Rising real estate values in affordable markets make it harder to enter that market

Whether reading about rising real estate values in Elkhart, Indiana or Chicago area locations, this has an effect on who can enter the market as homeowners:

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But after prices soared during the COVID-19 pandemic, even the lower-priced homes became out of reach for many low-income households, according to a recent report from the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University…

In June 2020, a home slightly below the median price was comfortably in that range, selling for $196,450, Hanifa found.

But one year later, a home that was 80% of the median price would sell for $220,562, meaning even lower-priced homes were no longer affordable for low-income buyers.

The loss of affordability was not limited to Chicago. Hanifa found low-income families could afford a home in just 20 of the country’s 100 largest metro areas in 2021, down from 39 the year before…

The hot housing market has had a trickle-down effect on neighborhoods such as Garfield Park, Humboldt Park and Belmont Cragin, he said. As buyers have been priced out of more expensive neighborhoods, they begin looking at a lower or middle-income neighborhoods where they can make offers over asking. Then residents of those neighborhoods can’t afford the homes for sale.

Rising home values are often viewed very positively. Those who own homes can benefit from the increase in prices without much work of their own. Over time, homeowners hope prices go up and they can get a strong return of investment at a sale.

But, this data is a reminder of the flip side of those same rising prices. If prices go up faster than other factors including accessing mortgages and rising incomes, those who want to enter the housing market – and reap the benefits of increasing real estate values – have a harder time doing so.

This dynamic is recognized in particularly expensive real estate markets. When people discuss Manhattan, San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, and a few other locations, people know there is a limited or nonexistent cheaper market for homeownership. This does not come up as often in cheaper markets, often in the Midwest or South, where prices are not as high and there are more options. If prices increase there as well to beyond what lower-income residents could afford, then what happens?

My quick takeaway: the need for affordable housing is great all over the place. If Americans continue to think that homeownership is a laudable goal, there is a lot to do to help make that possible for all.

Arlington Heights and many other suburbs: looking for downtown redevelopment and independence from the big city

With the possibility of a Chicago Bears stadium in the suburb of Arlington Heights, Illinois, the Chicago Tribune profile of the community highlights changes in the suburb:

More than 150 years ago, the 19th-century farming community’s prosperity was inextricably tied to its proximity to the railroad line, which served as a trading hub bolstering the town’s agrarian economy. By the 1920s, the community would become home to professionals boarding commuter trains headed to and from the city.

Despite many of those residents working at home these days as a result of the pandemic, the Union Pacific Northwest line dissecting the village of 77,000 residents is still viewed as an economic engine. But Arlington Heights is no longer beholden to the fortunes of Chicago, making the prospect of a Bears stadium in town interesting, yet not essential…

Embracing change has been a recipe for success for the revitalization of downtown Arlington Heights, which like central business districts across the U.S., was languishing in the 1970s and ’80s after mom and pop businesses were devastated by shopping malls and big-box stores, said Charles Witherington-Perkins, the village’s director of planning and community development…

To build the Arlington Heights of today, crafting a new downtown master plan was only the first step. In order to execute the vision, officials needed to loosen building height and density restrictions — stringent regulations that were making it impossible to create an economically and aesthetically vibrant downtown, Witherington-Perkins said…

The contingent of new residents arriving in Arlington Heights — many of whom were commuters attracted to the complex’s proximity to the Metra station — ushered in a surge of downtown residential and retail development that has served as a model for neighboring communities along the Metra line.

Take out the name of Arlington Heights and a few other regional details, and this story might be told for dozens of suburbs in the Chicago region as well as dozens more outside of older American big cities. Here are a few of the common features:

  1. A founding before mass suburbanization. Communities were small, farming was a primary industry, and the railroad was very important for the initial mass of people at that spot.
  2. Mass suburbanization of the twentieth century brought many residents and changes.
  3. Revitalizing suburban downtowns became a priority in the last four decades as competition from shopping malls and strip malls moved business activity away.
  4. This revitalization included adding residential units in denser structures.
  5. As noted elsewhere in this article, these choices about downtown redevelopment often involved choosing more expensive housing units rather than affordable housing. Even when cases went to court (as one did in Arlington Heights), relatively few affordable housing units were created in these denser suburban areas. This leaves Arlington Heights as wealthy and whiter.
  6. This theoretically means the community is more independent from Chicago with its own ecosystem of residential and commercial life downtown and in the suburb.

Does all of this add up to a new state-of-the-art stadium with a multi-billion dollar price tag being constructed in the suburb? That may be a separate issue given how few stadiums are in even large metropolitan areas and the sizable available property at play here.

Is Arlington Heights now truly independent of Chicago and self-sufficient? I would prefer to consider metropolitan regions as a whole as the fate of particular suburbs are connected both to the health of the big city and the suburbs. While a Bears stadium in Arlington Heights will be discussed as a win for the suburb (mostly – as the article notes, some residents oppose it) and a loss for the city of Chicago, the team and the benefits that come with it are still in the region.

Yet, it is worth noting that how the changing suburb understands itself is important. No longer a small farming community, Arlington Heights likely views itself as ambitious and making choices today to help secure its future success. A denser downtown provides a different experience than a bedroom suburb strictly made up of single-family homes. A Bears stadium would put them on the map in a way that few other nearby suburbs could equal. What Arlington Heights is and will be depends on choices made and responses from all of the actors involved.

Familiar road trip highways, Part Two: always seeing sites from the same perspectives

After two day trips on a recent weekend, I thought of what happens when you drive on the same highways many times. While yesterday I considered what the familiarity with roads and sites allows, today I briefly discuss what a slightly different route might bring. Two examples come to mind.

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The first example comes from the way I have approached the city of Chicago. For most of my life, this involved traveling east on the Congress Expressway. This meant that we passed through particular suburbs and neighborhoods, saw the skyline from a particular angle, and were in a particular relationship to the sun.

With a move after college east of Chicago, for a while my driving angle to the city changed dramatically. Now we approached via the Skyway and then either the Dan Ryan or South Lake Shore Drive. We saw different parts of the suburbs and city, the skyline of the same buildings looked different, and then shone from a different spot. The similar sites appeared quite different from a different highway just miles away. Chicago from the south is a different place than Chicago from the west, even from a fast-moving car.

A second example. Interstate highways often offer the ability to go around population centers. This speeds up driving. The city off in the distance is reduced to a set of tall buildings and/or landmarks that can be viewed from a distance.

One time, we took the business route through a small big city instead of skirting around its edges. We ended up in the same place and it took a little more time but we had a very different view of the city. Now we could see strip malls and residences. The big buildings from the distance looked even bigger close up. There was a sense of human activity rather than whatever life can be observed at 70+ miles per hour.

Familiar highways present opportunities but they limit what can be seen. The same familiarity that can contribute to an enjoyable road trip stop drivers from new angles.

Familiar road trip highways, Part One: going into travel autopilot

On a recent weekend, I made two separate day trips. Each sojourn required driving on highways in and out of the Chicago region that I have traveled on, either as passenger or driver, at least dozens of times. Because of its location and its transportation infrastructure, the Chicago area has numerous highways plus a good number of interesting locations within several hours.

One feature of such drives is the ability to go into a kind of travel autopilot. These roads are familiar. You know the sights. In the Midwestern landscape, there may be relatively variation in scenery.

To me, this eases the drive. Yes, hours may pass but you have done this before and you can get it through it again. On these routes, I have encountered clear skies, dark, rain, snow, and light traffic and heavy traffic. The drive is still roughly the same.

This may seem boring to some. What is the point of such a drive? Why not just go a lot faster and get there as soon as possible?

However, the familiar roads and scenery can open up room for other activities. Enjoying music is easier when the roads are familiar. So is good conversation or listening to an audiobook or doing some contemplating. Because what is going on outside the vehicle is not much of a distraction, many of the things that people celebrate about road trips are possible.

Tomorrow, what can happen when you are on a slightly different highway near what you thought were familiar locations.

Can a “great novel” be set in the Chicago suburbs?

A new book from author Jonathan Franzen chronicles of lives of a family in the Chicago suburbs:

Q: Your novels are often set in the Midwest, but why set a trilogy in suburban Chicago?

A: I wanted it near a major metropolitan area in the Midwest. I wanted it big because my recollection of the early 1970s is strongest ‘73 onward. I was in suburban St. Louis and the stuff that was happening in suburban St. Louis was probably happening a year or two earlier in Chicago. For that reason, the book begins in late 1971. I could be more assured of getting the cultural references and spirit right. But also, gosh, the Midwest just recurs in my work, right? I was born in suburban Chicago, I knew Chicago starting from the mid-70s on. Both of my brothers moved to Chicago, and with a novel, it’s nice to feel like you know the streets in a place. It’s that extra research you don’t have to do.

This leads to two related questions:

  1. Can a great cultural work be set in the American suburbs of the postwar era? Can the space that is often criticized for sprawl, conformity, exclusion, and dullness serve as a compelling setting?
  2. Are the suburbs of a city like Chicago, set in the Midwest, a kind of shorthand for central or normal America?

Of course, the simpler answer may be what is above: Franzen is familiar with the Chicago suburbs and its ways of life. But, the questions above still stand: are there great cultural works set in the suburbs? In a country where a majority of the residents live in the suburbs, I would suggest those experiences have not necessarily translated into critically acclaimed or very popular cultural works.

See this earlier post on different kinds of cultural works involving the suburbs.

Slow housing construction in Chicago area, matching slow population growth

The release of data showing a small population increase in Chicago and the region also included data on housing construction in the Chicago region:

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The number of homes in the Chicago metro area grew by 3.9% between 2010 and 2020, census data made public Thursday shows. That was a slower growth rate than the nation overall, where the number of homes grew by 6.7%.

The slow housing growth was not surprising, as the region recovered from the 2008 housing and financial crisis…

Among Cook and the collar counties, only Kendall County added homes at a higher rate than the nation: 11.6%. It added more homes than any county in the state, likely reflecting the county’s explosive growth in population over the past decade…

The Chicago area’s population growth could be good news for the housing market, inspiring investors and developers to take a deeper interest in the city, Smith said.

Presumably, builders and developers are going to be a bit hesitant to build a lot of units when the population is not growing as quickly. If new demand is limited, why build too many units and risk having lower selling prices? Add this corollary to the growth is good idea in American communities: higher rates of housing construction is a sign of a bright future and a higher status.

I do wonder what percent of homes or residential units need to be replaced each decade. Populations in metropolitan regions expand out – as noted above in Kendall County with double-digit growth – and occupy existing homes and units that may or may not meet their needs. Teardowns are one option, usually limited to wealthier communities where a new home in place of an older one can get a hefty price, but so are denser housing developments, in-fill development, or a change of use for properties (think vacant shopping malls or office parks converted to housing).

Additionally, does this small increase in homes also help address the need for affordable housing? At what price points are these new homes going for? I would guess that at least a sizable percentage of the new homes are out of reach of many in the region.

Chicago’s suburbs as quintessential American suburbs in cultural products

A number of Chicago suburbs have appeared on television and in movies in recent decades:

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Rightly or wrongly, I concluded that suburbia was segregated and snobbish, an attitude I’ve never been able to shake. I didn’t get that attitude from movies about just any suburbs, I got it from movies about Chicago’s Northern suburbs, which, over the last 40 years, have come to be seen as representative of all American suburbia. (My first job in Chicago was covering the Lake County suburbs for the Tribune. That didn’t change my mind.)

During the first wave of suburbanization, in the aftermath of World War II, the suburbs of Northeastern cities got all the attention, in movies such as Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, and in the fiction of John Updike, John Cheever and Richard Yates. When Hollywood rediscovered Chicago in the 1980s, though, it also discovered Chicago’s suburbs, through the work of writers and directors who grew up there. Paul Brickman, who directed Risky Business, was from Highland Park; Hughes was from Northbrook.

In the 1980s, suburbia was in its prime. Back then, nobody with money wanted to live in urban America. Rich people wouldn’t start moving back to cities for another decade. The suburbs are often mocked as a cultural wasteland, but towards the end of the 20th century, that’s where a lot of Chicago’s cultural energy was coming from. Even The Blues Brothers, which is revered as a document of post-industrial, pre-gentrification Chicago, was co-created by John Belushi of Wheaton. Steppenwolf Theatre Company was co-founded by Jeff Perry of Highland Park and Gary Sinise of Blue Island. According to his National Lampoon colleague P.J. O’Rourke, Hughes in particular was eager to rescue his native grounds from the notion that “America’s suburbs were a living hell almost beyond the power of John Cheever’s words to describe.”Chicago’s 1990s alternative music scene may have been born in Wicker Park, but its leading lights were suburbanites: Liz Phair of Winnetka, Billy Corgan of Elk Grove Village, Local H of Zion. Urge Overkill formed at Northwestern University. High Fidelity, the movie which celebrated that scene, starred Evanston’s own John Cusack as Rob Gordon, a guy from the suburbs who opens a record shop on Milwaukee Avenue.

Chicago’s suburbs continue to define suburbia in popular culture. The 2004 movie Mean Girls, the quintessential depiction of high school cliques, was set at fictional North Shore High School (i.e., New Trier). The characters even shopped at Old Orchard, although it was inaccurately depicted as an indoor mall. Greater Chicagoland also makes an appearance, and provides a contrast: Wayne’s World, set in Aurora, and Roseanne, set in the fictional, Elgin-inspired collar-county town of Lanford, are on the outside, physically, culturally and economically.

As someone who has researched locations and television shows, this raises several responses:

  1. Would viewers of these different suburbs know that the Chicago suburbs were unique in some way or do they look like suburbs all over? For example, does North Shore High School look or feel different than schools in Westchester County or outside Boston? One of the films cited, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, clearly shows Chicago locations but the suburban shots could fit in many American suburbs.
  2. There is an empirical question here: were Chicago suburbs depicted more often than suburbs of other locations? Or, based on viewers or ticket revenue or albums sold, how does the creative energy of the Chicago suburbs compare to cultural products linked to other locations?
  3. There is still some sense that suburbs are not creative places. This stereotypes dates back to at least the mid-twentieth century when suburbs were criticized as conformist and bland. True creative energy can only come from cities, not homogeneous and exclusive suburbs. Yet, as more Americans lived in suburbs compared to cities starting in the 1960s, it is not a surprise that cultural products would come from suburbanites.
  4. Even as a number of creatives grew up in suburbs, how much did their adult work and products rely on cities, including Chicago? The major culture industries in the United States are often located in big cities so even suburban or rural themes are mediated through more populous and denser communities.

Chicago as ongoing railroad hub: one quarter of freight trains pass through the region

With Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in Chicago yesterday, the Chicago Tribune provided this context for the need for infrastructure money in the region:

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His next stop was the CSX Bedford Park Intermodal Yard with Gov. Pritzker, and U.S. Reps. Marie Newman, of La Grange, and Mike Quigley, of Chicago planning to join him.

The event was an opportunity for Buttigieg to talk up how Biden’s infrastructure plan calls for billions in investments to improve freight and passenger rail infrastructure.

The CSX terminal, the nation’s third largest by volume, serves domestic and international intermodal freight. One of every four U.S. freight trains passes through Chicago., according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Chicago area residents can catch glimpses of some of these intermodal areas, often on the side of major highways, and they certainly know about the frieght trains that can block their roadways. But, how many know that 25% of national freight traffic passes through the region?

Even as motor vehicles and airplanes came to dominate landscapes – and Chicago has plenty of traffic and one of the busiest airports – the railroad continues to provide food, consumer goods, and transportation. Chicago’s status as a leading global city partly depends on it. The economy of the United States partly depends on it.

The railroad was one very important reason for Chicago’s rise. With its location on the southwest corner of Lake Michigan, Chicago quickly became a railroad hub for connecting the Northeast to a growing Midwest as well as Western expansion and all of its abundance.

The railroad can be an inconvenience. News of railroad traffic increasing in the region can induce concerns from residents and community leaders. But, the railroad traffic in the region at large helps the region as a whole.

The random name generator for Chicago suburbs

After thinking about Chicago suburbs with elevation clues in their names, I was reminded of the names of Chicago suburbs more broadly. To quote again from the WBEZ story:

One-hundred years ago we named places very differently, Callary says. Places were named after a town founder, or family member, or after something that indicated the place’s actual, physical presence in the world. Today, it’s more common to name a place after what you want it to be, rather than what’s actually there.

So how exactly did developers and local leaders come up with all of the existing Chicago area names? It could have looked like this:

I had to check on Willowridge because it puts together two commonly used words in suburban place names. I found some companies with this name as well as one suburban street but no official place.

Here are the next ten names generated:

Romeowoods

Franklinsville

Elmburn

Hillhurst

Musmukda

Glenside

Rolling Bluff

Hillwoods

Highfield

Crystalfield

Out of these, I would vote for Glenside as the most probable.

On one hand, this all makes sense: suburbs often want to invoke nature and idyllic settings. On the other hand, such anodyne names invoke the conformity and dullness of suburbs many suburban critiques have noted.

Far right-wing militias in the Chicago suburbs

Who lives in the (Chicago) suburbs? According to WBEZ, far right-wing militia leaders:

Traditionally, extremists interested in rightwing paramilitary activities have had to make a special effort to locate and join private paramilitary groups, said Friedfeld. The effort itself was enough to deter many from even bothering. But with hundreds of unlawful militias featured on the site, MyMilitia has reduced the process to a matter of a few clicks. Moreover, the website has pioneered the concept of so-called “area code militias,” which directs users to others living nearby…

Joshua Ellis is 41-years old and lived in Naperville until recently. Bankruptcy court documents indicate he has relocated to Antioch, Illinois. Ellis works in mold remediation and water damage. He calls himself an Army veteran, although his record was just six months with the Iowa Army National Guard, which he acknowledges he left before finishing advanced individual training. He has lived in several states, has a long history of not paying taxes and has filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection at least three times…

The fact that a far right extremist social media site would be run from someone’s home in Chicago’s suburbs has been no surprise to Alexander Reid Ross, a professor at Portland State University and a fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right. Reid Ross began tracking far right street activity after police in Minneapolis killed George Floyd. He found that, in the weeks before the 2020 presidential election, the Chicago region was a hot spot…

“I ran the data, and I found out that, demographically, places where these far right incidents were taking place were actually demographically more diverse and actually had slightly higher median household income than the national average,” he said. “That narrative was true that these guys are rising up in the suburbs. They’re feeling like the world is getting more diverse and they’re losing their white power.”

That the front line of right-wing militia activity could be in the suburbs makes sense for several reasons:

  1. Suburbs are split politically with voters closer to big cities leaning Democratic and voters on the edges leaning Republican. The example of Ellis above fits this.
  2. The demographics of many American suburbs have changed in recent decades with more minority, immigrant, and poor residents.
  3. Numerous suburbs have experienced tensions over changes in recent decades. This includes controversies in local government, schools, public activities, and among neighbors.
  4. The majority of Americans live in suburbs.

At the same time, I suspect many suburbanites would be surprised by this. I remember reading a book years ago about Timothy McVeigh and the rural locations in Arkansas and elsewhere of the groups he interacted with. I can imagine the typical news report about something shocking in the suburbs: “We had no idea our neighbor was doing X. This is a quiet community with friendly neighbors. Person Z was a recluse but we did not imagine this.” How would reactions to this news compare to other negative activities? Or, could such group carry out activities in public without receiving pushback?