Chicago aldermen: from selecting public housing sites to blocking affordable housing

Even as Chicago’s mayor suggests more interest in affordable housing, a new report from the Chicago Fair Housing Alliance shows how Chicago aldermen used “aldermanic prerogative” to slow down, water down, or reject certain kinds of housing projects:

Much of the City Council’s power over development is unwritten and informal.

Typically, if a development in a ward needs a zoning change or permit, and the development is not supported by the alderman of that ward, the proposal is voted down if it ever reaches the full City Council. In some cases, a developer can make a proposal, and the presiding alderman or zoning advisory council will dictate changes — such as how many of the apartments will be condominiums and how many should be set aside for lower-income residents. Those negotiations have to be navigated before the proposal can reach the City Council. The development proposal can also linger in the zoning committee, which is another way it eventually dies from inaction…

The study’s authors examined how zoning laws were used to keep low-income public housing residents confined to certain communities and how private market rate housing has been engineered to confine lower-income residents to specific neighborhoods. They also reviewed case by case what happened with most recent efforts to create affordable housing across Chicago…

The report suggests that in order to ensure affordable housing, the city has to take steps to change the way business is conducted and develop a citywide protocol. That plan would have to force each ward to bear some of the weight of producing affordable housing.

Given Chicago’s long history of residential segregation, I would suggest this is primarily about race: wealthier and whiter neighborhoods do not want black and non-white residents to be able to move in. While the issue may seem to be housing with cheaper values or the preference that neighborhood residents have for local control, at the root, this is about controlling who can live in certain places. If given the opportunity, local officials will claim they are simply representing the interests of their constituents.

And this aldermanic power regarding housing has a long history. Here is part of the tale regarding the early days of public housing in the city retold in Alex Kotlowitz’s There Are No Children Here (p. 21-22):

The city’s aldermen first bullied the state legislature into giving them the power of selecting public housing site, a prerogative that had previously belonged to the local housing authority.

Then a group of leading aldermen, who were not above petty vindictiveness, chartered a bus to tour the city in search of potential sites. On the bus ride, they told reporters that they were out to seek vengeance against the Chicago Housing Authority and the seven aldermen who supported public housing, and they chose sites in neighborhoods represented by these aldermen. Like prankish teenagers, they selected the most outrageous of possibilities, including the tennis courts at the University of Chicago and a parcel of land that sat smack in the middle of a major local highway. The message was clear: the CHA and its liberal backers could build public housing but not in their back yards.

The complexes were not, in the end, built at these sites. Instead, they were constructed on the edges of the city’s black ghettoes.

In many instances, the primary way black and other non-white residents have been able to move into new city neighborhoods or suburbs is when whites are willing to leave.

 

Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel now rolling out affordable housing ideas

The Chicago Tribune summarizes the recent efforts of Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel to promote affordable housing in the city:

The Tribune’s Jeff Coen and Gregory Pratt recently reported on Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s stumbles as he’s tried to tackle the tricky issue of affordable housing. They discovered that in gentrifying neighborhoods where affordable housing is most needed, fees paid by developers to fund housing at below-market rates get diverted elsewhere. In many cases, that money shows up on the South Side, where housing needs are great, but where affordable housing isn’t as acute of a problem as it is on the North Side.

They also found that the amount of affordable housing being built in the city is falling short of City Hall’s projections. In 2015, when City Hall strengthened the city’s affordable housing ordinance, Emanuel’s team predicted the creation of 1,200 new housing units by 2020. But as of the end of the first quarter in 2018, a Tribune analysis showed that the ordinance revamp had yielded only 194 affordable housing units, or a five-year pace of 431 units.

With a re-election campaign underway, the mayor’s been spitting out housing initiatives with dizzying speed — by our count, six measures within a span of a week that, one way or another, aim to make housing more affordable. Among them:

  • The creation of a housing department that brainstorms long-term remedies to the city’s lack of affordable housing;
  • The establishment of a $30 million fund to funnel low-cost financing to developers buying apartment buildings in gentrifying neighborhoods, with the catch that the developers have to set aside at least 20 percent of the units as affordable housing for at least 15 years;
  • The expansion of the city’s transit-oriented development program to four heavily used CTA bus lines. The city’s TOD program currently encourages high-density housing and retail near train stations. Apartment builders in TOD areas must provide affordable housing. That requisite would apply to TOD projects near bus lines along Western Avenue, Ashland Avenue, Chicago Avenue and 79th Street.

Four quick thoughts:

  1. Chicago does not get as much attention regarding affordable housing as cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and New York City. Yet, the city has major affordable housing needs stretching back decades. Luxury condos may be common in the Loop, River North, and along the city’s lakeshore but numerous other neighborhoods need good and cheap housing. The list of city residents waiting for public housing is very lengthy.
  2. This lack of attention paid to Chicago compared to those other cities also hints at the relative nature of affordable housing. Chicago may be cheap compared to San Francisco but that does not mean that the city is relatively expensive compared to other big cities in the Midwest or the South.
  3. Perhaps just as important as how many affordable housing units are created is where the affordable housing units are located. If most of the units end up in wealthier and whiter neighborhoods, will this have a significant impact on worse-off neighborhoods?
  4. The Tribune mentions the looming reelection Emanuel faces: are these affordable housing ideas simply campaign fodder or is there going to be a sustained effort over time?

Quiet naming of the Barack Obama Presidential Expressway

The Chicago area now has the Kennedy Expressway, the Ronald Reagan Memorial Tollway and the Barack Obama Presidential Expressway:

With little fanfare from officials, signs went up in recent months marking the newly named Barack Obama Presidential Expressway, a stretch of about 80 miles of Interstate 55 from the southwest suburbs to Pontiac.

While the March unveiling lacked the usual pomp and circumstance, state Rep. La Shawn Ford, D-Chicago, said politics — the Illinois Department of Transportation is overseen by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner — didn’t play a role. Ford said they didn’t want to have a ceremony without the former president and couldn’t coordinate with his busy schedule…

“It’s part of the making of President Obama,” Ford said. “He traveled that road for many, many years. One day he’s going to be happy to travel that road (again) and have some reflections on all those times that he traveled down it.”…

The expressway’s renaming isn’t just to invoke nostalgia. Ford wants the expressway’s markers to one day spark a conversation about the former president among young people who weren’t around for Obama’s presidential days.

Chicago and the surrounding region like to honor people with roads and highways. Numerous other public facilities could be renamed for politicians and other leaders; think airports, major government buildings, parks and protected land, libraries, and schools. At the least, plenty of travelers use these three highways named after presidents and will be reminded of the figures after seeing numerous signs.

About the choice of road: the argument that this was a route Obama regularly traveled between Chicago and Springfield makes sense. At the same time, the route covers largely suburban and rural areas. Obama seems to identify more with the city of Chicago. Is the name the Dan Ryan Expressway so sacrosanct that the Obama Expressway could not connect with the Kennedy Expressway? Or, they couldn’t have renamed the Stevenson which reminds people of a candidate who failed in running for president multiple times?

Suburbanites in wealthier areas are not all wealthy and can be Democrats and identify as working-class

The recent victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York’s 14th House District has led some to question her background:

Ocasio-Cortez was born in 1989 to parents Sergio Ocasio-Roman, who was born in New York City, and mother Blanca Ocasio-Cortez, a native of Puerto Rico.

Her father, who tragically died from lung cancer in 2008, was an architect and the CEO of Kirschenbaum & Ocasio-Roman Architects, PC, which focused on remodeling and renovations…

Initially, the young family lived in Parkchester, a planned community of 171 mid-rise brick buildings in the Bronx.

When she was about five, Ocasio-Cortez’s family moved to the house in Westchester County, a detail that the bio omits.

The timing of the move is confirmed in a New York Times interview with mother Blanca Ocasio-Cortez, but the report does not address the discrepancy.

The home, a single-story with a finished basement, most recently sold for $355,000 in 2016. The median annual income in the area is $116,741, compared to the median annual income of $48,315 in Parkchester’s zip code, according to the latest Census data…

Her father’s death came amid the financial crisis and he left no will, putting their home on the brink of foreclosure, she has said.

The house was sold and Ocasio-Cortez now lives in the same Bronx apartment where she lived until age five.

I do not know all the details of Ocasio-Cortez’s background. The goal of the article above seems to be to suggest she is not quite the person she presents herself as and instead grew up in relatively privileged settings. Yet, her own descriptions are not necessarily out of character with what actually is taking place in suburbs today:

  1. Not everyone who lives in the suburbs is wealthy or even middle-class. Westchester County is historically a wealthy county outside of New York City. Yet, like many suburban counties that have experienced increased populations of poorer residents and non-white residents, there is more variety in social class and race and ethnicity in Westchester County than people might think. According to the Census, the county is only 53.4% white alone, 24.9% Latino, and 16.5% black. The median household income is over $86,000 but 10.0% of residents live in poverty. In other words, not everyone in Westchester County is a wealthy white person and some residents are more working-class (by certain measures or by self-identification).
  2. A common argument in the postwar suburban boom was that residents of cities would move to the suburbs and become staunch Republicans. This may have been true in some locations, particularly wealthier suburbs. However, the suburbs are now more diverse politically with numerous political battles depending on suburban voters. Suburbs closer to cities now lean toward Democrats while suburbs further out lean toward Republicans. Good numbers of American suburbanites are Democrats.

In other words, suburbs are now often diverse. Long-standing understandings of wealthier and whiter counties, whether Westchester County or DuPage County, might take time to change.

“A Visual History [of race and ethnicity] in the U.S. Census”

Ariel Aberg-Riger argues in a visual history that the United States Census is implicated in matters of race and ethnicity. From the beginning of the piece:

VisualHistoryofUSCensusBeginning

Numbers are never just numbers: they must be conceptualized and then operationalized, they are collected via particular methods, and then given meaning by politicians, scholars, journalists, and the public. Even a simple count is not so easy, particularly when much is on the line for numerous groups.

Suburban residential segregation and ongoing effects on voting and prejudice

A long New York TImes op-ed summarizes the findings of the 2017 book The Space Between Us by political scientist Ryan Enos:

Enos then looked at results from 124,034 precincts, almost every precinct in the United States. Again:

“A white voter in the least-segregated metropolitan area was 10 percentage points more likely to vote for Obama than a white voter in the most-segregated area.”…

These voting patterns, according to Enos, reflect what might be called a self-reinforcing cycle of prejudice.

“Prejudice may have helped cause segregation, but then the segregation helped cause even more prejudice.”

In other words, it is not just problematic that people of different racial/ethnic groups and social classes choose to (possible more often for whites and those with more financial resources) or are pushed to live in different places from each other. The residential segregation then has a feedback loop where those differences reinforced by spatial arrangements are perpetuated and perhaps even amplified.

As more of the op-ed explains, simply putting people together (such as suggested by Allport’s contact hypothesis or in the train experiment described in the essay) is not a silver bullet for forging relationships, networks, and reduced prejudices. Even as attitudes toward other groups have improved over time, what would push wealthier whites to sacrifice or put themselves into uncomfortable positions when they do not have to?

Invoking (a different kind of) blight to take land for Foxconn

The term “blight” is more likely to conjure up images of slums and urban decay (example of Detroit) than farmland and single-family homes. Yet, the Wisconsin village of Mount Pleasant earlier this week invoked blight to take land for a planned Foxconn facility:

Trustees voted 6-1 to declare as a blighted area some 2,800 acres of open farmland and a few dozen homes, all of it earmarked for Foxconn and the development expected to spring up around the planned electronics factory. Trustee Gary Feest was the lone dissenter, and one of only two board members to speak before the vote…

Still, holdouts remain — people who believe the 140 percent of market value the village has offered is unfair when owners of larger tracts of farmland were paid several times the pre-Foxconn price such property was bringing…

As proponents have in the past, DeGroot emphasized not the eminent-domain power the blighted-area designation gives the village, but rather the financial advantages the measure confers. Communities with plans such as the one Mount Pleasant just approved can finance the redevelopment by issuing bonds exempt from both state and federal taxes, which DeGroot said could save the village millions of dollars…

In taking its action Monday, the village is using a section of state law that broadly defines blighted areas. Besides the commonly understood definitions of blight — dilapidated housing, overcrowding, high crime — the statute says an area can be deemed blighted if it is predominantly open and, for any reason, “substantially impairs or arrests the sound growth of the community.”

Here is the Google Maps satellite image of the Foxconn location (according to news reports). All the farmland is clearly visible.

Google Maps satellite image of Foxconn site

Taking land for a sizable or notable project like this is not always easy. The argument that this is good for the community will not strike all land owners as consonant with their property rights. And there may be some irony later in this story involving property rights. A Democratic gubernatorial candidate will be protesting the use of eminent domain as part of his larger concerns about the project. When Republicans are characterized as supporting both big business and property rights, which one wins? And are Democrats pro-property rights?

While Wisconsin has a slightly different definition of blight, this could be compared to urban renewal plans of the mid-twentieth century that used similar reasoning to mark certain properties as blighted. In both cases, officials and developers have a redevelopment plan for the land that is billed as an improvement for the community. In this case, the trade-off is largely open land for increased local tax revenue and a significant number of jobs. With the urban renewal plans of decades ago, history was not kind to some of the proposals as redevelopment could clear affordable housing units, target minority communities, and accelerate suburbanization (in the cases of highways constructed right through urban neighborhoods). Even without declaring some land as blighted, a project this size could be viewed by some as a significant change to the character of the community. “As many as 13,000 jobs” may sound good but this will affect local traffic, housing, and civic services. I would guess that following up with the community in five, ten, or twenty years could relay both intended and unintended changes if all or most goes as planned with the Foxconn facility.