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?

Lakewood, CA caught between suburban housing or job choices

A profile of Lakewood, California, a paradigmatic postwar suburb, suggests the community is no longer home to numerous suburban dreams:

So they settled in Lakewood, among the rows of modest little ranch-style houses, repeated in one of 20 or so iterations, interspersed with shopping centers, parks and schools. It’s a landscape that today appears completely unremarkable, but half a century ago embodied a powerful vision of the good life in California…

“The promise of Lakewood was enough of the good things of an everyday life — a simple house, a yard, infrastructure of schools and churches and shopping centers,” said D.J. Waldie, an author and former city historian who wrote the book, “Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir,” about life in Lakewood from the 1950s, when the subdivision exploded out of lima bean fields into a suburb of 70,000…

Those solid middle-class jobs nearby have shipped out. To afford to buy a home here, a lot more people are living like Jenny Gov — spending more of their day in ever-worsening traffic, leaving little time to spend with family and neighbors, coaching Little League or exploring the wonders of California.

The promise of places like Lakewood has been carved down into little pieces with Californians forced to pick between them: choose the house or choose the nearby job, but seldom both.

The issue discussed in the article is a common one: the locations of jobs and affordable or even somewhat affordable housing are not necessarily close. Many metropolitan regions do not have the infrastructure to provide options besides driving for the important suburb to suburb trips that make up the largest segment of trips. And to some degree, these locations can change. When Lakewood was developed, how many people predicted the true multinucleated nature of the Los Angeles region?

Certainly, more affordable housing is needed. At the same time, is there hope of spreading out good jobs or introducing new jobs in more residential communities? The typical bedroom suburb does not have to remain as such.

How to make a better public case for abundant housing in four steps

After witnessing a positive result in front of a neighborhood council for a small project in Los Angeles, Virginia Postrel suggests four steps can help smooth the process:

Respect matters. Especially in liberal enclaves like West L.A., opposition to new housing — and to change in general — comes wrapped in the rhetoric of democracy and procedure. Activist residents, including official representatives, are jealous of their prerogatives as neighborhood incumbents. They’re more likely to say yes — or at least not say no — if they feel they’ve been listened to…

But so do the rules. Under a law signed in 2017, anti-development activists can no longer easily block new housing if it meets zoning requirements and incorporates 10 percent low-income units. One reason the Mar Vista project garnered support was that activists feared the alternative would be something less considerate of neighborhood sentiment.

 

Showing up is important. By answering questions and treating the meeting as important, the developer’s representative helped flip sentiment in Mar Vista. And the Abundant Housing LA speakers made arguments that often go unspoken in such forums. They reminded locals that by not letting people build housing near jobs, they make traffic worse, and that by blocking new apartments, which tend to be expensive, they send high-income renters into places where they push out middle- and lower-income residents. Beyond the specifics, it’s simply harder to argue against housing when you don’t have the overwhelming majority.

Don’t assume residents are against housing. In March 2017, Angelenos had the opportunity to vote for a slow-growth initiative that would have blocked at least a quarter of new housing developments. They overwhelmingly said no, defeating Measure S by a 70-30 margin. “That stereotypical kind of Nimby does exist, but there aren’t really that many of them,” says Burns. “When you really talk to people and you put a face on what it means to develop more — to add more housing — and it’s somebody who lives close by, you can really come to some sensible kind of compromises with folks.”

 

Generally, these look like good steps anybody seeking to redevelop property could benefit from. From some of my own work, these would be helpful for those constructing teardown houses in the suburbs as well as religious groups seeking to alter an existing building or construct a new building. Building a relationship with people in the community as well as presenting a cogent and reasonable case can go a long ways.

At the same time, I wonder if these four steps might be idiosyncratic and apply only to certain places and at certain times. This particular case is from a state and region that has a large need for more housing. The description of the steps above suggest that residents were more open to this project because they feared something worse. Additionally, this project is within a city and region that is already very dense (and one of the densest regions in the United States). Residents are used to denser housing.

I suspect redevelopment would be a much tougher sell in areas or communities that are (1) primarily comprised of single-family homes with some distance from denser land uses and (2) where housing demand is lower (or is perceived to be much lower – the Chicago area may have a big need for affordable housing but it would be hard to convince many communities of this).

 

Why I’m skeptical housing will become a national political issue

Even as affordable housing is a concern in a number of places in the United States, there is little national political discussion of the issue:

Franzini is joined in this quest by a curious cast of fellow travelers who are committed to raising the political profile of the American housing dilemma. As home prices creep up everywhere from established tech hubs to traditionally inexpensive cities like Boise and Nashville—and as homelessness reaches epidemic proportions on the West Coast—a number of organizations from a diverse array of sectors have recently formed to push for housing policy changes at the highest levels of government. They’re frustrated by the lack of engagement on housing that national political leaders are offering. And they’re finding that, at least for the moment, the first order of business is just educating people about the seriousness of the issue.

Here are four reasons why I believe it will be very tough to have a national political discussion, let alone pressure for the federal government to act, regarding housing:

  1. Housing is local. Americans would like local governments to handle the issue as they prefer, particularly those with more resources, to live in places that can limit others of lesser status from moving in. Residents and smaller governments argue that they should not be forced to build housing that current residents do not desire or give money to less deserving people for housing.
  2. Americans historically do not have much appetite for significant federal involvement in public or subsidized housing even as they like socialized mortgages for single-family homes.
  3. The housing industry has significant influence, from the National Association of Home Builders to the National Association of Realtors, due to the importance of the housing industry for the American economy and particular American ideals about what kinds of housing are preferred. Affordable or cheaper housing might generate fewer profits.
  4. Opponents to federal action will argue that Americans can have cheaper housing if they (a) are willing to move to metro areas that have cheaper housing (and plenty of them exist) and (b) truly take on the local power brokers that usually do not want the working and middle classes to access their wealthier neighborhoods. These arguments are plausible enough (though with issues) for a number of participants in the discussion.

A number of these reasons involve ideas about what should be part of the American Dream as well as perceptions about who can access it (so it involves race and social class).

A lottery for limited affordable housing, part two

A story about a lottery for 95 affordable housing units in San Francisco discusses the technique of using a lottery to award limited goods and how the lottery happens:

Lotteries that allocate scarce resources are not set up to distinguish the neediest from the merely needy. Rather, they reward random chance, which is a distinctly different notion of what’s “fair.”…

For years, San Francisco conducted public lotteries in a bingo drum. But the raffle tickets were always getting stuck in the drum’s crevices. The city also tried a big box. People couldn’t see what was happening inside, however, and tickets got stuck under the lid.

This exercise — rolling the drum, shaking the box, inspecting for trapped tickets and repeating — lasted hours on a building the size of Natalie Gubb Commons. Ms. Torres would bus around town, picking up applications, dropping off applications. Lines would wrap around some developers’ offices on deadline day….

Last year, San Francisco moved the whole process online. Renters can now more easily apply, which means that more do, and the odds have grown longer. But the system is more humane. The parts of the process where it has been most awkwardly apparent that people in need are competing are now less visible. The city still holds public lotteries, but they are primarily pep talks.

Three things jumped out at me about the lottery process and how it is presented:

  1. On one hand, a lottery can seem fair in this situation. How else would would limited public goods be fairly split up? We know that in regular life, having more resources and better connections tends to lead to more opportunities. For people with fewer resources and fewer connections to powerful people, isn’t a lottery fair?
  2. On the other hand, having to go through a lottery for something as basic as an affordable place to live seems crazy. The documentary Waiting for “Superman” used the lottery for a good school very effectively in its plot. By starting and end with the image of honest American families simply trying to get a good education for their kids through a lottery, it all looks absurd. The lottery itself is an excellent argument for why more affordable housing is needed.
  3. The actual mechanics of lottery are intriguing. A public drawing has a lot of potential for drama, both with images of excitement and disappointment. (Again, Waiting for “Superman” played this up.) But, actually having a fair system of drawing names is more difficult than it looks. And how can the applicants be reassured that it is an effective process? The shift to online makes some sense and yet I could imagine the process now looks even less transparent. How do we know the online system isn’t rigged? Is it truly random? What if the algorithm is biased?

I know waiting lists are commonly used for housing spots – and this has the advantage that Americans often like that people should at least have to put effort into getting on the list – but a lottery has both strengths and weaknesses.

A lottery for limited affordable housing housing, part one

Affordable housing is in short supply in numerous American cities and an example of a lottery for 95 affordable housing units in San Francisco illustrates the issue:

Subsidized housing is often rationed this way, by lottery. Many apply, few win, most are disappointed. The process is meant to be more fair than first-come, first-served. But lotteries make literal a deeper unfairness. For homeowners, the mortgage interest deduction is available to anyone who qualifies. For poor renters, there is never enough housing assistance to go around…

Amid all the wealth in this neighborhood, a one-bedroom at Natalie Gubb Commons would rent for around $1,000 to $1,200 a month, a three-bedroom up to $1,700. Apartments next door were three times as much.

That discount is possible through a mix of resources. Mercy Housing, the project’s nonprofit developer, effectively got the land free as part of a city requirement that the neighborhood’s redevelopment include affordable housing. The market-rate developer next door was subsidizing the project, along with city funds. Revenue from the state’s cap-and-trade emissions program helped. And Mercy used the backbone of nearly every affordable housing project in America, federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credits

But the tax bill’s implications for poor renters will be more profound. The odds are likely to grow worse than these: Last year, 53 households applied per each new affordable unit at The Meridian in Los Angeles; 84 for every home at Parcel 25 in Boston; 391 for each unit at Stargell Commons in Alameda, Calif.; 979 for every home at Our Lady of Lourdes Apartments in New York.

This is a reminder of both the acute need for affordable housing in more expensive cities as well as the limited approach to the issue from the federal government. Places that are often held out as the promise of America for their cultural diversity as well as their economic potential – such as San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, etc. – are often difficult places for those who are middle-class and below.

Additionally, the federal government has never wholeheartedly committed to helping provide housing for all. As the article notes, American housing policy subsidizes single-family homes. This has been an intentional policy choice for decades, beginning before the post World War II suburban boom and then continuing through mass suburbanization as well as into the twenty-first century. It would be difficult to have a direct national political conversation about this since it tends to happen through elected representatives who rarely discuss housing and through various government agencies. Also, it is hard to know whether all those people who have moved to single-family homes in the suburbs have done so because that is what they truly wanted among numerous equal options or they were pushed to some degree by the political and cultural leanings in those directions.

There is another intriguing aspect of this article: both how the lottery is discussed as well as how the lottery is conducted. More on this in a post in a few days.