who lived in them, were “parasites” who were trying to “take advantage of the open spaces and attractive surroundings” of more affluent neighborhoods.

One thing that always gets me is that the contemporary excuse for past crimes – “It was a different time! They couldn’t have had our perspective on [issue of justice].” – is almost always a lie. There were almost always people who understood exactly what was going on, and who shared that opinion loudly. In, say, a federal court’s official decision. The reason the injustice was perpetrated anyway wasn’t that people didn’t understand; it was that they didn’t care. Apartment-dwellers are “parasites.” People like not having to live around people poorer than them.

But the fact that segregation is popular – today as in 1926 – doesn’t make it any less wrong.

 

Watch New York City’s middle class (and poor) get pushed around; or: the incredible invisibility of disadvantage in the proximity of privilege

EDIT: Actually, there is something in particular I’d like to get out of this. It’s similar to the point I made with the Brooklyn map: namely, that the invisibility of the poor and nonwhite when they aren’t interacting with more privileged people is just astounding. Look at Manhattan; look at the Bronx. Look, for that matter, at Brooklyn again. Whose stories do we hear?

That would be a stupid rhetorical question – duh, Daniel, we hear rich people’s stories – if it weren’t for the fact that even I, a person who has made this exact point multiple times before, was shocked at the extent to which very low-income neighborhoods persist in New York. Why was I so surprised? Because all people talk about is how New York has become a gated city of the ultra-rich. Because of the social bias that I just suggested was blindingly obvious. And which nevertheless, in this case, I fell for.

And if I fell for it in this case, then surely I’m still falling for it in dozens of others. Andrew Sullivan’s blog, for as long as I’ve read it, has carried on its masthead an Orwell quote: “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” That’s true in a very general way, of course, but it’s also worth remembering that it’s true in some pretty specific ways: for whatever reason, the struggle is particularly difficult when it’s poor or nonwhite people in front of your nose. That’s a lesson for anyone who cares about cities – or, you know, humans, since an interest in cities is at bottom an interest in humans and their habitats – whether you’re part of the media, or an urban planner, or a neighborhood activist, or just one of those humans in their habitat.


 

I’ve been holding onto this for a while, not quite sure what to do with it, but now I’m releasing it into the wild. It comes from the same data set and researchers (Sean Reardon and Kendra Bischoff) as the Chicago map, with the same disclaimer that any mistakes in the translation of spreadsheet to map are entirely of my own doing.

Anyway, I know much less about New York’s social geography than I do Chicago’s, so I won’t say too much, but several things obviously stick out here. One is that though Manhattan has almost entirely eliminated middle-class or economically balanced neighborhoods, the rest of the city has a good deal more of them than Chicago. To some extent, I suspect this has something to do with New York’s much more ambitious (and, sometimes, progressive) housing policy: fewer than half of tenants there live in pure market-rate housing. Although New York, like most of the rest of the country, would do well to allow more housing where there’s capacity, demand is high enough that lots of subsidies are likely called for.

The other thing is just how much of New York, currently a global symbol of gated-city affluence, is actually poor. Look, for example, at the Bronx: it’s a sea of red. A decent amount of Brooklyn, too. Another reminder of how the obsession with gentrification obscures the larger issue of income segregation.

Also: man, Harlem is gentrifying. That sort of dark-red-to-green is something you didn’t see too much in the Chicago map.

Finally, this map really ought to have a scale capable of showing the extremes of wealth in parts of Manhattan that just don’t exist in Chicago. Twice the metro median family income really doesn’t cut it.

* These are not polished maps: I just don’t have time to polish them, but I wanted to get them out, and the broad trends are pretty apparent. You’ll see that some tracts in Staten Island are missing until 1990-2000; I figure people don’t care that much about Staten Island. (Sorry, Staten Island.) Also there are some weird things that happen with tracts that include parks, where small populations are included where they weren’t before. Apologies.

NYGIF

 

frame_000 frame_001 frame_002 frame_003 frame_004

The “Take a stand against violence” slur

This is quick, but it’s one of my least favorite things:

As he has in the past, Emanuel said gun violence plaguing the city must be addressed in a variety of ways, which he said include policing, tougher gun laws, more investment to help children in impoverished neighborhoods and instilling a “shared sense of purpose and values” in communities across Chicago….

Right: similarly, the Mexican drug war began in 2006 when Mexicans suddenly found themselves without a shared sense of purpose and values.

Chicago gangland violence unleashed by Prohibition in the 1920s might have been assuaged if Chicagoans had just felt themselves more strongly to be part of a larger, purpose-driven community.

This slur – that violence could be prevented by the people who live in the neighborhoods it affects, if only they cared or tried hard enough – needs to end. For one, you only have to walk a few blocks in most of the communities most affected by crime in Chicago to see lots of indications that the people who live there – shock of shocks – are, in fact, “taking a stand” already.

You see signs like this all over the South Side. It’s almost as if black people like safe neighborhoods, too! Photo credit: yochicago.com

But what makes this trope really sublime is the fact that neither mayors, nor police commissioners, nor the most esteemed criminologists, have more than the barest understanding about why crime goes up or down to begin with. Concentrated poverty and unemployment can’t help, of course, but consider that crime continued to fall or remain steady in Chicago and the rest of the country during the worst economy since the Great Depression. So people like Mayor Emanuel, faced with a problem he doesn’t know how to fix, instinctively reach to blame the people who are most brutally affected.

Of course, this slur wouldn’t work if we weren’t so eager to believe that people who are poor or non-white – the people who disproportionately suffer from crime – are somehow less civilized, less moral, less interested in their communities, than everyone else. But that’s a lie.

So is “take a stand.” End it.

Where does Chicago’s black middle class live?

(As a foreword: I’m very conscious, as I write this, that I’m explaining something a large number of readers already know; I want to acknowledge that what I’m doing is not unearthing some previously-undiscovered secret, but trying to demonstrate a few of the basic facts of the city’s social geography that really, truly are mysteries to a huge number of people, both in Chicago and in the rest of the country. It would be nice if we lived in a world in which the black middle class were not an exotic demographic to most non-black Chicagoans, let alone the dominant view from outside the city: but we don’t, so here we are.)

There are at least three ways one might go about answering that question.

1. If you picked a random middle-class black person, where are they most likely to live?

To answer this question, you probably just want to count up all the middle class black households and tally them by neighborhood. So that’s what I did. The tricky part, obviously, is defining “middle class.” In the end, I went with something like what I did with my Chicago income segregation maps: households making at least 75% of the metropolitan average income, which works out to about $45,000 a year. There are a million problems with this: it doesn’t account for household size, or life station (a 26-year-old with a bachelor’s making $40,000 doesn’t count, even though nearly anyone who met them would consider them middle class, while a single parent with four children making $45,000, whose economic and social position is likely much, much more precarious, does), or any number of other things. I considered using education, but in a city like Chicago – and this is especially true among African Americans, I think – a huge number of people with middle-class lives have union jobs that don’t require a college education.

Anyway, with all those caveats, here’s the map:

B45totSo the answer is mostly on the South and West Sides: that’s Austin there on the far West Side, with the largest number; Roseland, Auburn Gresham, and South Shore are the leaders on the South Side.

There are things to say about this, but I’m going to go through the next two maps before I say them.

2. If you picked a random person in a given neighborhood, what’s the likelihood that person would be black and middle-class?

B45per

In effect, what this does is control for the number of people in each community area. Austin, for example, which looked super impressive in the first map, now looks less impressive; it turns out that it has a lot of middle-class black people mostly because it has a lot of people, period.

Anyway, the standouts now are Calumet Heights, the darkest-blue trapezoidal shape on the far Southeast Side; Avalon Park just to the north; and Roseland, Washington Heights, and West Pullman on the far, far South Side.

3. Finally, if you picked a random black householder in a given neighborhood, what is the likelihood that person would be middle-class?

B45perofB

This is a considerably weirder, and in some ways more misleading, map. There are now standouts on the Northwest and Southwest sides, in addition to the far South Side; but, if we refer back to the first map, we see that most of those places have vanishingly few black households to begin with. In fact, it’s much worse (in the sense of the numbers are much smaller) than that map even suggests: in many of the darkest-blue areas, we’re talking about dozens of households. Many of these are areas that, up until twenty years ago or so, had literally – or almost literally – zero black residents. To the small extent that they’ve been integrated since then, they’ve been integrated with solidly middle-class people.

Anyway, a few notes on the whole thing:

1. The black middle class exists in Chicago. In large numbers. This shouldn’t really be news, but speaking in my capacity as a white person who knows a lot of white people, and other people of various ethnic backgrounds from the North Side and suburbs and other parts of the country/world, it really is.

2. Perhaps even more importantly, the vast majority of Chicagoans who are both black and middle-class live on the South Side, and to a lesser extent, the West Side.

3. The concentration of middle-class households varies dramatically from one black neighborhood to another.

4. Still, the majority of Chicagoans who are middle-class and black live in neighborhoods that are mostly not middle-class – as opposed to Chicagoans who are middle-class and white, for whom the opposite is true. In this way, Chicago is pretty similar to the rest of the country.

The takeaway, for me, is that these maps contradict two of the biggest lies – or, if we’re being kind, misconceptions – about the social geography of Chicago. The first is that the black neighborhoods of the South and West Sides are an undifferentiated landscape of economic hardship. This is false in a couple of ways. For one, though there are, in fact, many people who are suffering for want of a decent wage in these areas, there are also many thousands of households that are not. (Though they are likely still disadvantaged by other consequences of segregation, including worse access to jobs and basic amenities, higher crime, lower-performing schools, etc.)

For two, just like white, Hispanic, and Asian people, black people are segregated by income. That is to say: some black neighborhoods are much wealthier than others. Of course, this kind of stratification is complicated, since it’s layered on top of – and interacts with – racial segregation. But the view of Chicago as bifurcated between the privileged North Side and deprived South Side needs to get sophisticated enough to recognize the major differences in privilege/deprivation between, say, Englewood and Calumet Heights. It also needs to recognize that even in neighborhoods that are majority low-income, there are generally a significant number of middle-class residents.

The second big lie, related to the first, is that basically everyone on the South and West Sides would get out if they could. This is sometimes stated explicitly; more often, I think, it’s the unspoken assumption that frames most outsiders’ conversations about those parts of the city. It assumes that everyone in Chicago follows roughly the same ladder of neighborhood prestige: one that tops out in Wicker Park, or Lincoln Park, or North Center, or Norwood Park, depending on your family status and subcultural preferences.

But this isn’t remotely the case. Someone who had only lived on the North Side – or outside the city – might figure that the reason there are so few black people (or Latinos! more on that in a sec) in, say, Lakeview, is that Lakeview is so expensive, black and Latino people have lower average incomes, etc., etc. And surely that is, in fact, a large part of the answer. But it’s not the entire answer, and one way to prove it is to show that, actually, the median black householder in Lakeview actually makes less money than the median black householder in Roseland, a neighborhood whose name is usually accompanied in media reports with adjectives like “struggling,” or “blighted,” and so on. It’s actually not even close: over $40,000 in Roseland, versus $33,000 in Lakeview. Those sorts of inversions of North Side/non-Chicagoan perceptions about neighborhood prestige are actually pretty common: black median household income is $24,000 in West Town, $31,000 in Lincoln Park, and $35,000 in North Center, but $39,000 in West Pullman,  $42,000 in Washington Heights, and $56,000 in Calumet Heights. And in Ashburn – a neighborhood on the very southwestern edge of the city that’s about 50% black, and which most North Siders (including me, until friends moved there a few years ago) have never even heard of – it’s over $70,000.

Why does all of this matter? Number one, it’s something that lots of people are wrong about, and I don’t like it when people are wrong about things. More generally, though, widely-held perceptions of neighborhood quality and prestige – especially when those perceptions are held by people with lots of economic and political power – play a huge role in shaping the future of any given neighborhood. From a governance perspective, there are lots of reasons you’d want the people in charge of a city to have an accurate impression of the communities they’re governing before they start making up policies for them; but also from a purely social point of view, the fact that most non-black Chicagoans – and the vast majority of non-Chicagoans – can’t distinguish between Englewood and Calumet Heights means that they won’t ever visit, spend money, and certainly won’t consider living, in neighborhoods that they would likely find generally pleasant. (I apologize for picking on Englewood: I definitely don’t mean to suggest that it doesn’t also have positive qualities, or that no one should go there. I’m making some big-picture observations about the size of its challenges relative to other neighborhoods, and common ways that people react to places with those kinds of challenges.) In short, it’s hard to build much of a local economy in a place that 75% of the population shuns without even thinking about it. (Read Robert Sampson’s Great American City for more on that.)

Anyway, this post is now long enough: I have more to say, but I will put it off to another time. I’ll leave you with two final maps: versions of map #1 above for Latinos, whites, and Asians. They’re fairly self-explanatory, but suffice it to say that most of this post could be rewritten, with only minor edits, to apply to Chicago’s Latino middle class as well.

L45tot

W45tot

A45tot

Milliken, Arlington Heights, and the Context of Zoning Fights

Federal Judge, Blaming Virtually All of Society, Finds Detroit School System Deliberately Segregated – New York Times headline after district court ruling on Milliken v. Bradley, 1971

Today’s holding, I fear, is more a reflection of a perceived public mood that we have gone far enough in enforcing the Constitution’s guarantee of equal justice than it is the product of neutral principles of law. – Justice Thurgood Marshall, dissenting from the Supreme Court’s reversal of Milliken

Federal programs often reward suburban communities which are “zoning out” the moderate-income buyer. The suburban communities, for instance, receive planning money to assist them in drawing up discriminatory general plans to do the job. – National Commission on Urban Problems, 1968

Over the last few months, I’ve been reading up on the legal architecture of inter-municipal metropolitan segregation; that is, how it came to be that certain suburbs (and school districts) welcomed only the white and middle-class or wealthy, and others were home to everyone but.

Up until this point, my study materials were mostly along the lines of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 20th century urban reading list: redlining, contract selling, the Great Migrations, the anti-black riots and more diffuse violence; and, going back a bit further, Reconstruction and slavery. (Part of the thrill of reading his reparations piece was seeing books and essays I had read or read about so brilliantly weaponized.) And all of those things remain, of course, indispensable to the geography of inequality and, more broadly, American systematic deprivation writ large.

Redlining: not kind to Philadelphia

But it’s become clear that something is missing from this narrative. (On second reading, this sentence is ridiculous: a million things are missing from this narrative. I claim only to present one that seems, at the moment, particularly important.) Specifically, the story of one of the major fronts of resistance to segregation that opened up towards the tail end of the 1960s, was largely defeated by the forces of white supremacy and economic privilege in the 1970s, and has remained on a slow, flickering burn since then.

The issue is that even after “separate but equal” was struck down in Brown v. Board of Education, and after redlining, anti-black violence, and other forms of housing discrimination were made more difficult as a result of the Civil Rights Movement, a critical majority of white people decided that they were simply not up to dealing with the implicit and explicit promises the federal government had made about what day-to-day life would look like soon. Unfortunately for them, the most crucial tools of the previous three-quarters of a century of urban apartheid had just been kneecapped, if not completely done away with. So they set about codifying some new ones.

First, they needed to build some walls. Conveniently, those already existed in the form of boundaries between municipalities, school districts, and other local government units. When courts ordered a public housing agency or school district to desegregate, the power of that order ended at the limit of the housing agency’s or school district’s jurisdiction; moving to the other side of those lines effectively invalidated the desegregation decree.

The people fighting to make good on the government’s promises understood this. In 1971, a federal judge named Stephen Roth presided over Milliken v. Bradley, a suit brought by black families in Detroit, and reasoned that since all of metropolitan Detroit had been involved in segregation – participating in racist redlining practices and restrictive covenants, tolerating or encouraging violence – all of metropolitan Detroit ought to be involved in desegregation. Milliken v. Bradley ordered racial integration across school district lines, breaking down one of the most important legal barriers remaining between whites and blacks.

And three years later, the Supreme Court built it back up. In a 5-4 decision, the 1974 edition of Milliken v. Bradley argued, incredibly, that they could find no evidence that Detroit suburbs or the state of Michigan bore any responsibility for the fact of all-white suburbs and all-black city schools, and that as a result any desegregation orders had to be limited to the city of Detroit.

The wall stood.

Can you guess where Detroit’s city limits are?

But to function as intended, the wall needed a gate: one that would allow the right people through, and keep the wrong people out.

If you people can’t afford to live in our town, then you’ll just have to leave. – The white mayor of Mount Laurel, New Jersey, speaking to a black congregation in 1970 about a challenge to the city’s zoning laws

Since at least the 1960s, zoning was understood to be a crucial part of that gate. Very soon after joining President Nixon’s administration as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, the liberal Republican and former Michigan governor George Romney began plotting to open up the suburbs, in large part by targeting land use laws. At issue were both supply-restricting, low-density zoning laws that kept housing prices unaffordable, as well as laws that forbid subsidized housing. From ProPublica’s recent epic on the failures of desegregation:

The 1968 Fair Housing Act, passed months earlier in the tumultuous aftermath of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, directed the government to “affirmatively further” fair housing. Romney believed those words gave him the authority to pressure predominantly white communities to build more affordable housing and end discriminatory zoning practices. Romney ordered HUD officials to reject applications for water, sewer and highway projects from cities and states where local policies fostered segregated housing.

Unfortunately, white suburban voters constituted most of Nixon’s political base, and he quashed Romney’s plan as soon as he found out about it. Concurrently, though, civil rights advocates were taking to the courts. The definitive case at the federal level was Arlington Heights v. Metropolitan Housing Corp., in which a Chicago suburb’s single-family-only zone was challenged on the grounds that it forbid more affordable housing, which had the effect of promoting racial segregation. Once again, a district court agreed with the plaintiffs, and it appeared that a major defense of segregation would fall; once again, the Supreme Court reversed the district court’s opinion and upheld the law. Once again, the Supreme Court failed to find compelling evidence that a law which it acknowledged promoted segregation might have been adopted for discriminatory reasons – despite the fact that Arlington Heights contained, at the time, only 27 black people and roughly 64,000 white people, or that it was located in one of the most famously segregated and racially violent metropolitan areas in the country.

The battle continued at the state level – most notably in the Mount Laurel cases, in which the low-density zoning of a Philadelphia suburb was found to violate the New Jersey state constitution – but with otherwise mixed results. I will try to get into that later.

Federal officials interested in fair housing, though, have continued to acknowledge the central role exclusionary zoning plays as a discriminatory gate to wealthy communities. In 2008, the National Commission on Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity – headed by two former HUD secretaries – released a report that, among other things, catalogued the reasons that segregation has remained so persistent since the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968. Zoning was the very first thing on their list:

[S]ome local governments have used the zoning power delegated by state governments to indirectly control who may live within their boundaries. There has been a consistent pattern of exclusionary zoning and land use decisions that have been barriers to the building of affordable housing in predominantly White neighborhoods in local jurisdictions with a predictable segregative and discriminatory impact on minorities. Similarly, low-density-only zoning has been common, despite its tendency to reduce the rental housing available and thus effectively excluding African Americans and Latinos from living in certain neighborhoods or even entire communities.

Obama’s HUD actually has an ongoing fight with Westchester County, New York, over its zoning practices:

The major impasse between the county and feds is over the settlement’s requirement that Westchester analyze local zoning to determine if it keeps out low-income, black and Hispanic residents…. The Town of Mamaroneck has already been taken off the exclusionary list after rezoning parts of the town to allow multifamily housing.

This anti-multifamily housing poster from Westchester is apparently unconcerned about the ways the word “invasion” has historically been used by white suburbanites.

Neither Milliken nor Arlington Heights is likely to be overturned anytime soon, and the Obama Administration’s efforts notwithstanding, exclusionary zoning that protects legally-walled-off municipalities and their affluent residents is under no real threat. But it ought to be. One place that threat might plausibly begin is among urbanists, who fancy themselves re-engineers of suburban and urban social and economic geography. It might also be a route to making connections between the placemakers and street redesigners, on the one hand, and the community organizers and affordable housing activists on the other. One can hope.

PS – It is obviously the case that the mechanics and location of exclusionary zoning have become somewhat more complicated since George Romney got slapped down by Richard Nixon: while suburbs remain the major sites of artificially unaffordable housing in most metropolitan areas, many central cities now qualify as well. (Though even in central cities – even in a place like Chicago – single family housing zones dominate.) The dynamics obviously differ in some ways, though they’re at root the same: places where demand for housing exceeds supply, and therefore prices are above the normal market rate. In any case, I wanted to note that complication here, and bookmark it for later investigation.

Two in a row

Over at Streetsblog, I have an article about how Chicago’s land use laws and design practices mean the city doesn’t get nearly as much out of its transit infrastructure as it might. In this instance, it’s about the Orange Line, but it really could be about any number of places. On the list I keep of potential posts here, “Oh my God Metra” has been staring at me for several months. Do you ever go to any of the suburban downtowns around Metra stations that haven’t been allowed to grow since 1920, forcing people and jobs out into the transit-dry hinterland? Does it make you cry?

What would reasonable building laws look like? Part 1

So I write about zoning a lot. But other than “more housing, please,” I’ve never really given much of an outline of what I think cities ought to do with their zoning codes.

Part of that is intentional. Thanks to some combination of a begrudging acceptance of political realities and a genuine belief in local communities’ right to have a say in their own development, I don’t think specific declarations about what should and should not be allowed are really useful or appropriate. But you have to start somewhere, and I think it’s necessary for those of us who are arguing for change to give some indication of where that change might take us.

I don’t know how to illustrate this post, so here’s a squirrel who looks like he’s interested.

Though I’ll get around to some specific ideas about building types in the Chicago area, I actually think that the most important question isn’t what will be built on your block, but how – and by whom – decisions about zoning will be made. In practice, after all, the answer to the first question will depend on the answer to the second.

So what would a good zoning process look like? On principle, I’d suggest it be:

1. Democratic, in the sense that everyone who is affected by the decision gets a voice, and

2. Effective, in the sense that it stands a good chance of meeting fundamental goals: that housing isn’t more expensive than it has to be; that housing policy doesn’t encourage the concentration of poverty or people of a given racial background; that nuisances are minimized; that communities are attractive to the people who live in them.

On both counts, the current zoning process in Chicago – and the vast majority of cities around the country – fails miserably. Decisions about what can be built where, at the moment, are generally made by some hyper-local official person or persons: either an alderman or a zoning board, often belonging to a relatively small municipality in some larger metropolitan area.

If this sounds like a democratic process, it isn’t. The issue is that a truly democratic system doesn’t just give some people a vote; it gives a vote to everyone affected by a given decision. This is why our federal government allows, say, Illinois to sue Indiana for dumping toxic waste into Lake Michigan: even if the voters of Indiana have signed off on that, democratic accountability demands that everyone who might be drinking Lake Michigan water be consulted.

In the same way, decisions about housing made in one neighborhood, or one suburb, end up affecting the housing market in the entire region. If Wilmette bans apartment buildings to prevent people with moderate incomes from moving there, then some other city will find those people arriving on their doorstep. If the alderman in Lincoln Park allows so little new construction that the neighborhood actually loses housing units, then the people who can’t find a place to live in their first-choice neighborhood will go to their second or third choices, driving up housing costs in Wicker Park and Bucktown. Under the current system, most of the people who end up being profoundly affected by zoning decisions don’t get to have any say in them.

For example: next-door residents in Irving Park objected to a three-story building that would have included a grocery store, so instead they got a one-story dollar store. It’s hard to imagine the neighborhood as a whole would have welcomed that particular trade.

Current zoning procedures also fail to do some of the most basic things we might expect from government regulation of housing. It makes housing more expensive than it has to be; encourages racial and economic segregation so extreme that what neighborhood you’re born in determines to a huge extent your life chances; and frequently fails to promote the kind of community character – aesthetic and otherwise – that residents want.

So we ought to change the way we make decisions about land use. Specifically, we ought to make those procedures a) more accountable to the full range of people who are affected by them, and b) more tied to the things we want to get out of housing policy.

The problem, of course, is that these aren’t necessarily complementary goals. In particular, the history of the United States suggests pretty strongly that there is a working majority in many places who would like to use housing policy to exclude undesirables, whether those are the poor, or some ethnic minority, or whatever. I don’t think this is an acceptable, or constitutional, outcome, although it’s notable that the Supreme Court seems to disagree with me re: poor people – and, to a significant extent, re: ethnic minorities, too.

But anyway, in the same way that, say, local voting regulations are subject to federal scrutiny, the best zoning reform proposals I’ve seen combine democratic accountability with some sort of protections for people who usually end up getting screwed by the democratic process.

One way to do that is keep the current system, but add to it some regional or state-level body with the power to review local decisions and overturn them if they violate some set of previously agreed-upon principles. Illinois has an incredibly weak version of this with the Affordable Housing Planning and Appeal Act, which requires that municipalities where less than 10% of the housing stock is deemed “affordable” come up with some plan to get up to 10%. So far, I don’t know of much evidence that that has changed much. New Jersey almost created a really strong version of this after the Mt. Laurel state supreme court decision, which unfortunately has mostly been dismantled since then.

A more top-down – but possibly more effective – approach would be a “zoning budget,” in which some regional or state-level body actually dictates how many new units need to be built, based on some previously agreed-upon principles – say, if prices go up X% relative to income, we need Y% more units – and then allows local governments to fight over exactly where they go, and how.

Finally, another possibility is to simply bribe homeowners to overcome their resistance to more construction near their homes. This would be accomplished through something called TILTs, which would essentially redistribute some of the new property tax revenue from new construction to existing homeowners.

At the moment, I’m more or less agnostic among these options, and whatever others may exist. (Except to say, I suppose, that TILTs seem like a rather regressive way of accomplishing saner zoning controls. But probably less regressive than our current zoning, so fine.) To be honest, I mostly just don’t know enough to have a strong recommendation, but also I tend to think that people should be allowed to figure out how they want to get to a particular goal. The point of all this is less to light the way to the one best reform, but rather to suggest the direction in which any successful reform ought to move: it needs to take into account the interests of everyone, not just a project’s immediate neighbors; and it needs to keep an eye on what housing policy is actually supposed to accomplish.