If I were to ask any random Chicagoan to name one neighborhood that represents all the wealth and privilege of Global Chicago, chances are they would name Lincoln Park, just north of downtown along the lake.
And if I were to ask that same random Chicagoan to name one neighborhood that represents the failures and desperation of our city, chances are they would name Englewood, in the heart of the South Side.
Then, if I were to follow up by asking whether they thought more houses were being built in Lincoln Park or Englewood, they would probably laugh at me. Lincoln Park might be the most desirable urban neighborhood in the country not located on an ocean, and Mayor Emanuel is so desperate to get people to buy property in Englewood that he’s selling lots there for $1.
Change in Housing Units, 2000 – 2012
And yet actually both Lincoln Park and Englewood have lost housing units since 2000. Not only that, Lincoln Park has actually lost more housing units than Englewood: 4.1% compared to 3%.
How is that possible? It’s what happens when the city makes it illegal to build more housing, thanks to an incredibly restrictive zoning code. When places in and around downtown become more desirable, developers build more housing, and more people get to live there. But when non-downtown neighborhoods become more desirable, developers can’t build more housing: it’s against the law. So instead, they profit by tearing down old two-flats and building mansions in their place. And as a result, fewer people get to live in those neighborhoods, even as more and more people want to.
This is a story that’s particularly dramatic in Lincoln Park, but applies to virtually every neighborhood in the city that has become more desirable in the last decade or two. Lakeview, where rents have increased by 41% since 2000, has lost 2% of its housing units. Rents on the Lower West Side, which includes Pilsen, have gone up by 60%, while housing units have declined by 1%.
Even where there was enough construction to increase the total number of homes, the increase was tiny. In West Town – which includes Ukrainian Village and Wicker Park, and which since 2000 has gone from a kind of an up-and-coming area to one of the wealthiest parts of the city – rents are up 65%, the average home sells for just over $400,000, and the total number of housing units has increased by only 5% in twelve years. That’s an increase of less than half a percentage point per year, or significantly less than the growth of population.
A city whose housing policy mandates that fewer households get to live in neighborhoods as they become more desirable is broken. The local residents who show up to community meetings to protest development because they don’t want their low-rise neighborhoods to become another River North aren’t necessarily being unreasonable, but the restrictions they’ve won go far beyond banning highrises. Even in already-dense, inner-city Lakeview and West Town, some areas have been reserved solely for single family homes, or no more than one home per lot (as before, red = only SFH; yellow = no residential building of any kind):
In a much larger area, anything denser than a three-flat is illegal:
And virtually everywhere, classic low-rise Chicago homes like courtyard buildings have been banned:
(And note that the places where courtyard buildings haven’t been banned are almost all in places where there are already large developments – residential towers, or hospitals, etc. – that are unlikely to be leaving to make available room for development any time soon.)
The effect, of course, is to allow only those people who can afford to outpay everyone else to live in these neighborhoods – which are increasingly coming to include the majority of the North Side and areas close to downtown to the south and west. Beyond issues of equity, the city suffers when it fails to gain population even in its most successful neighborhoods, forgoing tax revenue and patrons for its businesses.
Chicago’s housing system is broken. We need to fix it.