What I’ve been up to

Although the vast majority of my writing energy goes into City Observatory now, I’m going to make an effort to update this space with the work I publish over there, since almost all of it continues themes that I had been covering at this blog. (There will also periodically be new just-for-City-Notes content, as with the post on the CTA’s bus improvements this week.)

Anyway, in a one-time effort to catch up, here’s some of what you’ve missed if you haven’t been reading C.O.:

1. The origins of the urban housing crisis. A three-part series on a chapter of William Fischel’s Zoning Rules!, which tries to explain how a revolution in land use law in the 1970s led us to the current regime of zoning laws and sky-high prices. I begin with a parable (because everyone learns better with parables), and then a more direct look at Fischel’s ideas about the 1970s, and finally a more critical examination of what he proposes to do about it.


…perhaps one of the most interesting and important arguments in the book is that our current crisis of high housing prices has its roots in the land use revolution of the 1970s.

Prior to that decade, Fischel writes, zoning had certainly been effective in creating exclusionary communities—since the 1920s, many critics (and some proponents) had argued that that was the whole point. It did so by creating legal districts where only high-cost housing could be built. But these exclusionary communities existed at the scale of the neighborhood or the suburb: other municipalities in the same metropolitan area acted as a kind of housing development safety valve, accepting higher-density development and keeping the regional housing market more or less in balance.

But in the decades after World War Two, something changed. Suburbs that had been pro-growth amended their zoning laws to shut the door on higher-density housing—and sometimes any housing at all. As a result, exclusionary zoning was transformed from something that constrained development in individual communities to something that could operate on the level of an entire metropolitan area.

The results have completely changed the economic geography of American cities. Before the zoning revolution of the 70s, the highest-cost metropolitan areas had home prices that were about twice the national average; by 2000, that gap had doubled to four times greater than the national average.

2. What filtering can and can’t do. Most housing occupied by low-income people is actually priced by the market, despite the near-universal use of the words “affordable housing” to mean homes with special low-income government subsidies. But there’s a great deal of vagueness about exactly how housing built for middle- or upper-income people becomes “naturally occurring” (a terrible yet common phrase) affordable housing. I look at a new-ish study that gives some of the best details yet on the process. Verdict: We need more (specially subsidized) affordable housing, but we also need filtering to start working again in big, expensive metro areas.


But “affordable housing” also suffers from an ill-defined relationship to the market. Typically, the phrase “affordable housing” means “below market rate,” as in a home that receives some sort of subsidy, private or public, to be cheaper than what the owner could otherwise charge. (Of course, even this distinction—subsidized versus unsubsidized—is problematic, or just plain incorrect, given the massive subsidies to middle- and upper-income homeowners through mechanisms like the mortgage interest tax deduction.) But in most of the country, the vast majority of homes that are actually “affordable” to lower-income people are sold or rented at market rate. They just happen to have some characteristics—size, appearance, or location in a less-desired neighborhood—that make their market prices relatively low.

But very little private housing in the United States was originally built for low-income people. Instead, homes built for the middle or even upper classes gradually became cheaper as they aged, as people with high purchasing power moved into trendier, more modern homes in “better” neighborhoods. As higher income households move on, the now somewhat older homes or apartments they formerly occupied are sold or rented to people with more modest incomes.

This process is called “filtering.” While the evidence that filtering is a real phenomenon has been around for a long time—the core of nearly every American city contains neighborhoods with once-luxurious homes now occupied by people of modest incomes—the first study to provide a rigorous measure of how it happens was published only in 2013. In it, Stuart Rosenthal of Syracuse University uses nearly 40 years of data from the American Housing Survey to figure out the average pace of filtering across the country, and what makes housing filter more quickly in some places than others.

Rosenthal uses the AHS to compare the incomes of people living in the same units of housing over time. He estimates that nationwide, housing “filters” by roughly 1.9 percent a year—meaning that a 50-year-old home is typically occupied by someone whose income is about 60 percent lower than that home’s first occupant. (All of these numbers are adjusted for inflation.) You might think of this process as something like “reverse displacement.”

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3. What’s really going on in gentrifying neighborhoods? A look at new research on how demographic change actually happens in gentrifying areas, which confirms most previous research, which says: it’s about who’s moving in, not who’s moving out. Despite some high-profile cases, it turns out that existing residents of communities where average income is rapidly increasing are not much (or, in some cases, at all) more likely to leave the neighborhood than if average income weren’t increasing. Which doesn’t mean that the end result might not still be exclusionary—it just means we ought to be directing out attention in somewhat different places.


A new study from the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia challenges this narrative. The authors (Lei Ding and Eileen Divringi of the Fed, and Jackelyn Hwang of Princeton, who has written other notable studies on gentrification) tracked movement in and out of urban neighborhoods in Philadelphia from 2002 to 2014, and look at the effect of rising rents and incomes on existing residents. From our perspective, there are three big takeaways.

First, demographic change in gentrifying neighborhoods doesn’t happen the way most people think it does. Ding et al find that in gentrifying neighborhoods, existing residents are just 0.4 percentage points more likely to move out in a given year than they would be in a non-gentrifying neighborhood. (As a baseline, just over 10 percent of all residents moved in a given year.) Even in those neighborhoods with the most rapid increases in rents and income, existing residents are just 3.6 percentage points more likely to move. Moreover, because the authors are interested in involuntary displacement, presumably for economic reasons, they look at whether people who leave gentrifying neighborhoods are more likely to move to poorer communities. In most cases, the answer seems to be no.

So what explains the changing income and ethnic backgrounds of residents in these communities? In short, it’s not who’s moving out; it’s who’s moving in. People who would have left anyway are replaced by a whiter, more affluent group of people; most neighborhoods have turnover rates high enough that this dynamic alone can change the makeup of a neighborhood’s residents quite quickly. To quote the study: “Overall, the results are more consistent with the notion that changes in the characteristics of inmovers are a more important force in determining the demographic changes in gentrifying neighborhoods.”

Exciting changes to Ashland, Western buses—but also some questions

So Dorval Carter, who took over as CTA President this summer from Forrest Claypool, and who told the Tribune‘s Jon Hilkevitch in an early interview that one of his priorities would be improving the bus network, is now taking some notable steps in that direction. In the CTA’s board meeting today, he announced the reintroduction of the #11 Lincoln bus and #31 31st St. bus, which had been the focus of a crosstown coalition of activists for some time (though only on a temporary basis, subject to ridership—the same qualification put on the ill-fated late-night Purple Line Express pilot earlier this year).


He also gave more details on the reintroduction of express bus service at rush hour on the 9-Ashland and 49-Western buses. Until 2010, both had express service as part of a ten-line network of “X” routes, which overlaid express lines that stopped every half mile over the local routes, which had stops every eighth mile. In 2010, nearly all of those express routes were cut as a cost-saving measure in the aftermath of the recession.

In addition to reinstating the X9 and X49, the CTA will do something many transit advocates (including me) have been screaming and muttering under our breath about for years: consolidate stops on the local service. Instead of having stops every eighth of a mile, the all-day local services on Ashland and Western will stop roughly every quarter mile, cutting the number of stops nearly in half. While boardings are extremely concentrated at certain stops—major activity centers and transfer points, mostly—anyone who’s taken a CTA bus, particularly at rush hour, has had the experience of stopping on literally every block to let off one or two people. Only about 15% of riders will have to walk the extra block to a stop—since the vast majority of people already get on or off at one of the relatively busier stops that will be kept—but nearly everyone will save time, as the bus won’t have to pull over nearly as much.

As (potentially) great as the reinstatement of the Lincoln and 31st St. buses is, the Ashland/Western news is even more exciting.* That’s because the improvements to the 9 and 49 could theoretically be implemented on routes across the city. When they were cut, the X routes were extremely popular—the CTA itself, in its materials about the new express service, reports that 86% of riders had a positive opinion about them, and many of the X routes (including Western) had ridership at or above their local parallel as of 2010. While the fact that the X9 and X49 will be limited to rush hour is disappointing, if they regain their old popularity, it could set the stage for the reintroduction (and maybe even expansion) of the X route network.

And while there may be some funding constraint on new express routes, stop consolidation ought to be basically free, apart from studying exactly which stops ought to go. Because some number of riders will have a longer walk to get to the bus, and because time savings increase as the length of rides increase, stop consolidation should be targeted at routes where boardings are very concentrated at certain stops and most people use the route for relatively long trips—but that describes a pretty large number of routes.

Still, these moves raise some questions. To illustrate a few of them, I made a chart (based on CTA reports) of the estimated time savings of these new services, plus the on-hold Ashland Bus Rapid Transit project.

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(Note too that in the spring of 2016, the CTA is planning on rolling out transit signal priority on both routes—meaning that buses will be able to hold lights green or make red lights turn faster to avoid idling too long at intersections. That’s estimated to save an extra 5 minutes on each route, end to end.)

So here are some thoughts:

  1. The moves announced today really do represent significant time savings. That’s most evident on longer trips, obviously: the X9 will be 8 minutes faster than the current service from the Brown Line to the Orange Line (a trip you might take if you’re going from the North Side to Midway, or from the Southwest Side to a Lincoln Square service job), and the X49 will save you 13 minutes over the same trip on Western. But 20 to 17 minutes, though it seems small, is nothing to sneeze at, especially given how low-cost these changes are. Moreover, by reducing the number of stops, buses will probably be less likely to bunch, making wait times more reliable.
  2. A huge amount of the time savings comes just from consolidating to 1/4 mile stop spacing. The difference between the new local service and the express service is small enough that it will basically always make sense just to take whatever comes first, even if it’s the local: if you wait more than a minute or two for the express, you’ve wasted more time waiting than the express would save you once you’re riding. As I understand it, the current plan is for the express to be essentially a “supplementary” service on top of the local, which will run more frequently. But if people are just getting on whatever the first bus is, then it may make more sense to make the express the basic service, and the local the supplementary.
  3. Restoring X route-type service is great, but it’s not nearly as good as true BRT. In almost every case, the difference between current travel times on the 9 and travel times on the new X9 will be smaller than the difference between the X9 and Ashland BRT. Recall that the anti-BRT activists’ counterproposal was, essentially, the 1/4 mile stop-consolidated new local service. You can see in this chart just how much less convenient that service is than BRT—on the order of 30-50% longer trip times. The news that the X9 was coming back made a lot of transit advocates despair that Ashland BRT was truly dead, and this was our consolation prize. But we should continue to push for true BRT, on this corridor and others—it’s clear that there are still huge gains to be made.

* Though the 11/31 news is exciting for the additional reason that it represents a successful multi-neighborhood organizing campaign for better bus service—a model that hopefully will be adopted by other neighborhoods, and other organizations, across the city.

The immaculate conception theory of your neighborhood’s origins

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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.

Read the whole thing!

How American zoning differs from other countries’ land use law

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.

A zoning map of Marietta, GA. Yellow areas are zoned for single-family homes only; brown areas are set aside for apartments. The large brown area in the southeast corner contains apartments to be razed. Pink is commercial. Source: Marietta, GA website

A zoning map of Marietta, GA. Yellow areas are zoned for single-family homes only; brown areas are set aside for apartments. The large brown area in the southeast corner contains apartments to be razed. Pink is commercial. Source: Marietta, GA website

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.

Go read it!

The collapse of rental housing on Chicago’s North Side

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.

Note that outside of the central area, high rates of housing construction exist mainly along the river - along the western border of Lincoln Park and North Center. Many of those areas were formerly non-residential. Small amounts of new construction translated to high percentage growth.

Note that outside of the central area, high rates of housing construction exist mainly along the river – along the western border of Lincoln Park and North Center. Many of those areas were formerly non-residential. Small amounts of new construction translated to high percentage growth.

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.

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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.

Brazil is a state of mind

But also, you know, a country. I don’t think I’ve ever done a photo post before, so please tolerate this one.

An art school in Rio de Janeiro.

An art school in Rio de Janeiro.



Different building, same texture

Different building, similar texture.

Trains, Rio

Trains, Rio.

Metropolitan Cathedral, outside

Metropolitan Cathedral, outside.

Metropolitan Cathedral, inside

Metropolitan Cathedral, inside.

Museum of Contemporary Art, Rio

Museum of Modern Art, Rio.

Train tracker, Rio

Train tracker, Rio.

Trains, São Paulo

Trains, São Paulo.

The taste of America

The taste of America.

While I was gone: three posts!

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:

1. Between highrises and single family homes: housing’s “missing middle”

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.

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2. The next road safety revolution

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.

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3. The suburbs: where the rich ride transit

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.

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Inclusionary zoning can’t save Logan Square

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.

Chiraq and stigma

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.

Read the rest of it here.