One of Chicago’s most important trends is flying under the radar

Chicago is a city obsessed with neighborhoods, neighborhood boundaries, and neighborhood character, and therefore with neighborhood change. Demographic trends, from the rapidly declining black populations on the South and West Sides to the gentrification of the Northwest Side, get a lot of play in the media and in conversation. Which is why it’s weird that we’re in the middle of a demographic transition that is already of historic importance for the city and almost no one is talking about it.

Which is: the Southwest Side, first a bastion of European immigrants and their descendants, and then of Mexican immigrants and their descendants, is now gradually filling with Chinese immigrants and their descendants.


In 1990, there was virtually no presence of Asian-Americans east of the Dan Ryan into the South Loop or Bronzeville, or south of Pershing (39th St.), except for Hyde Park. (I’m going to say “Asian-American” here, because those are the Census numbers I have, though it appears that nearly all of the Asian-Americans in this part of the city are of Chinese descent.) There was no significant (over 10% of residents) presence east of Racine (1200 W) or so, or south of 31st St. By 2010, there was a continuous band of Asian-American population down Archer Avenue, the backbone of the Southwest Side, nearly all the way to Midway*, as far south as 51st St. and as far west as Cicero (4800 W). There were continuous pockets of neighborhoods over 10% Asian-American stretching from the lake to California Ave., more than four miles away—and a nearly continuous stretch from the lake to Damen, more than three miles away, that were over 20%.

Now, to be fair, this alone isn’t especially dramatic in the context of Chicago neighborhood change. Certainly in the white flight era, a neighborhood’s racial makeup could transition much more quickly, and the gentrifying parts of Logan Square, say, may appear more unrecognizable to a decades-long resident than sections of Brighton Park that have gone from zero to eight percent Chinese-American in twenty years.


But there are several reasons, I think, that this movement is really notable.

First, Chicago has for many years been seen by many as culturally and politically divided into three major ethnic groups: Black, Hispanic, and White. In fact, the city was notable for how evenly divided the population was between those three groups, and for the extent to which their segregation allowed distinct racially-specific geographic political representation. But though Asian-Americans have been in Chicago for a long time—in 2012, Chinatown celebrated its 100th year—they are only now beginning to reach a point where the population is large enough, and geographically concentrated enough, to demand that kind of local political representation.

Already in the 2010 district remapping, neighborhood organizations were able to lobby—unsuccessfully—for a ward around Chinatown that would have been over 40% Asian-American. And in the March primary elections, one of the people asking for that remap, Theresa Mah, beat out a Hispanic candidate for the Democratic nomination for a state legislative seat. By the 2020 remap, it seems very hard to imagine that there will not be an Asian-American majority, or strong plurality, seat on the City Council, bringing a kind of ethnic representation to City Hall that that community has up to this point lacked.

Second, the growing Asian-American presence on the Southwest Side offers the city a glimmer of hope to a demographic problem that it seems to not yet realize it has: the dramatic national decline of Mexican immigration. That was a key factor in Chicago’s poor showing in recent Census population estimates, as Latin American immigration had essentially been keeping Chicago demographically afloat since at least the 1990s.

The major beneficiary of that influx was the Southwest Side, where predominantly Mexican-American families rejuvenated neighborhoods whose White ethnic occupants were either aging out or moving out to the suburbs. But now it appears that Mexican-Americans are following the Lithuanian-Americans down Archer Ave. past the city limits, and without new arrivals, it’s unclear what will happen to the gateway neighborhoods. Between 2000 and 2010, Pilsen lost a quarter of its Latino population, or 10,000 people—far more than the 850 Whites it gained, and so probably not mainly explained by gentrification. Little Village, which was certainly far from the gentrification frontier in 2010, lost 10,000 Latinos as well. As the 850 number suggests, gentrification isn’t likely to spread too far down Archer Avenue in the near future. Rather, Chinese-Americans appear to be the most likely candidate for keeping the Southwest Side demographically healthy.

Third, Asian-American residents haven’t just spread west from Chinatown; they’ve also spread east, to Bronzeville. While I’ve written about how one of Chicago’s longstanding (and, of course, deeply and transparently racist) rules of neighborhood change—non-Blacks never move in significant numbers to Black-majority neighborhoods—is being threatened by Hispanics, Whites, and Asian-Americans in spots all over the city, nowhere has a Black-to-another-ethnic-group transition gone farther than northern Bronzeville. The area bounded by the Stevenson, the lake, King Drive and 31st St. was 73% Black in 1980, and just 55% Black (and 36% Asian-American) by 2010. The Census tract just to the west has gone from 96% to 73% Black, and 1% to 13% Asian-American, over the same period; just to the south, in the Lake Meadows area, the numbers are 92% to 75%, and less than 1% to over 18%.

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Lake Meadows

Again, these are a far cry from the total demographic overhaul that we’re used to seeing in some areas—but nevertheless, it puts the city in completely uncharted territory. As far as I can tell, this is the first real racial desegregation of a Black neighborhood in the history of Chicago that did not involve the wholesale government-led demolition of Black housing, a la Cabrini-Green. And the implications for Bronzeville go beyond the Chinese-American community, since creating a substantial non-Black presence may open the doors to people of other ethnic backgrounds as well, especially in an area adjacent to the rapidly gentrifying South Loop.

Finally, there’s a sort of meta-point to be made here, which is that it’s very odd that all of this has flown so far under the radar. When I brought this up on Twitter, I suggested it was because most media outlets only really care about neighborhood change when white people are involved, either as colonizers (gentrification) or evacuators (white flight). A transition from one group of people of color to another group of people of color just doesn’t rank. Someone else suggested that it might simply be the invisibility of Asian-Americans in broader media in general. Another possibility is geographic, given the well-established lack of interest in non-homicidal events south of Cermak or so on the part of a lot of Chicago media.

I’m not sure what else to say about that, except that none of these are good, and all suggest some amount of course correction is needed (and I don’t exempt myself from that). I’d love to see some reporting on what these transitions look like from the ground—and if I’ve somehow missed reporting that has been done, someone please let me know!

* If it seems that I’m making a big deal out of a few percentage points in some areas, I would just point out that historically, Chicago-area segregation has led to situations in which many neighborhoods would have virtually no representation from one or more ethnic groups; that was certainly the case with Asian-Americans on most of the Southwest Side. Breaking that barrier from “none” to “a few”—especially when, nearby, those numbers grow more substantially, suggesting a broader trend—is a notable step.

Why everyone drives in DuPage

This is crossposted from City Observatory.

More than half of workers in DuPage County, outside Chicago, say they’d like to get to work without a car. But nearly 90 percent of them drive anyway. What’s going on?

First, a little context.

Your city probably has a DuPage County—if not by name, by profile. Beginning about 15 miles due west of Chicago’s Loop, DuPage boomed in the last several decades of the 20th century, filling the spaces in between 19th century railroad suburbs with low-density subdivisions and office parks, and growing from just 150,000 people in 1950 to nearly a million in 2010. Today, it’s home to a disproportionately affluent slice of the region (median household income is $80,000, as compared to just over $60,000 for the metro area), as well as some of the Chicago region’s largest employment centers outside of downtown, including Fortune 500 companies like Ace Hardware and (for the moment, anyway) McDonald’s.

DuPage County's I-88 corridor, looking towards downtown Chicago. Credit: bujcich, Flickr
DuPage County’s I-88 corridor, looking towards downtown Chicago. Credit: bujcich, Flickr


In other words, DuPage County is more or less a poster child for affluent, “successful” postwar sprawl. That said, its relative economic position to Chicago’s core has been declining recently, as a result both of the growing job base and high-income population of the center city and the growing ethnic and economic diversity of DuPage itself. Thus the poll of DuPage workers, commissioned by the county’s economic development arm, to see what the county might do to attract and keep jobs from fleeing to downtown Chicago or elsewhere.

So why don’t people who say they’d like to take transit actually do it?

It’s not that DuPage doesn’t have transit services. It’s actually pretty transit-rich for suburban America: three Metra commuter rail lines, with 26 stations, pass through the county; a handful of bus lines also criss-cross the area.

A Metra train in Wheaton, IL. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
A Metra train in Wheaton, IL. Credit: Wikimedia Commons


But for those transit services to be useful for commuting, they have to actually go where people are going—their homes and jobs. And a closer look shows that they don’t.

Back in 1950, development in DuPage County was focused around the commuter rail lines. If you lived in DuPage, you probably lived within a relatively short distance of rail transit—which gave you access not just to the city, but to every other community on your line.

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Note that the lines marked “highway” were planned, not existing, highways in 1950.


Since then, however, planners and developers assumed that virtually everyone would use a car to get around, and so the overwhelming majority of the hundreds of thousands of jobs and homes that DuPage County has added in the last several decades have been built too far from rail stations to be accessible. Instead, they’ve been focused along highways and wide arterials built with little to no consideration of transit, walking, or biking.

We can see the effects easily in maps. A population density map of DuPage County shows that there’s no strong correlation between where people live and where Metra stations (the white circles) are.



But as we’ve discussed before, destination density is perhaps an even more important factor in determining how someone gets to work. Unfortunately, a heatmap of DuPage County jobs looks even worse in terms of rail access:



Nor does the bus network help that much. For one thing, the spread-out nature of development means that no one bus line can have easy access to many homes or businesses either—and even someone who steps out of a bus relatively close to their destination has to navigate roads and parking lots that aren’t designed for walking. Partly as a result, the buses simply don’t come that often: at best, every 15 minutes at rush hour, which may be on the edge of acceptability for show-up-and-go service in the afternoon or late in the evening, but is a burden for someone who really needs to be on time for a job. Other buses come much less frequently, even at rush hour.

This is where you wait for the bus in the jobs-rich I-88 corridor in DuPage.

So someone who wanted to commute to their job in DuPage County by transit would discover 26 rail stations which are probably within walking distance of neither their home nor their job, and a network of buses that aren’t much better, most of which come too infrequently to be reliable for very time-sensitive trips like a commute, and which require getting to and from stops that are located on roads that are hostile or dangerous for walking.

In other words, the decisions of planners and developers over the last several decades have created a land use pattern that essentially locks in transportation choices for all future residents, who are now stuck commuting in ways they say they’d rather not. And DuPage, like other car-dependent suburbs around the country, may be losing some of its economic base as a result.

One response to this, of course, is that for most of the 20th century, car-dependent development is what people wanted. If people wanted to live or work near transit stations, then developers would have built homes and offices there. Which: maybe! But if that’s the case, then it’s odd that basically every municipality in DuPage County has taken the step of legally restricting developers from doing so. Nearly every suburb prohibits apartments, offices, and most other space-efficient commercial uses outside a radius of just two or three blocks from their train station. And even within that radius, density is restricted and discouraged with parking requirements and other rules.

This kind of multifamily building, common in the city, is just a few blocks from suburban Elmhurst, IL's downtown Metra station. It was built probably only a few years before the adoption of zoning codes that made this sort of construction illegal, and enforced a low-density development pattern on the area. Credit: Google Streetview
This kind of multifamily building, common in the city, is just a few blocks from suburban Elmhurst, IL’s downtown Metra station. It was built probably only a few years before the adoption of zoning codes that made this sort of construction illegal, and enforced a low-density development pattern on the area. Credit: Google Streetview


And, of course, over the decades, the federal, state, and local governments have invested billions of dollars in highways and road widening, without which most of the development of the last half-century would have been impossible. The size and nature of the public investment prompted a complementary set of private investments that was utterly, and in some ways irrevocably, dependent on auto travel. In fact, nearly the only people who do commute to work by public transit in DuPage are the ones living near Metra stations.



The point is not that, absent these policies, there would have been no new subdivisions far from transit. Nor is it that the right outcome would be for every Metra station to be a little mini-Loop.

Rather, these policies exist on a spectrum—a sliding scale of how many people and jobs will be within walking distance of high-quality transit, on streets amenable to traveling on outside of a car—and we happen to have chosen one extreme, with the result that 90 percent of people drive to work. Including, at a minimum, four out of five people who say they’d prefer not to.

The problem with that isn’t just that some of those urban Millennials aren’t enjoying their preferred lifestyle. It’s that hundreds of thousands of people—including people of modest means—are forced to pay thousands of dollars more in transportation costs every year. And that people who really can’t drive, because they can’t pay for the costs of owning a car, or because they’re too young or old or have some physical disability, are shut out of full participation in society, or forced to waste hours of their days on inefficient transit.

These outcomes, as a result of changing land use patterns, take decades to unfold, and neither DuPage nor the rest of the Chicago region—which looks pretty similar, outside downtown—is going to slide the scale back towards a more balanced transportation system immediately. But lots of little decisions add up.

Introducing the Pedestrian Pain Index


America’s pedestrians are in pain.

Every day, tens of millions of Americans waste tens of thousands of hours stuck waiting on the side of streets for car traffic to get out of their way. We estimate that the annual value of time lost waiting to walk totals $25 billion annually.

Today, City Observatory announces the launch of our latest data product: the Pedestrian Pain Index (PPI). Following the techniques developed over the past thirty years by the highway-oriented Texas Transportation Institute (TTI), PPI uses similar methods and assumptions —to calculate the amount of time pedestrians lose each year having to wait their turn to cross streets to allow cars to proceed.

Credit: Billie Grace Ward, Flickr

We attribute 100 percent of pedestrian wait time as “delay” due to automobiles for two reasons. First, our methodology mirrors exactly that used by the TTI, which counts traffic delay as any slowdown in traffic below the level that motorists enjoy at so-called “free flow speeds,” even if the free flow speed is higher than the posted speed limit. Second—and perhaps more importantly—pedestrians are only forced to wait at intersections because of vehicle traffic. In pedestrian-only environments, there is no need for “Don’t Walk” signs. In that sense, traffic lights and crosswalks are not walking infrastructure—in places without cars like inside shopping malls or in Venice, Italy, there is no need to have signals to tell people when they can walk or paint lines to show people where they can walk.

There’s little question that walking has been made a second-class form of transportation—and that pedestrians regularly feel the pain of being subordinated to automobiles. One of the best examples is “beg buttons” can delay law-abiding pedestrians up to a minute and a half in order to cross a city street—a point illustrated by Gizmodo.

Here’s how we came up with our PPI estimate. According to data tabulated by John Pucher and his colleagues from the the most recent National Household Transportation Survey, the typical American spends about 112 hours walking about 37.7 miles per year. We estimate that out of a typical walk, a pedestrian spends about five percent of their time waiting for traffic, either as they cross the street an un-signaled location, or waiting for a traffic signal. Our five percent estimate corresponds to waiting about 55 seconds during the average 18.5 minutes that each American walks on a daily basis. For those in low-traffic, low-density areas, these 55 seconds will likely be an overestimate; in urban settings with traffic lights on most corners—where a disproportionate share of walking occurs—55 seconds will be an underestimate.

We multiply our daily delay estimate of 55 seconds per person by 365 days and by the roughly 300 million Americans five years of age or older to come up with an estimate of about 1.6 billion hours of pedestrian delay experienced by Americans annually. Valuing that delay at $15 per hour—a figure somewhat lower than that used in studies of automobile congestion delay—produces a total estimate of $25.2 billion in time lost in pedestrian pain waiting for automobiles.

Credit: michael brooking, Flickr

The Pedestrian Pain Index is a first, rough approximation of the time lost by pedestrians due to automobile traffic. Constructing this index is complicated by the fact that, unlike the case for automobile travel, we have very limited data on walking travel. As Tom Vanderbilt put it in Slate, “Walking in America is a bit like sex: Everybody’s doing it, but nobody knows how much.” It’s a classic instance of the old adage “if you don’t count it, it doesn’t count.” Lacking any data about pedestrians in most settings, the costs and consequences of land use and engineering decisions on walking are simply invisible——and therefore ignored.

Traffic engineers have begun to recognize that the waits imposed on by signals on pedestrians impose major costs and discourage people from walking. The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) writes in the Urban Street Design Guide:

Long signal cycles, compounded over multiple intersections, can make crossing a street or walking even a short distance prohibitive and frustrating. This discourages walking altogether, and makes streets into barriers that separate destinations, rather than arteries that stitch them together.

According to the 2012 National Traffic Signal Report Card (yes, there really is such a thing: it gives us a D+), the United States has about 311,000 traffic signals (about 1 for every 1,000 Americans), with an estimated replacement cost of about $83 billion. Most of these signals control pedestrian travel, as well as vehicles. Pedestrians face delays not just at traffic signals, but when crossing roads at un-signalized intersections, and when crossing mid-block (as is frequently necessitated by the serpentine, uninterrupted roadways found in most US suburbs).

Those of you who regard this as a bit of early April data-whimsy, think again. If anything, the estimates presented here profoundly understate the costs travel time costs that our auto-centric transportation system imposes on those who would like to walk. Recent national survey data collected by Jennifer Dill and her colleagues at Portland State University show that walking is a highly valued form of transportation. Two-thirds of Americans of all ages agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “I like walking.” Younger Americans preferred walking to driving, with the share of Millennials saying they like to walk outpacing those who agreed they liked driving by 12 percentage points.

Significantly, the most commonly cited barrier to walking (identified by two-thirds of the entire sample) was the relative remoteness of destinations——and destinations are more remote because they are scaled to the size of automobile market-sheds, and because parking requirements (coupled with bans on mixed use zoning) mean that it is uneconomical or illegal to build communities that are convenient for walking. The growing demand for walkable communities, coupled with their relatively short supply is one of the key reasons that values for walkable residential and commercial areas have been rising faster than for auto-dependent locations.

Credit: annshi, Flickr

Like last year’s Cappuccino Congestion Index, the Pedestrian Pain Index illustrated that armed with a modicum of data and a few assumptions, one can easily craft an impressive (or at least impressive sounding) estimate of the dollar cost of some delay that we face in our lives. But being able to monetize delay is not the same thing as saying it’s worth spending scarce public resources to remedy.

In a complex, crowded, and interconnected world, no system can be designed so that no user ever experiences a moment of delay. While it is possible to tally and monetize the value of time spent waiting, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the problem is a serious one, it would be—dare we say it “foolish”—to insist we ought to spend scarce public resources to lessen what are in many cases mostly private costs. That’s something to remember the next time you hear anyone quoting impressive sounding numbers from the Texas Transportation Institute—or anyone else—about the billions and billions lost to traffic congestion.

Readers deserve a bigger picture on “super-vouchers”

I co-wrote this post with Amanda Kass, a PhD candidate at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s urban planning school, and Research Director at the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.


Housing Choice Vouchers, also known as Section 8 vouchers, were intentionally designed as a segregation-fighting tool. Theoretically, their recipients can use them to rent anywhere, breaking with public housing’s sad history of concentrating low-income people—and, in Chicago, usually black people—in neighborhoods that are systematically deprived of investments.

But a new article from the Better Government Association and the Sun-Times—the first in a series on the state of the Chicago Housing Authority—has produced the following map of where vouchers actually get used:

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Credit: Sun-Times

Anyone with a basic familiarity with Chicago’s geography can see that, far from breaking with historic patterns of segregation, the vast majority of housing vouchers are used in segregated black neighborhoods on the South and West Sides—many of which are in exactly the same places where a racist mid-20th century City Council decided to concentrate the original public housing projects to begin with.

But the BGA and Sun-Times spent more time scrutinizing the small handful of voucher recipients in high-income neighborhoods than the broader failure of the program to challenge existing patterns of segregation. Nor, in a long feature, did they investigate how the CHA made its policy decisions, or in whose financial interest those decisions might be; or why moving to “opportunity areas” might be an important goal for the program to begin with.

That’s a shame, because the BGA and the Sun-Times reporters they collaborated with have a long history of producing excellent work that shines a light on true injustice and mismanagement. But this particular effort falls far short of that standard.

The March 11th piece is couched in the language of “inequities.” Not inequity between the rich and poor, but between different low-income households receiving vouchers. “The CHA pays for some to live in high-rent, luxury properties…in upscale neighborhoods that are predominantly white,” they explain. “On the other hand, thousands…remain clustered in poor, black neighborhoods on the South Side and West Side.”

Large sections of the article amount to listing particular arrangements in which voucher recipients get “rich deals” to live in “extravagant” homes, letting the reader know how the low-income person pays “little or nothing,” and how much the “taxpayers cover.” The article highlights two men in Uptown who “pay more than some voucher-holders do for high-priced condos downtown,” without connecting that to the fact that what voucher holders pay is based on their income, not their place of residence—which makes sense for a program designed to allow low-income people to move to more opportunity-rich neighborhoods and reverse decades of discriminatory policies. The cumulative effect (including how it has been promoted on social media) comes dangerously close to stoking resentment of the low-income people who happen to be using housing vouchers for the program’s intended purpose of moving from areas that have been systematically disinvested to higher-opportunity neighborhoods.



This is unfortunate for a number of reasons. First, the article spends an inordinate amount of time on recipients of “super-vouchers” who, by the BGA/Sun-Times’ own numbers, make up a tiny fraction of the overall voucher program. Just 298 households—out of 45,000 total families receiving voucher assistance—live in apartments that cost $2,000 or more a month, and over 97 percent of recipients live in places where the rent is under $1,500. Yet roughly half the article is devoted to detailing the supposed scourge of low-income people who are receiving too much help.

Second, the reason why the Chicago Housing Authority is even allowed to issue “super-vouchers” is never mentioned. The Chicago Housing Authority is one of a handful of housing authorities in the United States that is in a federal demonstration called Moving to Work. As a participant of that demonstration the CHA is allowed to experiment with different rent structures. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development granted it permission to implement its exception rent policy, and the stated purpose of that policy was to expand housing choice for low-income households.  

Third, it’s not clear what is gained by accusing an anti-poverty program of profligacy by listing, over and over again, rental subsidy figures without much context about how they came to be. For example, voucher holders with physical disabilities often have trouble finding accessible housing—and frequently their best option is a relatively new, “luxury” building. It would be helpful to know what portion of households living in very-high-rent apartments are there for accessibility reasons. (On Twitter, one of the authors indicated that roughly a tenth of “super-voucher” holders are disabled.) It would also be good to know how and why voucher holders chose the locations they did—for example, proximity to good schools or jobs. Given the documented discrimination against voucher holders, how many landlords in opportunity areas are actually willing to rent to them? Are the rents the CHA is paying for the “super-vouchers” in line with market prices for those areas? Did the CHA steer households to units in opportunity areas owned by politically connected developers?

Finally, the repeated insinuation that the handful of households receiving very large vouchers are responsible for the problems of recipients who still live in segregated neighborhoods, or who don’t receive any assistance at all, is just incorrect. “The CHA spends….$7.5 million a year on…spacious homes [and] condos in skyscrapers,” the authors say—without noting that that’s less than two percent of the CHA’s $470 million voucher budget—before pivoting to tell us that the voucher waiting list is 50,000 names long.

A casual reader would be forgiven for concluding that perhaps the list is so long because the CHA is spending all its money on these supposed high rollers. But in fact, the CHA’s voucher waiting list is so long because a) federal voucher funding covers less than a quarter of qualifying households nationwide, and b) the CHA has simply declined to use a substantial portion of the federal money it does receive for vouchers. An investigation by the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability found that the CHA diverted voucher funding to build up a reserve in excess of $400 million—money that could have paid for as many as 13,534 additional vouchers. But that fact never appears in the BGA/Sun-Times story. Nor does reporting by WBEZ and the Chicago Tribune about rampant discrimination against voucher holders, which might go some way to explaining persistent patterns of segregation.

What makes this even more frustrating is that there are serious policy issues to be debated. The tradeoffs between prioritizing higher-cost “opportunity areas,” versus maximizing the number of vouchers but sending more of them to low-income neighborhoods, as well as the systematic disinvestment in low-income neighborhoods that fuels the necessity to move to an “opportunity area,”  are thorny and worth exploring. So are questions about why and how the CHA chooses the priorities it does. In fact, there is evidence that keeping a long voucher waitlist might actually be in the agency’s financial interest. In 2013, Standard & Poor’s gave the CHA the highest credit rating among all public housing authorities, in part because of the “very strong essentiality for CHA housing as demonstrated by a waiting list that exceeds” the actual number of households receiving assistance. In other words, the CHA was rewarded with a high-profile stamp of approval, and easier, cheaper access to credit markets, because it failed to help a large proportion of the people who needed it. That fact might have helped readers understand how structural issues affect the CHA’s behavior, and Chicagoans’ lives.

But perhaps what really galls is just the spectacle of “watchdog journalism” turning its ire on the supposedly undeserving poor at a time when the wealthy are living more luxuriously than ever, and the governments that are meant to guarantee a basic standard of living for everyone else are abdicating that responsibility in astonishing ways. It is hard, in reading about a low-income, probably black family whose voucher allows them to live in a highrise with “sweeping views of Lake Michigan,” not to think of Reagan-era rhetoric about “welfare queens,” who drove in Cadillacs bought with taxpayer money. Those stories were mostly fiction, of course, but served a real role in undermining public trust in safety net programs that ultimately make all of us, as a society, stronger. This report, sadly, appears to do the same.

The March 11th article is the first of several features that the BGA and Sun-Times are collaborating on, examining the state of the Chicago Housing Authority. We’ve corresponded with some of the authors, who have been open to discussing the criticism and committed to covering this issue in a fair and contextual way. While we are disappointed by the tone and focus of the first article we are hopeful that future reports will shine a light on how important policy decisions are being made in Chicago.

What I learned playing SimCity

Like most city lovers of a certain age, I spent many hours as a kid playing SimCity. For readers who are tragically uninitiated, SimCity is one of the iconic computer games of the 1990s, though new versions have been released as recently as 2013. Playing as mayor (or, really, dictator, but more on that later), you shepherded the growth of a city from its very first streets to towering skyscrapers—assuming you weren’t wiped out by tornados, fires, or aliens. By making thousands and thousands of people plan commercial, industrial, and residential districts for their virtual towns, the creators of SimCity have probably done more than anyone in the history of the world to introduce basic principles of zoning to the public.

SimCity 2000. Credit: 01229, Flickr
SimCity 2000. Credit: 01229, Flickr

Recently, I started playing a successor to SimCity, Cities: Skylines (or CS, as I’ll call it). CS is very much like SimCity, with some added details (at least compared to the last version I played) and much better graphics. But unlike when I was ten, I can also appreciate that CS, like SimCity, has a whole host of assumptions about how cities work, and how urban governance works, built into the gameplay—assumptions that are both frustrating as a player and fascinating as someone who spends a lot of time thinking about real urban planning and governance. While all games that simulate real life are of course drastically simplified, the way that they’re simplified often speaks to the actual worldview of the people who design and play them. With that in mind, here are some notes on what a video game can teach us about the biases and blind spots of real-life urban planning in the US:

Read the rest at City Observatory.

The O’Hare express train: An unreasonably terrible idea

At Chicago Magazine:

A week ago the Tribune reported that the Emanuel administration is taking preliminary steps toward building an express train to O’Hare Airport, an idea first floated by then-Mayor Richard M. Daley more than 20 years ago. In theory such a train would speed travel time to downtown in exchange for premium prices—probably $30 to $35 per ride, according to the Tribune.

The city is hiring an engineering firm to spend nearly a year studying the project, but in the spirit of civic generosity, I am sharing my findings right now for free: this is a terrible idea.

Here are four reasons.

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The mythical American heartland; or, What is the Midwest?

When I moved back to Chicago in late 2011, one of my goals was to get published in the Reader within six months. Six months and five years later, I did it! Here’s an excerpt:

Fortunately, Vox is here to explain: “The midwest is . . . the states where agriculture was, historically, the major industry. . . . They’re states where the dominant religion is some branch of Protestant—often Lutheran or Methodist. And they’re states where Scandinavians and other northern Europeans settled in droves.”

Unless you’ve never left Andersonville, this is an odd description to try to apply to Chicago, which VanDerWerff acknowledges as the midwest’s capital. Agriculture is historically important here—in the form of industrial meatpacking and LaSalle Street futures trading—but so are steel, railroads, and corporate headquarters. Only about one in ten people in the Chicago metro area identify as some kind of mainline Protestant, according to the Pew Research Center; about a third are Catholic, and another third belong to evangelical Christian denominations, black Christian denominations, or non-Christian religions. And for the last hundred years at least, the cultural fabric of most of the city has been dominated by people of eastern European descent, African-Americans from the south, and, over the last few generations in particular, Latin American immigrants and their children and grandchildren.

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Make housing vouchers an entitlement

At City Observatory:

We could extend housing vouchers to every very-low-income household—and expand housing support to the middle class, too—if we were willing to take away just one of the big housing subsidies to people making over $100,000 a year.

But let’s back up.

Previously, we’ve made the case that the SNAP program, or food stamps, is a pretty good template for thinking about how to reform the way we do housing assistance. SNAP is available to everyone below a certain income threshold; if you apply and you qualify, you get money to buy food.

Housing is very different. There are a million different housing assistance programs, but all of them are quite limited in scope: if you apply and you qualify, you are simply one of many such people fighting over a much smaller number of vouchers or set-aside affordable units. In some cases, this makes housing assistance more like a lottery game than a social service, as when nearly 2,600 people applied for just 18 homes in San Francisco, 58,000 people applied for 105 homes in New York, or nearly 300,000 people were placed on the waitlist for a Chicago Housing Authority unit. Nationwide, about 20 million people qualify for housing assistance but don’t receive it.

You'll be waiting a long time for a public housing unit at this mixed-income development in Chicago. Credit: Google Maps
You’ll be waiting a long time for a public housing unit at this mixed-income development in Chicago. Credit: Google Maps

But how much would food-stampifying housing policy cost? Surely an unreasonable, pie-in-the-sky amount, right?

Well, fortunately for us, the Congressional Budget Office has already done the legwork to figure it out. In a study published in September, the CBO gamed out a large number of possible directions to take housing policy: bigger, smaller, budget-neutral tweaks, transfers from one program to another, and so on.

One of the options it analyzed was expanding the Housing Choice Voucher (also known as Section 8) program to everyone who qualifies—which, at the moment, is anyone whose income is below 50 percent of “AMI,” or the median income in their area. (In most metro areas, that puts the upper limit for a family of four at between $25,000 and $35,000). The CBO estimated such a policy would cost about $41 billion a year over the next ten years. A more modest approach, targeted to only the extremely low-income—those making less than 30 percent of their area’s median income—would cost about $29 billion a year.

But despite these shortcomings, it’s hard to overstate just what a revolution in housing policy entitlement vouchers would be. Affordable housing is a national challenge, but in recent years, it has largely been up to local governments to tinker around the edges of overwhelming need—and even the most ambitious local governments simply don’t have the resources to do much more than tinker around the edges. San Francisco’s massive Proposition A, which voters approved in November, will bond $310 million for affordable housing—its own proponents decided their initial goal, $500 million, would strain the ability of the city to service the debt—which will likely result in less than a thousand net new units of affordable housing. In Chicago, the signature affordable housing policy of the last few years is supposed to create just 1,000 units of affordable housing, even as 300,000 people are on the waitlist for a public unit. In Austin, a community land trust was able to make national news while creating three affordable homes, with 25 more in the pipeline.

Local efforts to to provide housing relief to those who need it are necessary and important. But only the federal government has the resources to address the full scale of the issue. In fact, there is already at least one federal housing program that could be scaled up to take a massive bite out of the housing problem, relieving one of the most terrifying and dangerous consequences of poverty. We could pay for it simply by deciding that households that make more than $100,000, people whose income is above 80 percent of the country’s, don’t need housing subsidies. What kind of government turns down that deal?

Read it all.

Zoning as a negotiation—and the single family loophole


In Chicago, aldermen often set zoning to be more restrictive than the kind of development they eventually plan to approve, so as to maximize their negotiating power.

But there’s a loophole: all residential zoning, no matter how strict, allows single-family homes.

So developers looking to avoid negotiation can just build (very expensive) single-family homes.

The downzoning-as-negotiating-tactic ends up leading to more single-family homes than aldermen (or local residents) actually wanted.

That’s a problem on a number of fronts: affordability; public resources; transit; climate change; and so on.

If we’re going to move towards a system in which every development has to be negotiated, then that rule should apply to single-family homes as well as apartments and condos.

In the most naive version of the story, zoning is a quasi-objective, quasi-scientific endeavor. Planners, in consultation somehow with the public or their representatives, assign every plot of land in the city a code that denotes the kind of uses, and intensity of uses, that are appropriate to undertake there. They determine “appropriate” according to some sort of rational set of criteria: putting denser uses closer to major transportation corridors and nodes of activity; keeping “incompatible” uses, like factories and homes, apart; and generally respecting the existing built environment.

Of course, at least in Chicago, you don’t have to poke the zoning apparatus very hard before this story falls apart. With the exception of the immediate area around downtown, Chicago does not allow more density in many of the places that planning textbooks would tell you it should go: near transit stations, for example. (Yes, we have a “transit-oriented development” law, but it’s mostly about parking requirements. It only gives a modest density bonus to parcels that are already zoned relatively densely.)

The Brown Line runs up the right side of this map, and then west just south of Lawrence; you can see stops labeled "Irving Park - Brown," "Montrose - Brown," and so on. You can also see that none of these stops have any kind of high-density zoning—in fact, most of the surrounding land is zoned single family only. (Click through to get to an interactive map.)
Can you tell where the Brown Line ‘L’ runs, carrying over 100,000 people a day? If you guessed any of the yellow corridors, indicating slightly higher allowed density, you’re wrong. None of the stops—which you can (barely) see, labeled “Irving Park – Brown,” “Montrose – Brown,” and so on—have any kind of higher-zoned halo, and most of their surrounding land is zoned single-family only. (Click through to get to an interactive map.)

And while Chicago’s zoning code mostly keeps factories and residential homes apart—though not always, as the above map shows; that vertical corridor of uncolored land is a manufacturing district in the middle of a residential neighborhood—beyond that, it often fails miserably at even pretending to be keeping incompatible uses apart. Remember, theoretically, each zoning category is different enough that it ought to be “incompatible” with every other category; otherwise, the authors of the code would have just combined them. That’s not to say they can’t be relatively close—say, commercial with apartments above on a main street, and residential-only on the side streets nearby—but it would be ridiculous to have a bunch of different zoning categories hopscotched around the same blocks.

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Except Chicago does that all the time. Above, you have a checkerboard of single-family-only districts (red), small apartments (yellow), larger apartments (green), and even a smattering of very dense apartments (purple). And while the densest category is only found near the corner of Chicago and Ashland, two major streets, the other three categories are liberally sprinkled around the very same blocks on the very same side streets. In many cases, “zones” make up just one or two buildings, surrounded on all sides by other, supposedly incompatible, zones!

There is a word for this: “spot zoning.” It is generally illegal.

But whatever. Maybe the issue is an overzealous application of the “existing built environment” criterion. After all, Chicago’s side streets were usually built as a haphazard mix of single-family homes, small apartment buildings, and larger apartment buildings. If we just zoned each parcel to the category closest to its current building, then you might end up with something very much like the above map.

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Except that’s not how we do it, either. The block above happens, at least, to be consistent in its zoning: it’s all single-family only. But literally none of the existing buildings—which, by the look of them, have been around for well over a century—are single-family homes.

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Nor is that at all unusual. Every building in the above scenes is also zoned to be single-family only—anything else would be, according to law, “incompatible”—despite the fact that none of them depict any actual existing single-family homes.

So what’s going on?

Well, an alternative theory would be that instead of zoning being the result of a professionalized, semi-scientific process of analysis, it’s instead the result of politics. In particular, local politics, since in Chicago zoning changes controlled virtually entirely by the ruling alderman.

And who controls the local political process? Well, over at City Observatory, I covered the debate between two theories. One, the “growth machine,” basically posits that local politics are dominated by business and development interests, which manipulate zoning to overbuild, relative to what an “objective” observer might think appropriate. On the other side, there’s the “homevoter hypothesis,” which suggests that local politics are dominated by homeowners, who are mostly interested in maintaining the value of their homes. As a result, they’ll make zoning that leads to underbuilding, so as to reduce the number of “competing” sellers and avoid other neighborhood changes that might risk reducing property values.

If these are the options, which wins? Well, the study I wrote about at City Observatory, which was based on zoning changes in the 2000s in New York City, found that in places where you might expect it would be most valuable to build—areas near high-performing schools; whiter neighborhoods; neighborhoods seeing high home price appreciation and population growth—there were many more zoning changes to allow less density than to allow more density. That’s really hard to square with a growth machine story, but fits in perfectly well with a homevoter hypothesis story.

And what about Chicago? Before even looking at the city at all, you would probably expect that Chicago would be closer to the homevoter hypothesis than New York—simply because there are way more homeowners here (the homeownership rate is about 45%, rather than 35%).

But beyond that, and without doing a whole study, I can make an observation that makes me lean towards the homevoter hypothesis here, too: while there are abundant examples of neighborhoods where current zoning allows less density than the prevailing built environment—that is, for example, it’s illegal to build a three-flat on a street full of three-flats—there appear to be vanishingly few parts of the city where zoning allows more density than the prevailing built environment. Since intensifying land use is basically the guiding philosophy of the growth machine, a situation in which very little land is allowed to have its use intensified as of right seems hard to square with that sort of regime.

(There are two exceptions. First, areas with lots of vacant land often have zoning that allows reasonably dense buildings as of right, which you could reasonably claim would be “intensifying.” But for one, there’s generally very little building going on in these areas, and I suspect the arrival of construction would result in a flurry of rezonings; and two, if the goal of the “homevoters” is to increase their property values, getting rid of vacant lots makes a lot of sense. The other place where lots of intensifying is allowed is downtown. I think there’s a longer story to tell here, but I also would probably concede that much of downtown is, in fact, ruled by the growth machine.)

But there’s another thing. Which is this:

Politics are not only about constituents. They’re also about actual officeholders. And if you’re an officeholder, regardless of what your constituents want, you probably want maximum flexibility, and maximum leverage, in any given situation. In Chicago’s “planning” environment—that is, where all zoning changes are controlled solely by the local alderman, and where zoning changes can be made by that alderman very easily—that means there’s a massive incentive to downzone so that every potential developer will have to negotiate with the alderman. In the best possible interpretation, aldermen do this to allow public meetings where neighbors have the opportunity weigh in on exactly what they’d like to see built on every single parcel as developer interest arises, and then act on those wishes. In a less generous interpretation, aldermen do this to allow public meetings as a show of democracy, placating local voters while expecting things to end up basically as they would have anyway. In the least generous interpretation, you might note that this creates an incentive for developers to, say, give campaign donations to any aldermen whose wards include land they’d like to build on, since they’ll need aldermanic approval for every single project.

But even if we stick to the most generous interpretation, there are a few problems.

First, by moving planning from a theoretical planning department in City Hall to the local alderman’s office, they have shrunk the pool of voters who are consulted about changes from (theoretically) the entire city, with perhaps an extra weight given to people nearby, to only the people who show up to a given community development meeting. Without going into a whole spiel about the issue of hyper-local planning, I’ll just say that excluding many of the people who are affected by decisions about housing from having a voice in those decisions is a recipe for problems. (If this doesn’t make sense in the context of, say, Logan Square, imagine who doesn’t get a voice in hyper-local community meetings in, say, Lincoln Park.)

Second, while it’s not necessarily bad to allow negotiations over land use—you get a bit of extra density in exchange for another design concession, or less height, or more greenery, or whatever—it might be better to have these negotiations at the level of a neighborhood plan, rather than parcel by parcel. That’s both because of the “who’s enfranchised” issue above, and because negotiations require a lot of everyone’s time and effort. The smaller the payoff, the less inclined people will be to expend that time and effort. Meaning, in this context, that you might just shut out smaller developments—three flats, say—altogether, with developers deciding it’s only worth going through a whole community process if they’re proposing much larger buildings.

Finally, there’s a huge loophole: single-family homes. While in the story above, Alderman Burnett is downzoning to disallow all residential (even though, as he says, he only expects residential proposals, of which he will eventually grant one), much of the time, the alderman downzones to RS-3, which only allows single-family homes. In fact, there is no residential category that does not allow single-family homes as of right. Which means that big expenditure of time and effort can be avoided, if you’re a developer, by building single-family homes rather than apartments or condos.

If you’re inclined to be against density for the sake of being against density, then maybe that’s a feature, not a bug. But if you’re concerned about anything else, it’s a huge problem. Affordability? Basically all new single-family homes are going for the better part of a million dollars, and significantly more than units in a multifamily building in the same location. Plus, single-family homes won’t trigger the city’s Affordable Requirements Ordinance, so there won’t be any below-market units, either.

Transit? Allowing only single-family homes in central urban areas reduces the kind of density that supports bus and rail lines, leading to a vicious cycle of declining ridership and service.

Public services? Single-family homes will generally create less total property value than multifamily buildings, with smaller property tax bills to support vital city services.

Climate change? Less population density means more carbon emissions per capita.

Little islands of low per-capita emissions in dense urban centers. Credit: CoolClimate Network, UC-Berkeley
Little islands of low per-capita emissions in dense urban centers. Credit: CoolClimate Network, UC-Berkeley

Local businesses? Single-family homes mean fewer people within walking distance of local business districts. That sort of population decline may be a big part of why there are empty storefronts in some of Chicago’s most affluent neighborhoods.

Now! None of this is to say that I think we should outlaw single-family homes. I don’t.

But it does seem to me that these are, together, a good enough reason to believe that the single-family loophole is a problem. Remember, the issue is not that we’re zoning land for single-family homes because we think that’s the only “compatible” use, but because it gives us maximum negotiating leverage over the appropriate multifamily building we eventually want to approve. And yet, in the process, we’re giving developers a huge incentive to build less densely than we think is appropriate, which exacerbates all the issues above.

So basically what I’m saying is that if we’re going to move towards a system where every development is negotiated—where, in planning lingo, basically everything is a mini-planned development—then we should require negotiation for single-family homes as well.