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?

Where are the heights, mounts, hills, and ridges referenced in the names of Chicago suburbs?

WBEZs’s Curious City looks into the elevation implied by the name of multiple Chicago suburbs:

Mount Hoy offers views of Chicago thirty miles to the east.

For real: Highland Park, Park Ridge, Arlington Heights, Mount Prospect, Prospect Heights, Palos Heights, Chicago Heights, Ford Heights, Barrington Hills, Palos Hills, Rolling Meadows.

And before you say: “But wait! There is some elevation out in the ‘burbs!” Let’s make something clear: You’re not wrong. Chicago’s Loop is at about 570 feet above sea level, and the high point of Cook County is near Barrington Hills at 950 feet. That height difference is just under 400 feet, and that’s spread over 40 miles. If we were talking about any other state in the country (besides Florida) you’d barely notice the difference. In other words, in Illinois, the default standards are low for what’s considered high…

Chicago suburbs end up with names that imply elevation in these two ways: crowd-sourced rebranding and straight-up marketing…

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.

Real estate development is a powerful driver. How could developers and communities differentiate themselves from the hundreds of other suburbs in the Chicago region? Pick an idyllic name and hopefully the moniker plus the new development brings in people and businesses. The image of a mountain or hill would be an attractive one; they are both pleasant to look at and offer vistas from the top.

While none of the communities near me are named after a higher elevation, this story did remind me of the highest height around (see the picture above): a small hill made out of a landfill. Because the area is so flat, on a clear day you can see the tallest buildings in downtown Chicago thirty miles to the east. All this from an artificial 150 foot hill:

Starting in 1965 trash collection agencies and community members were invited to drop off junk and other discarded garbage items. At the end of each day county workers spread the clay, which they had excavated, onto the growing pile of garbage named Mount Hoy after the pioneering family.

Mount Hoy quickly earned its nickname of Mount Trashmore. As the Chicago Tribune article in 1973 announcing the competition of the project read, the hope was to create a popular ski destination by literally “turning garbage to ski slopes.” Although the idea seems a bit farfetched, the City of Evanston was undertaking a similar project and many were trying to convince the City of Chicago to do the same thing.

Overall three millions cubic yards of garbage and clay went into Mount Hoy, becoming a 150 foot hill. By 1974 Mount Trashmore was supposed to host four ski slopes, a snow machine and a chair lift along with two toboggan slides, however a less elaborate setup welcomed skiers and tubers to the area.     

Ignore the venting for the gasses in the landfill and it is almost like a real hill…if we know what those are in northeastern Illinois.

Trying to add round-the-clock, year-round activity at a suburban football stadium

If the Chicago Bears are to move to the suburbs, the change would not just include a stadium: the land all around would be valuable and needed to generate the kind of revenues the team and community would hope for:

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SoFi Stadium was built on the former site of Hollywood Park racetrack, presenting a solid comparison to Arlington Park. According to Noll, the reason SoFi Stadium is in position to be financially successful is the mixed-use development also being built on the property.

Noll believes a stand-alone stadium is no longer a realistic option for NFL franchises because a $5 billion stadium can’t be financed by eight football games a year and the random big-name concert. Year-round revenue must be part of the package…

Glendale city officials, for example, added residential neighborhoods to the area so the entertainment establishments would be frequented at night and on weekends when no game is in town. They added office space so workers would patronize the restaurants in the daytime and not take up parking at night.

“If you’re not able to capture benefit in a meaningful way outside of the football games, it’ll be an expensive proposition,” Phelps said. “We’re seeing tremendous growth in and around the stadium, kind of creating this sports and entertainment hub. I think that’s the future where these kinds of venues are going.”

Creating this sort of suburban entertainment center is a dream of many larger suburbs. Not only would this boost the status of the community, it would add jobs and tax revenues. Metropolitan areas only have so many stadiums and major revenue generators and this could be viewed as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity (or gamble).

But, this would also be a major change. The article noted that this site in Arlington Heights is surrounded by residences; would a mixed-use area of denser housing, restaurants, and entertainment venues be welcomed? Can Arlington Heights go full[speed into such a project?

As the article notes, it could turn out poorly. There is a lot of money at play. Getting any taxpayer dollars involved could be a risk. It all could take time to develop fully into a true center for suburban football as opposed to a football stadium stuck in the middle of single-family homes near highways.

Given all the history of the Bears in the city, I would be more than 50% confident that they stay in Chicago. The allure of a new, large stadium that could serve other uses much of the years is incredibly appealing. There is money to be made in the suburbs. But, it would certainly be a change for all involved, including Chicago leaders who would have much to answer for if the Bears become the Chicagoland Bears.

Turnout for local Chicago area elections low again: under 20% in counties

Americans have regular opportunities to vote in local elections and Chicago area voters did not turn out in large numbers in this week’s election:

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At the county level, voter turnout mostly hovered in the low to midteens, typical for many counties in consolidated elections. On the lower end, McHenry County reported a voter turnout of 9.5%, and Kankakee County topped voter turnouts across the counties at 18.6%. The pandemic didn’t have a significant effect on voter turnout, according to county clerks’ offices, with sufficient alternative options for people to vote early or by mail instead of in person.

In Cook, DuPage and Lake counties, turnout was 14.7%, 15.6% and 13.7%, respectively.

In Will County, southwest of Chicago, 15.8% of voters cast a ballot Tuesday. That’s nearly 3 percentage points higher than the previous consolidated election in 2019, which had a voter turnout of 13.2%, said Charles Pelkie, chief of staff for the Will County clerk’s office…

Finding information on local candidates presents a challenge for voters, Pelkie said, confined mostly to mailed flyers and local radio or television ads. In general elections, Will County voter turnout can reach about 80%, Pelkie said, but local races don’t “inspire” voters in the same way as presidential or gubernatorial races.

I think this explanation is correct in that residents have to do a lot of work to find out about all the candidates and races. See my post on this yesterday.

But, there are other factors at work as well. As noted in the article, national races drive up turnout. I wonder if national politics has now completely overshadowed local and state politics through the last few presidential cycles. Americans often say they like local government but many eyes are now only turned to Washington.

Big issues in communities can drive up turnout. County level data can obscure higher levels of turnout for intriguing races. Yet, even interesting or important local issues might be drowned out by larger politics or the overwhelming number of choices.

A little thought experiment. Imagine a local government unit decided elections are no longer necessary or will not take place as frequently. They could cite the amount of money that is needed to run elections. Lots of energy is expended from both winning and losing candidates. I would guess there would be local protest; how can you have local government without regular elections? Would it prompt people to vote more often in local elections?

Or, could eliminating government bodies or consolidating such bodies in Illinois help? Reduce the number of candidates to choose from. Limit the number of taxing bodies that local funds go to. Focus some of the positions on broader issues rather than details of particular institutions. Again, this could be viewed as being anti-democratic but the current system does not seem to interest many voters.

Chicago slowly losing population and a few suburban counties barely gaining people

The population of Chicago has declined slightly in recent years. New figures suggest that the population in four surrounding counties have increased slightly.

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The study showed the Chicago region as a whole was estimated to have lost 4,279 people between 2010 and 2019, a 0.05% decrease. The region, with a population of nearly 8.5 million, includes Cook and the five collar counties plus Kendall County.

Over the same time period, DuPage County grew by 2,575 people, or 0.28%. Will County grew by 7,207, or 1.06%, and Kane County grew by 9,502 people, or 1.82%.

Kendall County saw the highest rate of increase of any Illinois county, growing by 6.65%, or 7,860 people…

Growth in Kane, DuPage, Kendall and Will is likely tied to people already in the region moving farther into the suburbs, he said, and to better job growth in the Chicago area than elsewhere in the state.

If one was just reading headlines, this sounds like a big contrast: Chicago is losing residents and suburban counties are gaining them.

The actual estimates present a more complicated story about recent years. Chicago has barely lost any residents. The suburban counties have barely gained any residents. The region as a whole is relatively stagnant regarding population. The state of Illinois has lost a lot of residents but not necessarily from the Chicago region.

Even though this is not a story of massive population loss in recent years in the Chicago region, stagnant populations are usually not regarded as positive. For American communities, growth is good. And populations are not stagnant or declining everywhere; people in Illinois and other locations with population issues can see that other parts of the country are booming. In particular, Sunbelt metropolitan areas are growing at rapid rates.

This is not a new position for the Chicago region. For decades, the city and suburbs have considered the effects of a decline in Chicago’s population (and a rebound for a while) and a growing metropolitan region. Yet, other places are growing faster. Chicagoland is not in the same category as some other Rust Belt metropolitan areas but it is not exactly the attractive location that some other places are.

$741 million in tax incentives for Amazon in NE Illinois – with a bigger price tag for economically challenged communities

Amazon has constructed 36 facilities in the Chicago region since 2015. And they got a lot of help from taxpayers in disadvantaged communities:

WBEZ

To help pay for its vast expansion, the company and its developers have won at least $741 million in taxpayer-funded incentives in northeast Illinois alone, according to a Better Government Association/WBEZ investigation…

Amazon collected less than $100 million in public incentives for the 15 warehouses it built in predominantly white communities but won more than $640 million in taxpayer incentives for the 21 projects built in communities with larger nonwhite populations, the examination found. Many of those communities are either mostly Black, mostly Latinx or have higher concentrations of low-income residents, and with municipal budgets already short on cash.

Records show the three largest incentive packages Amazon received — totaling $512 million — all came from predominantly Black suburbs. By contrast, the company built warehouses in at least seven mostly white communities that reported offering no public incentives at all…

While many of the communities may get more jobs, experts interviewed say the lost revenue from taxpayer incentives will strain public resources to rebuild crumbling roads from the truck traffic, mitigate pollution from the exhaust fumes and noise and to pay for other services such as police protection and fire prevention.

That big companies seek out tax breaks and local incentives is not new. Amazon played the game on a grand scale with its proposed second headquarters.

But, this illustrates one of the problems with tax breaks in general: it is a race to the bottom. Companies look for communities that will have a hard time saying no. What mayor or local official wants to turn down local jobs? Or, turn away a big company with the status like Amazon? Once they have such a company in town, communities often build on this when marketing land and facilities to other firms by saying they are home to Amazon.

Yet, the deal may not be a good one. Jobs are not the only factor that matters in a community. As the story above notes, traffic, pollution, noise, the strain on local budgets and services, and the quality of the jobs also matter. Does the addition of Amazon or another large company make the community as a whole better down the road?

The system could be improved in multiple ways. All the communities in a region could stop competing in this way; that Amazon locates within one municipality could also have spillover benefits for other communities. One community’s gain is not necessarily one community’s loss; the region operates as a whole. If revenue was shared across a region, then tax breaks in a particular community would matter less. Or, communities could just commit not to offer tax breaks at all. If companies cannot play the game, they would have to locate places for other reasons.

These possible solutions do not solve the underlying issues: jobs and capital in a metropolitan region are not evenly distributed. Patterns by race and class continue for decades as companies, residents, and other seek out particular locations and not others. That some communities have to pay more for Amazon to locate there just compounds the problem.