Proposing rent control for Chicago and Illinois

Political efforts will put the idea of rent control in front of some Chicago voters in the coming months:

Real and tangible, indeed, for the Lift the Ban coalition, a bloc of community groups that has been leading a two-year campaign against Illinois’ ban on rent control. The group is pushing for a repeal of the state’s 1997 Rent Control Preemption Act, a law that prohibits municipalities from enacting any form of regulation on residential or commercial rent prices.

“Because of the preemption act, it’s essentially illegal for any municipality to explore the idea of regulation,” said Jawanza Malone, Lift the Ban leader and executive director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization. “It just doesn’t make sense. The food we eat is regulated; there are environmental protections. Why is it that rent isn’t regulated? We’re just advocating for economic well-being for all of our communities.”…

The coalition’s efforts have already resulted in a question about rent regulation slated for the March primary ballot in nine wards and about 100 precincts around Chicago, Malone said. Couple that with state Rep. Will Guzzardi, D-Chicago, introducing a bill to the state House last year repealing the rent control ban and Democratic gubernatorial candidates J.B. Pritzker and Daniel Biss expressing support of a repeal and you have a number of people optimistic about the repeal coming to fruition…

But rent regulation is not a tool that economists and realty professionals want to pull out of the tool kit. In fact, Brian Bernardoni, senior director of government affairs and public policy for the Chicago Association of Realtors, likens it to “throwing a hand grenade on your lawn to get rid of dandelions.”

The issue of affordable housing needs to be addressed in some way in the Chicago region. If there are plenty of people opposed to rent control – and I assume at least a few business leaders will fight against the idea – what alternatives will they propose? At the least, perhaps a public discussion of rent control will push other parties to put some other ideas on the table.

I know the various problems in Illinois are vast but it would be great to hear a business leader or a government official step up soon and say that they had plans to build thousands of affordable housing units. I do not know how this could be done but could this not lead to a significant improvement for residents as well as positive public perception to whoever makes this happen?

New mixed-income development strategy: connect them to libraries

Chicago is pursuing three small mixed-income developments that have a unique feature intended to bring the residents of different social classes together:

At the University Village/Little Italy development, a one-story public library will connect with two four-story mixed-income residential units, according to a news release from Skidmore, Owings and Merrill LLP, the design firm working on the project. It will also include retail and community spaces, and a rooftop will be accessible to residents and visitors of the library.

The housing portion of the development will have 37 Chicago Housing Authority units, 29 affordable housing units and seven market-rate apartments, according to a news release from the city.

Brian Bannon, commissioner and CEO of Chicago Public Library, said at the groundbreaking that the library will offer free tutoring to students, early childhood centers, and study and meeting rooms. The branch will also have digital resources available to residents like a 3-D printer and a recording studio. The entire development is expected to be completed within a year…

“My view is that what we are breaking ground on is community,” Emanuel said. “And a whole new different way of thinking about how do you create space. … We aren’t divided so much as we are disconnected. If we could create a place that people from different walks of lives can come together and share an experience together — we are actually going to create community.”

There are few public institutions that could serve as an anchor like this. The only other options I could imagine include a school or a child care facility or a medical clinic (all scaled to the appropriate size given the number of housing units present). Yet, each of those have a more focused use compared to a library that could be home to many different activities.

At the same time, I’m not sure a library will be a panacea to the difficulties facing mixed-income communities. Just placing residents of different social classes together does not guarantee interaction, even if they have a joint building to use. Perhaps the library will have programs and activities intended to bring the adjacent residents together. Yet, even libraries can provide plenty of spaces and opportunities to not interact.

A man on a mission: correct Chicago area road signs

Steven Bahnsen is determined to change signs on the Dan Ryan Expressway from “22nd Street” to “Cermak Street.” This is not a singular issue for Bahnsen:

A retired Chicago postal worker, Bahnsen has spent years complaining about missing, inaccurate, poorly placed and misleading signs along Illinois roads.

He has written so many letters to government agencies that one exasperated Illinois Department of Transportation manager told staffers that they did not have to respond to him, according to a 2013 email Bahnsen obtained through a public records request…


As Bahnsen notes, 22nd Street was changed to “Cermak Road” by the Chicago City Council in 1933, following the assassination of Mayor Anton Cermak. The shooter had been aiming at President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The road is “Cermak” from 400 East to 4600 West, said Mike Claffey, spokesman for the Chicago Department of Transportation…

In response, IDOT spokeswoman Gianna Urgo said there are two exits from the northbound Dan Ryan to Cermak, and so two names are used. “As to not confuse the motoring public, the labels are different to distinguish between the two exits,” Urgo said in an email. She said that Exit 53C is labeled as I-55 N, Lake Shore Drive and 22nd Street, while exit 53A is labeled as Canalport Avenue and Cermak Road. As for whether it might be less confusing to refer to the roadway as Cermak in both cases, Urgo explained: “Because of the close proximity to each other, having the same exit sign posted in different spots could confuse people more.”

I am sympathetic to the general argument: signs that do not seem to match up streets can be very confusing to visitors. What particular roads and highways are called can be a very local thing. Just listen to a traffic report on the radio and between the speed at which the report is given and the local monikers for roads, it can be difficult to understand.

Bahnsen is not the only concerned resident when looking at street signs; see another case a few years back in Los Angeles where a resident took things into their own hands in correcting signs.


Chicago, northern Illinois not part of Wisconsin in order to help free states

The original northern border of the state of Illinois was the southern tip of Lake Michigan but Nathaniel Pope helped change this:

[T]he shrewd move in 1818 by Nathaniel Pope, the Illinois Territory’s delegate in Congress, to relocate the original proposed boundary from the southern tip of Lake Michigan is regarded as a decisive event in Illinois history…

Pope’s move provided the groundwork for Chicago to become Illinois’ economic juggernaut and literally turned state politics upside-down as the area grew. But it also had the national implication of ensuring Illinois would be a free state at a time of percolating political unrest over slavery…

Congress “wanted to have a water route between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River for shipping supplies and soldiers if needed, since the Ohio River route could become contested,” said Olson, co-author of a new book “Managing Mississippi and Ohio River Landscapes” that includes a chapter on the northern border.

Along with giving Illinois access to Lake Michigan, Pope’s border modification raised the population nearly to the 40,000 required for statehood, Olson said in an article he co-authored for the Journal of Earth Science and Engineering.

This is interesting history given Illinois’ later connection to Abraham Lincoln and fighting slavery as well as the rapid spread of the Republican Party and its abolitionist priorities when the party was first founded in Wisconsin in the 1850s.

It might even be more intriguing to see how Pope and others thought about the southwestern edge of Lake Michigan. This was not the only point by which people and supplies could be transferred between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi. Indeed, it was not until several treaties, including a few after statehood (see the Treaty of Chicago), and the construction of the Illinois and Michigan Canal (begun in the 1830s and completed in the late 1840s) that Chicago became a candidate for explosive growth. (And grow it did and quickly encompassed an entire region including significant portions of Wisconsin – see Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis).

Converting an architecturally-noted Chicago synagogue into apartments

The conversion of religious buildings into residential units is interesting to me (see earlier posts here and here). Here is another example from Chicago: an Uptown synagogue that was on preservation lists will be turned into apartments.

Originally built by architect Henry Dubin of the firm Dubin and Eisenberg in 1922, the former religious structure at 5029 N. Kenmore Avenue features a dramatic stained glass-lined sanctuary plus attached offices, classrooms, a commercial kitchen, and various multi-purpose rooms.

After closing its doors to the public in 2008, the building faced an uncertain future. Despite its inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, water damage, vandalism, and deferred maintenance left much of the structure in poor condition. In 2015, the synagogue earned a spot on Preservation Chicago’s annual list of the city’s most threatened architecturally significant buildings.

Chicago-based developer and adaptive reuse specialist Cedar Street Companies acquired the property last year for $1.25 million…

Branded as simply ‘The Synagogue,’ Cedar Street’s residential conversion is slated to include eight studio apartments, 32 one-bedroom apartments, and a 21-car parking lot.

Saying that you live at “The Synagogue” has a certain ring to it.

It would be interesting to think about if reactions of different kinds of religious buildings differ depending on the religious tradition. Certain religious groups have different conceptions of religious buildings. In other words, some see the religious space as more sacred or fundamental to their practices than others. For example, the academic literature on the white flight of religious groups in the post-World War II era suggests that different groups found it easier or harder to leave their structures. At the same time, I’m guessing that a good number of these reconversions of religious buildings happen a while after the building was used by its primary congregation.

The architecture of stars versus what emerges in cities

Ron Grossman contrasts Chicago’s architectural gems and the more organic ways that neighborhood buildings developed:

The architecture of affluence breeds anonymity.

Nearby sidewalks don’t play on my heartstrings like those in a blue-collar neighborhood. Walking a block in Pilsen is like looking at Chicago history through a kaleidoscope.

Narrow three-story structures are topped with elaborate false fronts and a bit of Baroque ornamentation reminiscent of the Czech homeland of its original owners. A side wall may be painted in the vibrant palette of Orozco or another of the celebrated muralists of the current occupants’ Mexican homeland.

In Bronzeville, construction crews can be seen pulling jury-rigged partitions out of brownstone mansions. Built in the 19th century for the city’s wealthy, they were divided into sleeping rooms for poor blacks during the Great Migration of the 20th century. Now the neighborhood is gentrifying.

In many American cities, the past – written into stone and other materials in the form of buildings – will disappear unless specific preservation efforts are made. And, if the new structure can be a showpiece, something designed by a noted architect or firm and offering an unusual take, so much the better.

Two quick responses in my own mind:

  1. What will future city residents, say a few decades or centuries down the road, think about the construction booms taking place in many wealthier neighborhoods? If those future residents continue to prize progress, perhaps the loss of more original structures won’t matter.
  2. Like many culture industries, trends come and go in architecture. Is a rejection of cold, impersonal modern architecture more about that trend or more about letting individual properties and neighborhoods develop on their own without intervention from starchitects or government leaders? These are two different issues: whether you like the latest trends and whether you think architectural decisions should be made on a small scale and under the control of local residents.

Chicago’s 29 year old white flight reassurance program has paid 5 homeowners

A Chicago program to help protect homeowners on the Northwest side has collected millions of dollars since 1988 and only been used 5 times:

The Northwest Home Equity Assurance Program was enacted via public referendum in 1988 in a bid to prevent white flight in a handful of bungalow belt neighborhoods. A tax-based fund was created to guarantee homeowners within its boundaries they would at least get paid the assessed value of their houses when they sold them.

In the years since, every one of the roughly 48,000 homes within its boundaries has kicked in a few extra dollars each year on its property tax bills to the equity fund. As the Chicago Tribune reported in May, the program has paid just five claims by homeowners who couldn’t sell their houses for the assessed value while amassing $9.57 million in two accounts…

Bucaro, who like other board members receives no salary, cautioned against starting to make home loans. The organization has neither the expertise nor the staff to figure out how much money it’s appropriate to lend people or to assess the risk of such loans…

Bucaro said the Northwest Home Equity Assurance Program has somewhat been a victim of the housing success in the neighborhoods it covers, since most people simply get more than the assessed value of their homes when they sell. Maybe the program has outlived its usefulness as a bulwark against white flight, he said.

I do not know the details of this program but it sounds like the money was simply not necessary. Even as Chicago still feared white flight in the 1980s – and the decades after World War II led to a significant population decrease in the city – the home prices in these neighborhoods did not fall. Even as numerous Chicago neighborhoods changed from white to black after 1950, the Northwest side did not. The neighborhoods in this area are still primarily white (though the Latino population has grown).

One ongoing issue is what will happen to this money but another is when the city of Chicago will officially put an end to a white flight deterrence program.