Just in case you wanted to read the same thing with higher production values.
Is a myth that’s worth dispelling. At City Observatory, here’s the conclusion:
But there are important lessons to be learned by looking at what the bungalow era actually looked like, rather than our romantic imagination of it.
One is that everything old was once new, and new things often provoke a backlash. We ought to be humble in believing that our opinions represent some timeless, objective truth, looking backwards or forwards. The same bungalows that seem to us quaint and charming were tacky and soulless to many of the people watching them be built; it seems more than possible that the new apartment buildings we vilify today will be thought of sentimentally by future generations who know them only as an important part of their city since they were born.
A second lesson is that American cities have an impressive history of growing to accommodate new arrivals. Berger leaves out of his column, as is frequently left out in “immaculate conception” stories, that the bungalow era was also the fastest period of urbanization in American history: Between 1900 and 1930, Seattle’s population grew more than fourfold, from 80,000 to over 360,000—a rate of growth approached or exceeded by many other American cities at the time. In the process, millions of rural Americans and immigrants were given the opportunity to live in newly industrializing cities where wages and quality of life were dramatically higher. Today, most of our cities have shut the door on that kind of growth. (Seattle’s growth rate today, while much higher than many other central cities, pales in comparison to the bungalow era Berger wishes we would return to.) As a result, our doors are no longer open to as many people, from this country and others, who would like to make better lives by moving to places where job openings and quality of life are high.
Finally, the bungalow era suggests that building new market-rate housing that’s affordable to working-class and low-income people in urban areas is hard, especially if that housing takes the form of single-family homes. And it’s worse today: while the bungalow builders had the advantage of lots of open land relatively close to center cities, today, that “frontier” has closed. And we’re well aware of the costs—environmental, social, and financial—of continuing to push all of our growth out further and further onto the fringe.
Rather, the deeply affordable and decent homes of the bungalow era were largely in multifamily buildings. It’s curious that, though more than four in ten of the homes built in the 1920s were in apartment buildings, that kind of construction—and those kinds of people—are entirely absent from Berger’s romantic musings about the time. But they were a crucial source of urban accommodations for people of modest incomes. As the Sightline Institute has pointed out, rooming houses and other small, multifamily homes made up a huge proportion of the affordable housing stock in cities around the country in the early 20th century. Unfortunately, a combination of regulations and market conditions has virtually eliminated that stock in most places. If we want to go return to something the 1910s and 20s got right, bringing back modestly-sized homes in multifamily buildings is a good place to start.
I have a piece over at City Observatory that I think is kind of cool. (Also, if you read this blog, you should really just read Zoned in the USA by Sonia Hirt.) An excerpt of the City Observatory essay:
Hirt’s major claim is that what really sets American zoning apart is its orientation, explicit or implicit, to putting the single-family residential zone at the top of the hierarchy of urban land uses. Not only are single-family zones listed first in many zoning codes, but they make up significant pluralities, or even majorities, of total land area in most American cities. Interestingly, Hirt points out that this wasn’t necessarily true when zoning was first introduced: New York’s famous first zoning law didn’t even have a single-family zone at all.
Cities in other countries remain closer to our origins, then. In Great Britain, for example, local development plans generally set limits on residential density by the number of housing units per given land area, rather than dictate the form that those housing units must take. In the Paris area, too, land use intensity is determined by something like FAR, or the ratio of total floor area to lot area, rather than prescribing apartments or detached homes. The German zoning system, which in some ways appears very similar to ours, does not even have a single-family category.
As Hirt points out, Americans appear to be unique in believing that there is something so special about single-family homes that they must be protected from all other kinds of buildings and uses—even other homes, if those homes happen to share a wall. The recent revolt in Seattle over a proposal to soften that city’s single-family districts, in other words, would not be possible anywhere else in the world, not least because very few people live in single-family districts to begin with.
I’ve written several times about the problem of shrinking population, and shrinking housing supply, in Chicago neighborhoods that ought to be booming. A quick recap: Over the last generation or so, the number of people wanting to live in Chicago’s close-in neighborhoods, particularly on the North and Northwest sides, has skyrocketed. Many of these people are also much wealthier than the people who had been living in these neighborhoods before. Downtown, builders have responded to this situation as they had historically throughout the city: by building more densely and allowing more people to live in a given area.
But because Chicago’s zoning code fits so snugly over its neighborhoods outside of downtown – so snugly, in fact, that maximum allowed densities are frequently much lower than what already exists – builders have not been able to add much new housing. Instead, they maximize their profits by turning two-flats into luxury two-flats, or into mini-mansions for a single family. As a result, as places like Lincoln Park get more desirable than they’ve ever been, fewer people are able to live there, and its population remains about 40% below its peak, depriving the rest of the city of whole heaps of tax money that we might be able to spend on schools, roads, transit, and so on. And, meanwhile, the intensified bidding war over the housing that remains drives up prices, pushing some of the people who would have lived in Lincoln Park in 1990 to Wicker Park in 2000 or Logan Square in 2010 – in other words, it causes gentrification.
But the situation is actually even worse than that. Because the deconversion of multi-unit buildings into smaller multi-unit or single-unit buildings is just part of the removal of rental housing: there are also lots of buildings that retain the same number of units, but are converted from renter-occupied to owner-occupied. (This trend has slowed dramatically since the recovery of the rental market, and there are even a few places where condo buildings have been converted back to rental—but not nearly enough to reverse the trend of the last 20 years.)
As a result, the stock of rental homes in some of these North Side neighborhoods—which, at this point, is the market that anyone without an upper-middle-class income is in by default—has just completely collapsed.
Why is this a problem? Well, for one, owner-occupied housing almost always excludes more people—people of more tenuous economic standing—than rental housing. This is true even when monthly payments aren’t terribly different, because owner-occupied housing requires greater savings, a more stable source of income, and generally better credit. Less rental housing in that sense translates directly into a more exclusionary neighborhood.
But also, to the extent that rental housing constitutes its own market, reducing the supply of homes through condo conversions will bid up rental prices in the same way that too-low supply of homes in general will. In the wake of the recession, huge numbers of people who might in another time have chosen to buy—even people with relatively high incomes—stayed in the rental market instead. They found it much smaller than it would have been a decade or two or three before, and that almost certainly contributed to the competition for apartments that has pushed prices so high over the last several years.
And, of course, this is all happening in the context of sometimes extreme political pressure on aldermen and developers to privilege new owner-occupied housing over rentals. That makes pushing back against those pressures, as aldermen like Walter Burnett and Ameya Pawar have done, all the more crucial.
But also, you know, a country. I don’t think I’ve ever done a photo post before, so please tolerate this one.
I was in Brazil for the last two weeks; more on that later. For now, here are three things I wrote for City Observatory that were published in the interim:
This kind of mid-density, low-rise housing—including duplexes, triplexes, townhomes, and other low-density multi-family buildings—has been called the “missing middle”: American cities build lots of single-family homes, and (in a certain places) some larger apartment complexes, both in the form of sprawling suburban “apartment communities” and downtown highrises. What we don’t build are the kind of human-scaled, moderately-dense housing that has historically made up the bulk of America’s urban neighborhoods.
Even if you adjust for the fact that Americans drive more, the United States’ roads still stand out as some of the most dangerous: 20% worse than Germany, 40% worse than Denmark, and 71% worse than Norway.
As we’ve noted before, this is one of the cases where cities and urban living are the solution. Because people drive less and drive more slowly in cities, traffic death rates are lower in more urbanized places.
Nor are dangerous streets an unchangeable part of national culture. In 1990, the US and UK had almost identical road fatality rates. But since then, the US has made much slower progress—and today, we suffer 71% more deaths for the same amount of driving. The difference is worth 14,000 American lives every year.
So how do we explain this? Well, here’s where we get back to land use. In America, people with higher incomes tend to have certain kinds of jobs: in particular, white-collar office jobs in fields like insurance, law, finance, and so on. In many American cities, those jobs are heavily concentrated in the downtown core. In cities like Philadelphia, which has an extensive commuter rail network, or Seattle and Minneapolis-St. Paul, which have a pretty good network of regional express buses, that makes commuting from the suburbs quite convenient: You can walk from the downtown station to your office, avoiding both the frustrations of driving in rush hour traffic and the expense of downtown parking.
But the situation looks very different for lower-income people. Those jobs are disproportionately likely to be blue-collar manufacturing or service sector, which are much more scattered across the metropolitan area. If you live in the suburbs, the prospect of commuting to another suburb by transit is probably pretty bleak: in most regions, very few suburban jobs are walking distance from a rapid transit station, and local suburban buses are often unreliable and too slow to efficiently travel across the massive distances of American metropolitan areas.
Faced with unreliable, extremely slow commutes by transit, most of those blue-collar and service sector workers will just find a way to buy a car and drive—even if it eats into the money they have for other important expenses. And so you end up with a situation where a lot of wealthy people have an easy transit commute to their jobs, but lower-income people do not.
Yesterday, We Are/Somos Logan Square, a mostly housing-related advocacy group in my neighborhood, held a rally outside the local alderman’s office. As far as a vision for the neighborhood goes, I’ll be forward enough to say—and I hope they would agree—that we’re not so far apart. We Are/Somos and I both want Logan Square to be a neighborhood where people of all economic, social, and ethnic backgrounds feel comfortable, welcome, and able to be a part of the communities they value. We are particularly invested in allowing the people who already feel a part of the community to remain. And we both believe that affordable housing is perhaps the greatest challenge to achieving that vision.
But—and I say this with a great amount of respect for people who are doing something they believe will make their neighborhood better—I am somewhat depressed by their demands.
We Are/Somos’ demands center on getting local aldermen to require developers to provide low-rent units alongside their regular, market-priced units. In general, this sort of policy is called “inclusionary zoning”; in Chicago, inclusionary zoning is regulated by the Affordable Requirements Ordinance, or ARO. The terms are a bit complicated, but essentially any developer of a property with more than 10 units that gets a zoning change has to make at least 2.5% of their units “affordable” (more on exactly what that means later); they can then choose whether to pay a fee equivalent to another 7.5% of their units, or just create another 7.5% worth of affordable units in their building to get to 10% in all.
The local Alderman, Joe Moreno, has already required developers in his ward to build the full 10% of units on site, rather than paying the fee. We Are/Somos’ demands, then, go something like this:
- the number of affordable units should be greater than 10%;
- the affordable units should be targeted to people with lower incomes;
- the affordable units should be targeted to families and have more bedrooms.¹
On their face, these are all things I support. And we need people like We Are/Somos, and others, doing good work to keep up the pressure for housing policies that promote affordability. But there is a problem.
The problem is that there is an enormous gap between even a total victory on the part of We Are/Somos and the kind of neighborhood they, and I, want to build. You don’t need to have any special expertise to see this—you just need a pencil and a napkin.
There are currently about 700 units proposed or under construction in Logan Square that trigger the ARO requirements. (Of course, We Are/Somos has said, at both of the meetings where I’ve seen them speak, that this is far too many.² So perhaps a “total victory” on their part would involve far fewer units. But let’s leave that for a moment.) Based on the alderman’s interpretation of the ARO, that would translate to 70 affordable units. I’m not sure exactly what percentage We Are/Somos are looking for, but I’ve heard 25% and 50% thrown around. That would translate to 175 and 350 units, respectively.
Many of the projects that add up to 700 total units have been in the works for the better part of a year already; many will take over a year to be completed. So let’s say that these 700 units are two years’ worth of development for Logan Square. It seems very unlikely that we could keep that pace up for ten years—at some point there will be a recession, and development will dry up—but let’s just say we did. By 2025, Logan Square would have an additional 175*5, or 875; or 350*5, or 1,750 affordable units.
Logan Square has about 33,000 housing units. By 2025, if it builds 700 units every two years, it will have 36,500. Of those, either 875 (if we get 25% inclusionary zoning) or 1,750 (if we get 50%) will be new affordable units from the ARO. According to the Rehab Network, there are already about 800 subsidized units in Logan Square, so the total would come to either about 1,700 or 2,550.
That means that in 2025, either 95% or 93% of all housing in Logan Square will be priced by the market—under the best possible scenario for We Are/Somos. The fact that the difference between 25% inclusionary zoning and 50% inclusionary zoning over ten years is just 2% of all units in the neighborhood is also pretty striking: it means that if somehow We Are/Somos were able to get every single new unit to be affordable, market-rate housing would still be 89% of the neighborhood.
Which means that without a strategy for keeping market prices down, the neighborhood will be 89% unaffordable. Which isn’t compatible with We Are/Somos’ vision for Logan Square or mine.
Of course, we should take a moment to reflect on just how unrealistically optimistic even this depressing scenario is. We Are/Somos points out, correctly, that developers have every reason to lie about how much affordable housing they’re capable of providing; but the fact that they lie about where that threshold is doesn’t mean that they’re lying about the fact that there is some threshold beyond which the project just doesn’t pencil out.³
I’m not in a position to know exactly where that threshold is. But I can note that in New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s new affordable housing plan calls for 25% of new units to be affordable. That’s probably an upper ceiling for Chicago for a few reasons: first, inclusionary zoning works by essentially taking developer profit to subsidize affordable units, and there is almost certainly much more developer profit to work with in New York than Chicago. Second, de Blasio’s plan targets people who make 60% of the region’s average income. That’s the same as Chicago’s ARO—and significantly higher than what We Are/Somos wants. Their demands have been about 30-40% of the region’s average income, which would require significantly more subsidy for each unit, reducing the total number of units that could be subsidized.
In any case, the bottom line is that there is no inclusionary zoning percentage that will keep Logan Square affordable for everyone. By making Logan Square’s affordable housing debate revolve around that figure—10% or 25% or 50% or 100%—we are keeping debate stuck on number that can never be enough. If we don’t bring focus to the bigger picture, we’ve lost before we started.
That doesn’t mean inclusionary zoning isn’t important. It’s unlikely that market prices will ever be low enough for people at, say, 30-40% of the region’s average income in Logan Square, and inclusionary zoning, along with other kinds of subsidized housing, can be absolutely essential for keeping a place for them in the neighborhood.
But that has to be just one part of getting from where we are to where we want to be. In part, we should be looking for more ways to create non-market units. Some people have floated the idea of bringing in units that the Chicago Housing Authority is committed to build or pay for as part of the Plan for Transformation. This project in Cabrini-Green, for example, will have 10% ARO units and 10% units paid for with CHA vouchers, for 20% total. That should absolutely be a model that’s copied all over the city, especially near transit stations.
But none of this changes the fact that the vast majority of housing units in Logan Square will be priced by the market for the foreseeable future, whether we like it or not. We need a plan for keeping the growth of market prices in check.
1 Actually, another demand is something along the lines of: “Stop approving so many big new developments at all.” This is because We Are/Somos believes that these developments, whether they contain affordable units or not, drive up prices in the surrounding neighborhood. That is, they believe that their main mechanism for creating more affordable units also diminishes affordability in other units. To be clear, although I don’t believe that’s true, it’s not at all logically inconsistent—but it does put We Are/Somos in a rhetorically uncomfortable place, I think. if every step forward is a step back, then what’s the point of any of it?
2 One of the weird things about development politics in Logan Square is that it has (at least partially) united groups like We Are/Somos with homeowners’ organizations that oppose new development sometimes explicitly on the grounds that it will reduce their property values—that is, make housing more affordable. So you have a coalition of people who not only have directly opposing ideas about what the effects of new construction are, but who have directly opposing ideas about whether housing should be more or less expensive.
3 And note that what happens when you cross that threshold—when the developer can no longer make enough money for the project to be worth it for them—is not that everything stays the same, an outcome that might seem acceptable. What happens is a) you lose all the potential affordable units, and b) some developer builds whatever is already allowed by the existing zoning. In many cases, that means single-family homes that will sell for the better part of a million dollars. Because every residential zoning category allows those kind of homes, there is no public meeting necessary, no affordable units, and no zoning change you can use as a shield against it: they can just do it. That’s not everyone going back to square one; that’s a huge loss.
This is a piece I’ve been wanting to write for a while. I’ve expressed discomfort with “Chiraq,” and the other stigmatizing ways we talk about places and people on the South and West Sides before—but I haven’t really put together a coherent argument explicitly citing the research that informs my feelings about the issue.
My hometown, Chicago, is having a fight over words: in particular, “Chiraq.” That’s a portmanteau of “Chicago” and “Iraq,” which is meant to analogize the city not to that country’s rich cultural heritage, or extreme weather, but to its war. The name seems to have come from a South Side rapper, but has since been popularized by headlines in decidedly non-South Side outlets, at least three different VICE mini-documentaries, and most recently an in-the-works Spike Lee movie.
Most cities might not have a nickname with such staying power, but they’re familiar with the concept. “Killadelphia”; “Murder Worth”; “Bullet Town”; even“Murder Kroger.” Last year, a website called “Judgmental Maps” made a name for itself by posting annotated maps of American cities; some of the entries for Atlanta, to take a city at random, included “Little Crackistan,” “Dangerous Mexicans,” and “Avoid.” The map for Washington, DC, labeled all of the Anacostia area simply “GUNS & AIDS.” Around the same time, an app called SketchFactorannounced that it could help you get where you were going while avoiding “sketchy” neighborhoods.
Judging by the debate in Chicago, many people don’t see a problem with these expressions of local reputation. In a widely-shared essay, one prominent writer declared that “Chiraq” was indicative of real problems, from violent crime to concentrated poverty, and “arguing over what to call” that “shameful reality” was simply a tool of distraction—putting up a Potemkin facade to avoid dealing with the real issues.
It’s certainly true that the problems “Chiraq”—and, for that matter, “Killadelphia” or “Bullet Town”—was meant to encapsulate are real. (Even the “Murder Kroger” really did witness a murder.) But the second part of the argument—that the name itself is harmless—is simply not true.
Over the last few years, issues of racial and economic segregation have seen a new burst of attention, covering historic issues like redlining and cutting-edge research on the effect of concentrated poverty on economic mobility. But one of the squishier sides of segregation has received much less coverage: stigma.
Stigma creates the very problems it supposedly reflects
In part, that’s understandable: it’s much harder to measure stigma than it is to measure segregation—or even, as it turns out, to measure intergenerational economic opportunity. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a real, and powerful, force. In fact, strong evidence suggests that stigma can help create the very disadvantages it supposedly reflects.
Stereotypically, American transit users are low-income. In some places, like Chicago, transit is good enough, at least in some places, for middle-class and even upper-middle-class people to use it. But even here, surely more money makes you more likely to drive?
But not quite. In the Chicago metropolitan area – meaning these numbers include the suburbs, not just the city – the median income for a person who drives to work alone is $39,957. The median income for someone who takes transit to work is $40,314.
It gets even weirder if you make a map:
In short, blue areas are places where the median transit-rider’s income is higher than the median car-driver’s income. As the colors get deeper red, transit-riders’ incomes are falling relative to drivers’.
The results are pretty much the opposite of what you would expect: the suburbs are almost entirely blue, meaning that an average transit-rider from, say, Naperville, is actually richer than an average driver. In the city, that’s reversed: drivers tend to be wealthier than transit-takers. (If you only look at the city, things look a little more explicable: transit-riders’ relative income is highest in gentrified North Side neighborhoods with good transit access, especially along the Blue, Brown, and Red Lines.)
What’s going on? I can’t prove it yet, but I strongly suspect that it has to do with where different kinds of jobs are.
Our normal paradigm of how someone chooses to use transit has to do with income: we assume that in any given situation, transit is probably some amount less convenient but also some amount less expensive than driving, and so people who are more price-conscious – that is, lower-income people – will be more likely to sacrifice convenience for the sake of saving money. Under that model, rich people should be more likely to drive pretty much everywhere, but as the convenience of transit improves – that is, in dense cities – the gap should narrow.
But what this suggests, I think, is that income is playing a smaller role than job location. If you live in the suburbs and work in the suburbs, transit is almost certainly a terrible option for you. Metra runs infrequently and there are few jobs to walk to from Metra stations; Pace also has long gaps between buses on many routes, and is too slow to make efficient trips across the vast distances beyond the Chicago city limits. That means that you’ll have a very strong incentive to drive, even if you’re low-income. (And recall that in places where transit is very, very bad, even most low-income people will find a way to get access to a car so they can participate in society.)
If you work in the city, though – in particular if you work downtown – transit might be a great option. Metra will drop you off within walking distance of your job, doesn’t require paying for downtown parking, and may very well be faster than taking highways into the Loop at rush hour.
That means that suburban residents who work downtown are much, much more likely to take transit than people who work in another suburb. Which wouldn’t mean anything by itself – except that the types of jobs that locate downtown don’t look like the types of jobs that locate in the suburbs. Although downtown Chicago has plenty of service sector jobs – the people who work in restaurants, supermarkets, and clothing stores – it also has a massive concentration of high-paying white collar positions. That means people who work downtown are disproportionately likely to have upper-middle-class or upper-class white-collar incomes. Which means, in turn, that transit riders in the suburbs are more likely to have those incomes as well.
Suburban jobs, in contrast, are a wider mix of service sector, blue collar, and higher-paying office jobs. That means that drivers – who will disproportionately be people who work in the suburbs – will, on average, have more average-looking incomes.
I would take two big things away from this. The first is that improving transit, which is frequently cast as a social justice issue (including by me), does not automatically benefit lower-income people more than higher-income people. (Which doesn’t mean that it isn’t worthwhile – there are other reasons to support transit.) In terms of who benefits, there’s a big difference between, say, adding a rush hour express train from Naperville to the Loop and upgrading suburb-to-suburb Pace buses – or, for that matter, buses in the city.
But the second is that you can create major transit benefits without actually doing anything at all to transit service. These maps show that wealthier people are taking better advantage of transit infrastructure in the suburbs – not because they have better access, but because of where their destinations are. That means that bringing a wider range of jobs to transit-accessible locations – in downtown Chicago, but also other Metra stops, or places where Pace buses converge, or other easily-accessible places in the city – may matter as much or more than building new lines or services. And recalling that most trips aren’t actually commutes, this applies to other kinds of destinations as well: grocery stores, other kinds of shopping, and even homes.
Which means that if you care about people being able to save money by taking transit – or the mobility of people who can’t drive, including the disabled, the young, and many of the elderly – a major part of our program needs to be about focusing new construction near transit. That doesn’t require any big multi-year studies or multi-billion-dollar federal grants: it just requires some zoning changes. Let’s get on that.
As an addendum: of course, in many places, even if transit-takers are wealthier, there are very few of them. If you remove all the places where fewer than 5% of residents take transit to work, you see that much of the Chicago suburbs is very car-dependent – but the overall pattern remains the same.
Usually, I feel like I’m pretty decent at understanding what sounds interesting to normal people, as opposed to someone who reads suburban zoning codes for fun. (Whether I act on that understanding is a separate question.) But I am shocked – shocked – that there hasn’t been a groundswell of people clamoring to discuss this series on Twitter and at my local corner store.
Because this is gripping! Consider:
1. Everyone – and I mean everyone, from HUD to any affordable housing group you can think of – uses the same 30% ratio of housing costs to income to determine what “affordable” means.
2. That ratio is kind of bogus!
3. Because everyone uses this bogus ratio:
a. Reports about, say, “how much you have to earn to afford a two-bedroom in City X” are often pretty misleading.
b. “Affordable” rents set by inclusionary zoning ordinances or other subsidies for people at a given income may not actually be affordable for people at that income.
c. We may be encouraging people to live in places and pay quantities of money that don’t make sense for their budgets.
4. Some smart guy has already come up with an alternative, which we should probably go ahead and use.
Go tell your friends!