Dept. of That’s Not How That Works

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 thoughts on “Dept. of That’s Not How That Works

  1. I think the assumption is that a Puerto Rican arts center is unlikely to interest well-off [non-hispanic white] gentrifiers and therefore the property value boost will be modest if any. The big property value boost is from newcomers with money. Or maybe the alderman’s logic is that if they put enough Puerto Rican flags it ward off gentrifiers?

    1. That would be a weird assumption, at least in Chicago. The obvious parallel here – Pilsen, where there’s long been a significant concentration of Mexican artists – is one of the few neighborhoods in the city gentrifying more rapidly than eastern Humboldt Park. Before people went there for bespoke cocktails, they went to the Mexican Fine Arts Museum. That’s certainly why I was first taken there in high school.

      I mean, I don’t think that this investment is going to be Earth-shattering. But on the margins, I would bet a lot of money that it raises property values – if only because they’re reducing the number of vacant buildings!

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