Patterns in teardowns in Chicago’s inner-ring suburbs

An architecture professor has found some patterns in the teardowns in inner-ring suburbs surrounding Chicago:

Together, the data set Charles studied included 591,101 single-family houses in Cook County suburbs [between 2000 and 2010], and she determined that 4,789 were redeveloped during that 10-year period. That’s less than 1 percent, but that 1 percent was concentrated and not just in the obvious suburbs one might think.

She found that the teardown phenomenon didn’t affect all communities, wasn’t driven just by developers (often a homebuyer was behind the first teardown in a subdivision), and wasn’t confined to tony neighborhoods where the rebuilt homes were expensive McMansions that stretched from one lot line to the other.

In fact, some of the municipalities that saw clusters of teardowns were suburbs with moderately priced houses and families with moderate incomes, and it was those communities that saw the most conspicuous difference in size between the old house and the new one that replaced it. Charles also found that most teardowns occurred in white and non-Hispanic communities, and in areas with highly regarded school districts.

The article continues with the typical arguments for and against teardowns. Her conclusions?

“I’m not entirely convinced this is gentrification,” Charles said. “If you look that the new house is three times as expensive, you’d think the household coming in would have a considerably higher income. By one definition, that’s a form of gentrification. But I’ve heard examples in Norridge of people who grew up in Norridge and wanted to stay there.”

I wonder if this is what is going on: the Chicago suburbs have experienced teardowns for decades but they were much more likely in higher-class suburbs like Elmhurst, Hinsdale, and Naperville. These suburbs had relatively expensive property so only those with a lot of money and who were really interested in the particular status conferred by these suburbs could pursue teardowns. However, now with those with less money or who are looking for “original” neighborhoods have spread out to other suburbs that offer good schools, good deals, and some status. In other words, the locations have become more diffuse as the practice spreads. This won’t necessarily spread to all suburbs – some just don’t have the status or schools or demographics that those with money will want to buy into. Yet, those looking for unique teardown opportunities may continue to seek out new suburbs.

As a suburb, Ferguson is not that unusual

The particular events in Ferguson, Missouri may have been particular but its social context is not that unusual:

Ferguson’s version of the story has several layers. Many of the aviation companies that were once a source of good jobs have shut down or moved away, leaving behind limited employment opportunities, especially for workers without a college degree. The tax base has shriveled, leaving the city dependent on fines and fees — including traffic tickets — for a disproportionate share of its funding. According to the city’s 2014 budget, Ferguson expected to take in $2.7 million in fines and fees in fiscal 2014 — 14 percent of the city’s revenue, up from 8 percent five years earlier.

The recession added to the challenges. Parts of the city were hit hard by the foreclosure crisis; of the 10 Missouri zip codes with the most seriously delinquent mortgages, four are at least partly in Ferguson and three others are in other North County communities. That has turned formerly owner-occupied homes into rentals, often with absentee investors as landlords. The number of Ferguson residents living in poverty has doubled since 2000; its poverty rate, at 24 percent, is one and a half times the national mark.

In all of that, Ferguson is typical of inner-ring suburbs around the country. It isn’t even a particularly extreme example. Ferguson’s schools are struggling, but unlike some surrounding districts, they retain their accreditation. Its foreclosure rate is high by Missouri standards, but is nowhere close to those in Florida, Nevada and Arizona, states that were at the center of the housing crisis. North County has lost much of its manufacturing base, but retains several large employers, including a multinational manufacturer, Emerson Electric Co., and a fast-growing prescription drug provider, Express Scripts.

Ferguson’s experience with poverty is especially typical. St. Louis’s suburbs now have more people living in poverty than St. Louis itself, a pattern repeated across the country. Concentrated poverty of the kind found in southeastern Ferguson is also becoming more common in the suburbs. According to researchers at the Brookings Institution, the number of suburban neighborhoods with poverty rates above 20 percent has more than doubled since 2000.


A familiar story: deindustrialization and a loss of manufacturing jobs, a declining tax base, changing demographics, plenty of suburbanites living in poverty. And a pressing question: what can be done to reverse the fortunes of such communities? These sorts of inner-ring suburbs are not going to be the first choice of many gentrifiers and it can be difficult to switch economic emphases. One possible solution proposed by some is metropolitanization, sharing taxes more across communities in a metropolitan area. However, this requires buy-in from wealthier suburbs who often reject the notion that should provide help to less well-off suburbs.

It will be interesting to return to Ferguson in 5, 10, 20 years to see what has happened. While the shooting of Michael Brown led to a lot of attention, it won’t necessarily alter the course of the community.

Ironic but enjoyable living in cheaper inner-ring suburbs?

James Lileks contrasts the criticism of 1950s suburbia and the current cool cheapness of such communities:

So it’s great when suburbs die! Except they’re not dying. A recent story in my local paper noted how the first-ring suburbs are great bargains for young people, which makes them cool again. So: Twenty-somethings in 1962 with two kids and a house full of Danish Modern furniture with push-button appliances and a Siamese ceramic cat on the mantle: the oppressive falsehood of the postwar American dream. Twenty-somethings with the same house in 2014, the same decor (they’re into mid-century design), and two pugs: the salvation of urban America, because the style section can do a piece that includes the phrases “lovingly restored” and “Josh works as a web designer for a nonprofit.”

Josh may go to the mall, but rest assured he’ll have the proper attitude: Here I am, ironically inhabiting the lifestyle of suburbanites, when I’m really the sort of guy who’s planning a Kickstarter campaign for my artisanal-shaving-cream company. We’re going to use fair-trade sustainable eucalyptus.

But he’ll go to the mall when the pugs are replaced by kids and they need something to do on a dreary February Tuesday, and everyone needs diversion. He’ll find himself in the food court, the tots fighting over a pretzel, the anodyne music leaking from speakers overhead, an Apple Store bag at his feet. Then one of the kids spies the ride that takes a quarter and lets you pretend you’re driving a car.

I have become my father, he thinks, and realizes that’s actually a good thing.

This hints at the gentrification possibilities of inner-ring suburbs: the homes are relatively cheap and the communities were once thriving suburbs, places that have good if not aging housing stocks. Plus, a number of them have more diverse populations as the cheaper housing allows for more lower-class residents as well as more immigrants and minorities. Their proximity to the big city can mean short commutes downtown even as one lives in a suburb.

At the same time, Lileks may just be downplaying the issues facing these inner-ring suburbs. They may have some potential for gentrification but unlike gentrifying urban neighborhoods, they don’t have the broader financial backing of a big city. In other words, their tax bases may not be very strong which limits what kind of local services and programs are possible. Additionally, there may not be the same cool factor in being in a suburb compared to a hip urban neighborhood. The suburb may be more dependent on cars, upping the cost of living there. The community may not have the quality of life amenities – good schools, safer streets – that wealthier suburbs are known for and that might attract wealthier residents.

h/t Instapundit

Fastest-growing American counties are suburban

Joel Kotkin highlights the fastest growing counties large counties in the United States:

Yet an analysis by demographer Wendell Cox of the counties with populations over 100,000 that have gained the most new residents since 2010 tells us something very different: Suburbs and exurbs are making a comeback, something that even the density-obsessed New York Times has been forced to admit. Of the 10 fastest-growing large counties all but two — Orleans Parish, home to the recovering city of New Orleans, and the Texas oil town of Midland— are located in the suburban or exurban fringe of major metropolitan areas.

Fastest Growiing US Counties: 2010-2012
Counties over 100,000 Population
Rank County Equivalent Jurisdiction    Growth
1 Williamson, TX 7.94%
2 Loudon, VA 7.87%
3 Hays, TX 7.56%
4 Orleans, LA 7.39%
5 Fort Bend, TX 7.16%
6 Midland, TX 7.14%
7 Forsyth, GA 7.07%
8 Montgomery, TN 7.04%
9 Prince William, VA 7.04%
10 Osceola, FL 6.97%

What these findings demonstrate is that more people aren’t moving “back to the city” but further out. In the last decade in the 51 largest U.S. metropolitan areas, inner cores, within two miles of downtown, gained some 206,000 people,  while locations 20 miles out gained over 8.5 million. Although the recession slowed exurban growth, since 2011, notes Jed Kolko at Trulia, suburbs have continued to grow far faster than inner ring areas as well as downtown. Americans, he concludes, “still love their suburbs.”

Rather than an inevitable long-range shift, the post-crash slowdown of suburban growth seems to have been largely a response to economic factors. The retro-urbanist dream of eliminating, or at least undermining, suburban alternatives depends very much on maintaining recessionary conditions that discourage relocation, depress housing starts, as well as lowering marriage and birthrates.

Where incomes are growing along with rapid job growth , suburban and exurban growth tends to be strong.  The metro regions that contain our fastest-growing counties — Austin, Houston, Nashville and Northern Virginia — all epitomize this phenomenon. For example, nearly 80% of all housing growth in greater Houston takes place in the areas west of Beltway 8 (the outer beltway). A similar pattern can be seen in the D.C. area, where the number of units permitted in Loudon has more than doubled since 2007. In 2012 permit issuances were the highest since 2005, and the vast majority were for either detached or attached single-family houses.

Kotkin’s conclusion is that the economic crisis slowed suburban growth for a few years, not a growing American move to cities and denser suburban areas. Some of this can’t be known until more time goes by; if Kotkin is right, recent years will be a blip and the kinds of places that were the fastest growing counties from 2010 to 2012 will continue to be fast-growing places.

There might be another approach that would allow both Kotkin and proponents of cities to both be able to claim some victory: outer suburbs might continue to grow as might attractive big cities (think Richard Florida’s creative class moving to the city) while inner suburbs who often have big-city problems, older housing stocks, and tax bases that have a hard time supporting suburban services languish.

Unpopular revenue stream for Ohio inner-ring suburb: speed cameras

The AP has an interesting profile of how Elmwood Place, a small suburb adjacent to Cincinnati, became quite unpopular for its speed cameras.

Settled by German farmers and laborers who came up from Appalachian Kentucky, Elmwood Place was incorporated in 1890. Like many “inner-ring” American suburbs, it hit its peak many decades ago. Older residents recall bucolic times of moonlit concerts and tire swings hanging from backyard trees.

But outsourcing of blue-collar work made life tougher for many residents, and the village’s incomes and housing values fell well below statewide averages. Housing stock deteriorated to the point where you can buy a two-bedroom fixer-upper for less than $60,000.

When William Peskin joined the police force in 1998, there were nine officers. Now the police chief is the only full-time law enforcement officer left. He said concerns grew after accidents around the elementary school; village officials looked into traffic cameras and became convinced that they were the most practical way to make the village safer.

Cameras at the village limits and in the school zone dramatically curtailed speeding once citations started going out, Peskin said. From 20,000 speeders clocked in a two-week trial period last summer, the number soon dropped to a quarter of that.

Former county prosecutor Mike Allen filed a lawsuit against the town. Among the plaintiffs: the Rev. Chau Pham, who said church attendance dropped by a third after that Sunday when so many congregants — including him — were ticketed; David Downs, owner of St. Bernard Polishing for 25 years, who said long-time customers had vowed to shop elsewhere because they had been ticketed; and a Habitat for Humanity worker who was cited four times.

“Elmwood Place is engaging in nothing more than a high-tech game of three-card monte,” Judge Robert P. Ruehlman wrote March 7 in a colorful opinion that has heartened camera foes across the country. “It is a scam that the motorists can’t win.”

The judge said the village was on pace to assess $2 million in six months (the village’s annual budget is $1.3 million). Maryland-based Optotraffic, owner and operator of the photo enforcement system in return for 40 percent of revenue, had already reaped $500,000 in about four months.

While the larger article is more about the legality and popularity of speed cameras (and they seem to be quite reviled, even in light of arguments about safety), it hints at a larger issue: how can inner-ring suburbs raise enough revenue to keep their communities and local services going? We have hints elsewhere in the article that Elmwood Place is struggling. It has a limited population, the tickets stretch the budgets of residents who already don’t have much money, and the police force has dwindled. So, if we take safety and irritation over getting tickets out of the equation, what realistically can be done in this community? Outside of some unlikely large developer suddenly taking an interest, here are a few possible options: annexation into Cincinnati (which is rare these days – suburbs started resisting big city annexation starting in the late 1800s in the Northeast and Midwest) or outsourcing a number of key services (a few California communities have pursued this – see here and here – while some Chicago suburbs have turned over policing to county sheriffs).

More broadly, a number of American inner-ring suburbs face the issue of how to raise revenues in declining or struggling communities to provide basic services. This has led some to argue that we need more metropolitan revenue sharing so struggling suburbs or neighborhoods could benefit from wealthier regional municipalities.

The rise of the “mega-Loop” in downtown Chicago

Crain’s Chicago Business discusses the activity taking place in Chicago’s Loop and the surrounding area, an area it now calls the “mega-Loop”:

This is the new economic engine of the metropolitan area and, increasingly, the rest of Illinois. And it has reached a critical mass, data suggest, enabling its growth to be self-perpetuating, as more jobs downtown attract more residents to move nearby, which, in turn, becomes a magnet for more employers to join the inward migration.

The Chicago Loop long has been one of the world’s greatest job centers, of course. For much of its history, though, downtown emptied out after office hours. And as the city aged and its population declined, the suburbs rose to become the preferred home to generations of young families and the tollways became employment corridors of their own.

In recent years, those trends have reversed. After decades of watching the suburbs boom (often at the city’s expense), Chicago now is outperforming the surrounding area by almost any measure—jobs, income, retail sales and residential property values, to name a few—despite the loss of 200,000 people in the 2010 census.

The city is so hot that this expanded downtown is adding residents faster than any other urban core in America, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

“In the year 2020, no matter how many condos are built or sold, Chicago is likely to be a nest of center-city affluence unequaled in size—or even approached—by anyplace in America,” journalist Alan Ehrenhalt writes in “The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City.”…

There’s no question, however, that the mega-Loop is benefiting from a back-to-the-city movement that is reviving urban centers elsewhere in the U.S. In Chicago, the trend appears to be sustainable. “This is a pattern that has developed for the last 30 years, and it has only strengthened,” says Columbia University sociologist Saskia Sassen, author of “The Global City.”

These are some big claims and it will take some years to see how the longer trend plays out. As the article notes, there are a lot of factors at work including a global economy, a variety of serious social issues in Chicago, and growth patterns in the Chicago region where the outer collar counties are gaining population.

If the glitzy downtowns continue to grow as do the more exurban areas, perhaps it is the closer suburbs that are left out. These suburbs were likely founded between the mid 1850s and 1960s and are long past the era of rapid suburban growth. While researchers have noted troubling trends among inner-ring suburbs, communities adjacent to big cities, this might extend further out as growth is centered on the downtown and at the fringes.

Austerity in the suburbs: turning off and ripping out the lights in Highland Park, Michigan

As many suburbs face budget shortfalls, some have instituted new measures. While California communities drew attention last year for contracting out services previously provided by the city, the Detroit suburb of Highland Park is trying another option: turning off and ripping out the street lights.

But when the debt-ridden community could no longer afford its monthly electric bill, elected officials not only turned off 1,000 streetlights. They had them ripped out — bulbs, poles and all. Now nightfall cloaks most neighborhoods in inky darkness…

Highland Park’s decision is one of the nation’s most extreme austerity measures, even among the scores of communities that can no longer afford to provide basic services.

Other towns have postponed roadwork, cut back on trash collection and closed libraries, for example. But to people left in the dark night after night, removing streetlights seems more drastic. And unlike many other cutbacks that can easily be reversed, this one appears to be permanent…

The city’s monthly electric bill has been cut by 80 percent. The amount owed DTE Energy goes back about a decade, but utility executives hesitated to turn off the juice…

Most of the 500 streetlights still shining in Highland Park are along major streets and on corners in residential areas. DTE Energy has listed the city’s overdue bill as an uncollectable expense.

It would be interesting to hear what else the community has had to do or has considered in order to lessen the $58 million budget deficit.

While it is certainly a shock to have street lights torn out, I wonder how much of an effect this will actually have. It sounds like lights have been retained at certain places for traffic safety. I vaguely recall reading a piece at The Infrastructurist that suggested street lights on residential streets are there more for nervous residents than actually for reducing crime or improving traffic safety.

The description of Highland Park, losing more than half of its population between 1980 and 2010 plus a 42% poverty rate, suggests that this is an inner-ring suburb. While Detroit is notorious for struggling, many inner-ring suburbs are facing similar issues: once prosperous, the issues facing big cities have moved beyond their boundaries. These suburbs often have limited tax revenues and increasingly poor residents. How can they compete with the big city (if it happens to be at least somewhat thriving) or suburbs further out that have more modern amenities and wealthier populations? This is why people like Myron Orfield suggest that we need more metropolitan revenue sharing in order to help these communities survive and have hope for turning their fortunes around.

Of the suburbs that have had to turn to more drastic measures to close budget shortfalls, how many of them are inner-ring suburbs? Do these places share other characteristics? I would assume many wealthier suburban communities haven’t had to consider such options yet.

Comparing inner vs. outer suburban growth

There are numerous types of suburbs (I think I now have at least 13 different types in one of my lectures in American Suburbanization) but one broad comparison includes looking at suburbs adjacent to cities (“inner-ring suburbs”) vs. suburbs on the metropolitan fringe (often referred to as “exurbs”). USA Today reports on some of the population trends in these two areas:

A new pattern is emerging this century. Most of the growth is happening on opposite ends of the suburban expanse: in older communities closest to the city and in the newer ones that are the farthest out.

“A few decades ago, all the growth was on the edge,” says Robert Lang, an urban sociologist at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas who analyzed 2010 Census data. “Now, there are citylike suburbs doing well on one side of the metropolis while conventional suburbs still flourish on the fringe.”

Close-in suburbs in the 50 largest metropolitan areas added 6 million people from 2000 to 2010, an 11.3% increase. The nation grew 9.7% in the same period.

At the same time, less populated suburbs on the outer edge grew even faster. They gained 6.7 million, a 24.5% increase.

DuPage County, Illinois is cited in this story as an example of suburban areas that are between these two extremes. Such “mature suburbs” had lower rates of growth as they “add[ed] 3.5 million people, a 7.8% increase” over the previous decade.

I like this emphasis on looking at the different rates of suburban growth depending on proximity to the city. There are a couple of stories that one could tell:

1. The suburban population is growing. I still am eager to hear the final 2010 figures that tell us what percentage of Americans live in suburbs compared to urban and rural areas.

2. The fastest-growing suburbs are on the metropolitan fringe. This is what might be considered typical suburban growth and/or “sprawl” as metropolitan regions continue to expand. It would be helpful to know how this 24.5% population increase over the last decade compares to previous decades.

3. Inner-ring suburbs are also growing quicker than the national growth rate. This may support recent findings that people want denser neighborhoods. It would be interesting to see how much of this growth is due to city dwellers moving just across municipal boundaries (for example, did those 200,000 people who left Chicago move to Oak Park or to Joliet?) or whether this population growth is from people from other areas, such as outer-ring suburbs, moving closer to the city.

4. So where does this leave mature suburbs? They are caught in the middle as they don’t have the open land for sprawl development but also are unlikely to have the denser or taller development of inner-ring suburbs. Most projects will either have to be small in-fill projects or bigger redevelopment projects. It will be interesting to see how these suburbs adapt: they were once outer-ring suburbs but will now have to make decisions about what direction to go.

h/t The Infrastructurist

Sugrue: “It’s not clear that this new [black] migration [to the suburbs] is a positive step”

Recent figures suggest more minorities are moving to the suburbs (see here and here). But looking at evidence from Detroit (see a related story here), historian Thomas Sugrue suggests blacks moving to the suburbs may encounter a lot of the same issues they faced in the city:

So far, Detroit’s black suburbanization has followed a well-trodden path. Those blacks heading outward from Detroit aren’t moving to all suburbs equally. Rather, they move into places with older houses, rundown shopping districts and declining tax revenues. Such towns also typically have poorer services and fewer job opportunities than wealthier suburbs — where, despite strong antidiscrimination laws, it is still harder for blacks to find housing.

It’s not clear that this new migration is a positive step, even if it allows blacks to escape the city and its troubles. For whites, suburbs have often been a big step up — but as long as most blacks find themselves in secondhand suburbia, the American dream of security, prosperity and opportunity will remain harder to achieve.

This term “secondhand suburbia” is an interesting one. Perhaps this term lines up with the concept of “inner-ring suburbs.” A number of commentators, notably Myron Orfield (in texts like American Metropolitics), have discussed how inner-ring suburbs, those closest to the big city, have many of the same issues of the city: large and growing minority populations, declining white populations, limited tax bases, crowded conditions and an older housing stock, crime, and more. Sugrue’s phrase, however, seems to emphasize the racial transition these suburbs, probably classifiable as “inner-ring suburbs,” are experiencing as he describes how these “second-hand” places are changing over from white to black. The implication is that these places are hand-me-downs: the whites used them up and are now using their wealth to move further from the city.

In the long run, if these suburbs don’t offer suburban opportunities but simply reproduce problems like residential segregation, has anything been gained?

Charlotte columnist suggests suburbs will face four problems

American suburbs contain the majority of United States residents (and this figure is likely to grow in the latest 2010 Census figures). And yet, there are a lot of questions about what the future of suburbs will be. A columnist/editor in Charlotte suggests suburbs will face four problems in the near future:

Demographics. Population trends favor urban-style, multifamily development. Gen Y’ers have a clear preference, at least for now, for urban living. Meantime, aging boomers will be selling houses and moving to condos or apartments. As illness and infirmity hit, many will have to give up driving. They’ll want walkable neighborhoods.

With the foreclosure crisis, the single-family home market will be sluggish for years. The nation is overbuilt on large-lot suburbia, and underbuilt in cities. The Urban Land Institute’s “Emerging Trends in Real Estate 2011” has this advice to investors: “Avoid commodity, half-finished subdivisions in the suburban outer edge and McMansions; they are so yesterday.”

Fuel prices. Remember when $4-a-gallon gas walloped the economy in 2008? Now, gas prices are over $3 again. Gas prices are likely to keep rising, and already, transportation is the No. 2 cost for average U.S. households. With pay and jobs sinking, more people are likely to want to live where they can drive less.

Carbon footprint. If we’re to avoid creating even more destructive changes in the world’s climate (more droughts, floods, blizzards or heat waves) for our children and grandchildren to live with, more of us will need to live in tight-knit, walkable cities. It turns out city dwellers have a much smaller carbon footprint.

Suburbs on the brink. Although some first-ring suburbs are thriving, others aren’t. Many suburban neighborhoods are seeing rising poverty and crime, dead or dying malls and derelict strip centers and big-box stores. We can’t just abandon them to blight.

These are all possible issues. Some thoughts about each concern:

1. We will have to see what Generation Y and the aging Baby Boomers want in the long term. Will they want to move back to cities or will they be okay with denser suburban development?

2. Fuel prices are up and American driving is down. What happens if most people can access electric cars within 10 years?

3. Carbon footprints – are people convinced that they should change their personal, residential choices based on this evidence? Do Generation Y members choose to live in cities for this reason or for other reasons such as proximity to entertainment and culture.

4. Inner-ring suburbs are experiencing many of the issues that we once thought were limited to cities. Interestingly, a number of these issues are spreading beyond the inner-ring.

The columnist suggests we need to fight the suburban blight, marked by “separate municipalities outside a city, regardless of age or form…development with a specific pattern, typically built after 1945: single-use zones (stores separated from offices and housing, single-family houses apart from apartments); lots a quarter-acre or more; car dependent.”

There are several other issues that many suburban communities face:

5. Budget crunches with the economic crisis leading to a downturn in housing growth. Not much money is coming in and this will lead to cuts in services and amenities.

6. More suburbs reaching build-out and facing questions about whether denser development can fit within a community dominated by single-family homes.

6a. Will American suburbanites want denser development that may threaten their property values?

7. Increasing minority and immigrant populations that challenge the white majority that has dominate American suburban life. Stories like that of a controversy over a proposed mosque in DuPage County could become more common.

8. Of course, lots of empty houses or homes with reduced values (here or here). This limits people’s ability to move, the ability of communities to collect money, and builders and lenders to make money.