Return to the shrinking North Side

Almost every time I publish, I have a very unpleasant, very intense fear that despite my best efforts, I have written something wrong and stupid in some obvious way. The most pleasing part of the writing cycle for me, then, is when either a) no one argues that what I wrote was wrong or stupid, or b) someone argues that what I wrote was wrong or stupid, but is clearly wrong themselves. (Of course, it’s also deeply satisfying to see someone respond critically in a way that expands my understanding of an issue without making me feel that I’ve somehow embarrassed myself or offended someone.)

My recent post on the wasted demographic and tax-revenue potential of Chicago’s North Side, which was republished last week in Crain’s, received two sustained counterarguments: one from Joe Zekas at YoChicago, and one from the real estate broker Eric Rojas. It’s fair to say that I find neither of them very convincing.

Joe’s argument is essentially that Lincoln Park isn’t really losing people, because a) it was growing up until 2000, b) its decline in the 2010 Census was small (about 200 people), and c) the small loss is turned into a small gain if you don’t count the emptying out of CHA’s Lathrop Homes on the far western edge of the neighborhood. To which I would reply that a) is pretty weak, given how long ago the 90s were, and I guess b) and c) are fair as far as they go.

But the argument was never about whether Lincoln Park’s population trend was slightly above or slightly below zero. It was, rather, that there is room for lots more housing in Lincoln Park, given that its population remains roughly 40% below its peak, and that it had fewer housing units in 2010 than it did ten or twenty years earlier; that there is obviously a desire for that housing; and that by refusing to allow the construction of that housing, we’re starving the city of people and money that it desperately needs. Nowhere in his response does Joe Zekas address any of those points, which makes it hard to even see his post as much of a rebuttal.

Eric Rojas’ post is not much stronger. His first objection is that, you know, life’s not fair:

The Crain’s author makes a lot of assumptions, and in my opinion, is unrealistic in terms of accessibility of real estate in general.  It is unrealistic for anyone to be able to afford any community they desire at any given time. This goes for tony suburbs and vacation spots as well.

Which may be true! And yet it’s also a bit odd, given that I was proposing not a utopian community in which we exchange luxury rental units for hugs, but a tweak in the zoning code to return to a level of restrictions on building that prevailed within the lifetime of a middle-aged person. Moreover, as I’ve pointed out before, the issue is not simply that, on a fair playing field and an impartial, “free” market, some people happen to be doing better than others, and so they can afford better real estate. The issue is that the playing field is tilted against those of more modest income, and the zoning laws of the last 40 years make housing more expensive than it has to be. Life may be unfair, but in this case, it’s unfair because we’re cheating.

Rojas continues:

There are no statistics cited correlating Lincoln Parks population “decline” (again, it’s actually increased from 1980-2010 by 12% and has lost only 206 people from 2000-2010 according to with a decline of tax base or sapping resources for the entire city.  There are no statistics cited that suggest Lincoln Park was better off when it’s population was around 100,000 in 1950 rather than with today’s steady 64,000. [emphasis in original]

One by one:

  • Hiding the decline/stagnation of the most recent decade by combining it with the two previous ones is not super honest. Moreover, a 12% increase over 30 years represents a growth rate of something like 0.4% per year, which is hardly breakneck speed, and considerably below the growth rate of the metropolitan area as a whole. And, again, the most recent numbers we have put the current growth rate much closer to zero. And, again, Lincoln Park’s population remains 40% below its peak, despite the fact that it is among the most desirable urban neighborhoods in the country.
  • If Mr. Rojas really doesn’t think that more people and housing leads to more tax revenue, I’d refer him to the recent battle in Crain’s over TIFs, which explains how new development deposits money more or less directly into the city’s, and CPS’, bank accounts. (In short: the city can receive more money with the same tax rate, and CPS can go above state-mandated caps on its tax collections if it does so by taxing new development.)
  • Finally, the last sentence would be relevant if I were proposing to bring Chicago back to the 1950s, or if the only thing that had changed about Chicago between 1950 and 2015 was that Lincoln Park had lost population. But obviously neither of those things is true. Lincoln Park was much less segregated by income in the 1950s, which was good; it also had a lot of other problems, all of which were tied up in the broader urban trends that dominated America at the time.

In conclusion, I stand by my original piece and its argument.

8 thoughts on “Return to the shrinking North Side

  1. I hope you also find it pleasing when (d) someone reading your post is delighted with your position and thanks you for arguing it so well. Which is exactly what I’d like to do. Keep it up, we need sharp analytical minds like yours!

  2. “It’s also a bit odd, given that I was proposing not a utopian community in which we exchange luxury rental units for hugs, but a tweak in the zoning code to return to a level of restrictions on building that prevailed within the lifetime of a middle-aged person.”

    Daniel, a quick Google search brought up lots of articles about the TOD change in 2013, but I could not easily find any background info on when the zoning code was originally changed to add the parking requirements that effectively “outlawed” new creation of any courtyard buildings. Can you fill me in on when that happened and what the prevailing consensus logic was at the time? Was it controversial? Might make a good follow up piece.

    1. The last time the zoning code was changed was in 2004. Parking minimums were actually reduced in some zoning district types, but increased in others (the more suburban parts of Chicago).

  3. I appreciate the response Daniel. We actually agree on most points considering development (I imagine we’d agree on more dense development in locations that make sense and taking so much zoning leverage out of the hands of a single alderman). It’s frustrating to me when developments near transit get chopped down by communities because they perceive a drastic change in congestion (even in rather sleepy spots). The Children’s Memorial site development saga is one of the best examples of politicizing development over good urban planning by experts. Although I think we are seeing the addition of many more units (perhaps not easily done and perhaps not affordable to median incomes)
    I’m one of those guys at most any local meeting here in the Lincoln Square/ Ravenswood area and really like to see more units added over here (we have, but again, scaled down at times). I do think the article is a little misleading making the comparison to the peak population numbers vs today. What was the cause of the large population in the 1950s Lincoln Park and was it positive? I’ve read a lot on the migration of African Americans to the North and Chicago was one of the worst situations as we know, cramming migrants into small swatches do to racial restrictions/ slums, then public housing etc… Finally, I don’t know what to say about the inequality divide in whole of the city and even in the North Side neighborhoods with more resources. Can/ should the city build more units that require income restrictions in areas like Lincoln Park? Because I feel if not, any development in a Lincoln Park no matter the size will be eaten up quickly by highest bidder. I’m “morally” against allowing triple lot homes built in a city center (rather than three homes as intended by the standard lot divisions). I agree that the playing field is against those with modest income. Maybe developments in important urban centers need to be pinned to some median income index for the city as a whole. I think a lot of people feel there is a real inequality problem with housing but I don’t know what measures are taken to “even the playing field”. We mostly just see large developments shot down or reduced by existing residents and that is about the only advocacy that seems to be recognized (good or bad).

    1. Hi Eric – thanks for the really thoughtful response! It’s totally fair to point out that, everything else equal, demographic change and household size mean that population per housing unit will decline. And housing for black people was incredibly overcrowded in the middle of the century, and discussions about population decline in Bronzeville, Washington Park, etc., definitely need to include that. Though, of course, there were very few black people in Lincoln Park in 1950, so that’s not really an issue there.

      I’d be in favor of more income-restricted units, along with more units in general.

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