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?

10 South Canal Street in Chicago contains a building part of NSA Internet surveillance

The Intercept claims to have identified 8 major U.S. cities that have a building where the NSA spies on telecommunications through AT&T facilities. Here is the photo from the story of 10 South Canal Street in Chicago as well some of the background of the building:

https://theintercept.com/2018/06/25/att-internet-nsa-spy-hubs/

10 South Canal Street, Chicago, IL

 

Like many other major telecommunications hubs built during the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Chicago AT&T building was designed amid the Cold War to withstand a nuclear attack. The 538-foot skyscraper, located in the West Loop Gate area of the city, was completed in 1971. There are windows at both the top and bottom of the vast concrete structure, but 18 of its 28 floors are windowless…

 

10 South Canal Street originally contained a million-gallon oil tank, turbine generators, and a water well, so that it could continue to function for more than two weeks without electricity or water from the city, according to Illinois broadcaster WBEZ. The building is “anchored in bedrock, which helps support the weight of the equipment inside, and gives it extra resistance to bomb blasts or earthquakes,” WBEZ reported.

Today, the facility contains six large V-16 yellow Caterpillar generators that can provide backup electricity in the event of a power failure, according to the Chicago Sun Times. Inside the skyscraper, AT&T stores some 200,000 gallons of diesel fuel, enough to run the generators for 40 days.

NSA and AT&T maps point to the Chicago facility as being one of the “peering” hubs, which process internet traffic as part of the NSA surveillance program code-named FAIRVIEW. Philip Long, who was employed by AT&T for more than two decades as a technician servicing its networks, confirmed that the Chicago site was one of eight primary AT&T “Service Node Routing Complexes,” or SNRCs, in the U.S. NSA documents explicitly describe tapping into flows of data at all eight of these sites.

It is common that cities have buildings that may be hiding something, ranging from telecommunication structures to power substations to fake facades to hide subways or rail lines. But, I assume very few people would guess that a rather normal looking city structure could be part of an Internet surveillance program. I’m not sure what people would do with this knowledge. Protest outside? Give it a wide berth by not traveling near it? Chalk it up as a local oddity and then move on with normal life?

True for Chicago and elsewhere: “cities don’t just crop up in random places”

At Instapundit, Gail Heriot explains how Chicago came to be:

FATHER JACQUES MARQUETTE AND LOUIS JOLLIET: On this day in 1673, a 35-year-old Jesuit priest and a 27-year-old fur trader began their exploration of Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River, leaving from St. Ignace at the north end of Lake Michigan. From there, they went up the Fox River and then overland (carrying their canoes) to the Wisconsin River, which took them to the Mississippi River. Out of fear of running into the Spanish, they turned back at the Arkansas River. By then, they had confirmed that the Mississippi does indeed run to the Gulf of Mexico.

The route back was different. And this becomes important to the history of the country and especially of the City of Chicago: Friendly Native Americans told them that if they go up the Illinois River and the Des Plaines, rather than the Wisconsin, it would make the trip easier. That’s because the portage distance from the Mississippi watershed and the Great Lakes watershed was shortest there. The Chicago River, which dumped into Lake Michigan was only a short distance away.

If you’ve ever wondered why Chicago grew into a major city so quickly, this is why: Location, location, location.  In the modern world it’s easy to miss how much topographical issues like that mattered (and in different ways continue to matter).  But cities don’t just crop up in random places.

The locations of major population centers may seem fairly obvious now: a large population has been there for a long time and the city by its own large inertia continues to draw more people. This may be particularly true for cities outside of North America where there may be centuries or millennia of accumulated settlement.

Yet, looking at the founding of major cities in the United States often shows that there are located at places that provided major transportation advantages for people of that time. Even though this might be less obvious now since we do not think much about sea travel and shipping, a number of major coastal cities have protected ports. Inland, many cities are located on key bodies of water, primarily rivers. Even more recently, communities developed around railroad junctions and highway intersections where a lot of traffic converged.
Perhaps in a “perfect world,” major cities would be spread out at fairly even intervals. But, development does not typically work this way: it often follows earlier transportation links or patterns of development.

The ongoing stark inequality of Chicago and other major cities

Alana Semuels discusses the inequality present in the global city of Chicago but it reminds me that (1)  sociologists have studied this for roughly 100 years even (2) as conditions have both changed and stayed the same.

The contrast between a seemingly prospering city and groups and individuals who cannot access this prosperity is an old theme in the Chicago School of urban sociology. In The Gold Coast and the Slum, Zorbaugh explains how some of the wealthiest and poorest Chicagoans can live in such proximity. Two neighborhoods that are geographically close are worlds apart socially. This is little different from descriptions of industrializing cities in England in the mid-1800s (which helped prompt the work of Marx and Engels) or examining today’s megacities in developing nations where a wealthy core is surrounded by slums and shantytowns.

The reasons for this disparity are both similar and different. Semuels sums up the two major issues:

Why are large swaths of Chicago’s population unable to get ahead? There are two main reasons. The first and most obvious is the legacy of segregation that has made it difficult for poor black families to gain access to the economic activity in other parts of the city. This segregation has meant that African Americans live near worse educational opportunities and fewer jobs than other people in Chicago. City leaders in Chicago have exacerbated this segregation over the years, according to Diamond, channeling money downtown and away from the poor neighborhoods. “Public policies played a huge role in reinforcing the walls around the ghetto,” he told me.

The second factor is the disappearance of industrial jobs in factories, steel plants, and logistics companies. Half a century ago, people with little education could find good jobs in the behemoths that dotted Chicago’s south and west sides. Now, most of those factories have moved overseas or to the suburbs, and there are fewer employment opportunities here for people without much education. Chicago underscores that it’s not just white, rural Americans who have been hard hit by the disappearance of manufacturing jobs.

The segregation of one hundred years ago is still with us, even if it has changed form (from overt discrimination to more covert means). The business district of Chicago was a thriving place 100 years ago as many of the poorer and less white neighborhoods languished. The job front has changed; yet, it is not as if the manufacturing jobs that started appearing in cities with the Industrial Revolution were all that helpful for the lower classes at the time (again think of Marx and Engels).

On the whole, it is helpful to regularly remind people of the complexities of cities. Cities should not be viewed solely as their impressive skylines or booming economies. Even the leading cities of the world are home to many less advantaged residents. Whether the gaps in cities themselves could go a long ways toward determining whether broader social inequalities can be successfully addressed.

Chicago’s road construction in the long term

Curbed Chicago provides an update on the city’s work to resurface streets:

[T]he city rolls out plans to resurface 135 miles of streets, according to an announcement from the mayor’s office.

The work is expected to begin mid-April when the asphalt plants open for the 2018 construction season. The Chicago Department of Transportation and the Department of Water Management are leading the project and plan to resurface at least 275 miles by the end of the year.

Since 2011, more than 1,850 miles of streets and alleyways have been resurfaced (that’s out of the city’s 4,600 miles of roadways).

If these numbers are roughly consistent on a yearly basis, it would take 17 years to resurface everything. On the city’s page for Streets, Alleys, and Sidewalks, there is no description of how long an overall cycle might take. But, there might be some mitigating factors affecting which roadways are addressed: particularly bad pothole seasons that cause damage and draw attention and roads that are used much more than others.

And while residents may not be fond of all of this construction, roadways are a constant work in progress. Given the American emphasis on driving, they get a lot of use for commuting, trips within the community, and delivering goods and services. Poor roads do not look good for the local government and could impede activity. Residents can get unhappy pretty quickly if they feel their tax dollars are not leading to good roadways. Yet, if people truly do not want construction, they should really consider driving less and helping to create places with less driving so that the roads last longer.

Construction, ride-sharing doom Chicago parking lots

Parking lots are disappearing in Chicago:

Big increases in condominium sale prices and apartment rents have pushed up the value of well-located land, Lev said. At the same time, revenue has decreased as much as 30 percent in some parking lots his firm owns. “Many downtown garages are not doing the kind of business they used to, which is indicative of ride-sharing and not as many people owning cars,” Lev said.

The lowly surface lot will play a role in reshaping Chicago’s skyline, with plans for two of the city’s tallest buildings in the works on parcels now used for parking…

U.S. parking needs will be cut in half during the next three decades, the Newport Beach, Calif.-based real estate research firm projects. Widespread adoption of ride-hailing and self-driving cars will eliminate the need for swaths of parking spaces — enough that the square footage of the unneeded spaces will be more than the cumulative size of every currently existing apartment, office, shopping mall, retail strip center and warehouse property in the U.S., according to the Green Street report.

Dwindling car ownership could have a major impact on land use and urban planning in the coming decades. It’s already affecting the way new towers are designed. Towers built over parking lots often include spaces within the new structure.

Americans may like driving and owning cars but a decrease in the number of vehicles could influence many areas of American life. Parking lots may just be one domino in a chain of cultural phenomena that will slowly fall if driving patterns change significantly.

Or, perhaps this change in parking could be seen as a necessary correction to having too much parking supply in the past. Some have argued American parking has been too cheap for too long as it encourages driving. This reminds me of two past phenomena. First, communities had battles over free parking and parking meters as customers came to expect plentiful free parking at shopping malls. Second, you can find plenty of images of Chicago in the mid-twentieth century where parking is prominently displayed even as the city was booming. For example, Grant Park was an important area for parking (and still is – it is just better hidden underground).

Additionally, holding on to urban parking lots could be a lucrative investment strategy. In the short run, an owner and/or operator could collect parking fees. In the long run, they could wait until the price of land increased dramatically and then convert a humble parking lot or structure into an expensive development. These urban surface parking lots are rarely meant to be there forever.