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.

 

Why suburbanites want to have their own police departments and local governments

Writing about a recent incident of police violence in a Pittsburgh suburb, one writer looking at all of the small police forces in suburbia asks:

It’s not often clear what the rationale is for these small municipalities to have their own city administrations and law enforcement agencies.

And he later says:

If having multiple police departments makes for inefficient and unprofessional work across St. Louis County, imagine what it means for Allegheny County, which has almost twice as many police departments. Micro-department intrusions add up to macro-resentment of police in general.

The argument for efficiency in consolidating local government and police forces may make sense in this particular context. Perhaps a larger-scale police force could better avoid such incidents through training and more familiarity with a broader area.

But, there are two related and powerful reasons that the American urban landscape is broken into so many local governments: Americans like the idea of local control and they like the idea of living in a small town. In a smaller community and with their own officials, Americans think they can exert more influence on local processes and the size of each local agency does not become too large. It is theoretically much easier to meet an official or register a complaint or run for local office if there is a major precipitating issue. This can especially be the case with wealthier suburbs that want to maintain their exclusivity by remaining small.

The only factor that may push suburbs and smaller communities to give up this dream of local control and small town life is difficult financial positions or seeking certain efficiencies. See an example of Maine communities that have dissolved due to a lack of local revenue. Illinois has tried banning the formation of new local taxing bodies while DuPage County has moved to reduce the number of local governments. But, if the resources are there, Americans might prefer these small units of government. (Another argument that could be leveled at all these small governments is that they may be corrupt or inept. Small suburbs can become little fiefdoms with weird rules, as illustrated by Ferguson and other communities in St. Louis County. But, even in those cases it is less clear that the residents of these small suburbs do not like their local governments where it may seem obvious to outsiders that there are problems.)

Also, it is important to note for this story that Pennsylvania is a leader among states regarding the number of local governments. Not every state does it the same way. Similarly, many metropolitan regions in the South and West are much larger in terms of square miles compared to Rust Belt cities that had difficulties annexing any suburbs into city limits after 1900.

Ongoing Illinois debates about abolishing townships

Illinois is known as the state with the most taxing bodies and one way to reduce that figure would be to eliminate townships:

It’s prompted dueling Republican proposals for new state laws, one to make it easier to get rid of townships, the other to require a study to show financial savings before any township unit could be dissolved.

Illinois has 1,428 townships, helping to account for more units of government than any other state. It’s a layer of bureaucracy formed primarily to serve rural communities, but most states do without them…

“The real issue, and the reason property taxes are so high in Illinois, is because we have 7,000 units of government,” said state Rep. David McSweeney, a Barrington Hills Republican who’s sponsoring the bill to make it easier to mount township abolition campaigns in McHenry County. “The only way we’re going to reduce property taxes is to consolidate local governments. Townships are just a start.”…

Townships have three basic functions: maintaining roads that aren’t handled by other units of government, assessing property for real estate taxes, and helping the poor through food banks and emergency aid. Townships also often provide transportation for people with disabilities, as well as programs for senior citizens and youths….

Advocates of townships argue that they provide the most local, responsive service for the lowest price. In addition, several studies have found that expected expense reductions from government consolidation never materialized. A Rutgers University study concluded that “cost savings are not assured,” and that “most consolidations fail.”

Americans tend to prefer lower levels of government that they feel is more responsive to their daily needs. Taking the duties that townships do and pushing them up to a larger and more abstract county or state government can feel like ceding control to officials who do not know local conditions.

The article also makes it sound as if the research findings do not support claims that fewer bodies of local government would lead to cost savings. If that is not guaranteed, could a successful effort to abolish townships provide hope to some that government can be rolled back or reduced to some degree?

All said, efforts in Illinois in recent years to eliminate or consolidate units of government has been slow. The state legislature banned the formation of new government bodies and DuPage County slowly is reducing the number.

Why suburban governments should consider merging

While Lisle, Naperville, Warrenville, and Woodridge appeared to have little interest in merging, the long saga does raise a possibility: should more suburban governments consider merging?

The primary reason not to is that many suburbs and their local officials want to maintain control over what happens in their community and near their homes. Larger communities may make decisions for the good of the larger community that do not necessarily benefit certain members of the community. A smaller government provides closer oversight as the individual votes of residents count more.

A second reason for not merging is that suburbs often see themselves as distinct communities. Even though an outsider might see it all as one amorphous blob of suburbanism, many suburbs have long histories and distinct characters. In this particular case, these suburbs may define themselves partly as not Naperville: we are still a small community with a distinct feel.

On the other side, there may be multiple reasons to merge: financial economies of scale through combining particular city services (for example, having one police department rather than four), increased visibility and status with a larger size (controlling more land as well as having a larger population), broadening a tax base, and some communities may have mutual interests due to similar demographics, locations, or like-minded leaders. Imagine an even larger Naperville that controls a lot of land along major highways (I-88 and I-355), has a diverse tax base (particularly due to a lot of office jobs), thas efficient city services over a broad area, and is clearly the largest suburb of Chicago (Aurora currently holds that distinction). In the long run, is it feasible to keep so many suburban governments going when budgets are ever tighter? Is it worth protecting local control and distinct characters at a higher cost?

The only way I could see suburbs seriously consider merging would involve difficult financial times looming on the horizon. Even then, many suburbs may not want to take on the communities that have a weaker financial standing or a lower status.

Getting established suburbs to build denser housing

A new study suggests higher levels of housing density in older suburbs could provide a lot of affordable housing:

But according to a report released today by urban housing economist Issi Romem of Buildzoom, many urban cores are actually developing and densifying. And lots of housing continues to get built at the suburban periphery. Romem argues that America’s real housing problem—and a big part of the solution to it—lie in closer-in single-family-home neighborhoods that were built up during the great suburban boom of the last century, and that have seen little or no new housing construction since they were initially developed…

The reality is that most of the housing stock and most of the land area of America’s metros is made up of relatively low-density suburban homes. And a great deal of it is essentially choked off from any future growth, locked in by outmoded and exclusionary land-use regulations. The end result is that most growth today takes place through sprawl…

But if America’s dormant suburbs are a big part of its housing and growth problem, they can also be part of the solution. Relaxing zoning rules in these neighborhoods would spread population growth more equitably and sustainably across a metro, relieving the pressure of rising housing prices and gentrification around the urban core, and unsustainable growth at the periphery.

“The dormant suburban sea is so vast that if the taboo on densification there were broken,” Romem writes, “even modest gradual redevelopment—tearing down one single-family home at a time and replacing it with a duplex or a small apartment building—could grow the housing stock immensely.” Many of these suburbs are located relatively close to job centers or along major transit lines. They are the natural place to increase density.

While this may be true, I tried to think of the incentives for suburbs in between cities and the growing metropolitan edges to do this. Here is my quick pro/con list:

Pros:

  1. Population growth is often associated with progress or a higher status. More housing means more people.
  2. New residents could help provide a new energy, particularly if they are higher-income residents who can contribute monies to the community.

Cons:

  1. Changing the existing character of a suburb, particularly for denser housing, is often met with opposition by existing residents.
  2. New residents mean new demands for local services.
  3. Denser housing might mean cheaper housing and this means attracting fewer higher-income residents.
  4. Why should we build denser housing if other communities around us are not doing the same?

Based on my quick lists, I do not think too many individual established suburbs will be jumping on this bandwagon. Even higher-income suburbs that would build higher-end dense housing would face opposition from residents who prefer the exclusivity of single-family homes.

The main thing that could break this logjam would be pressure from above – think the federal or state government – or groups of suburbs making decisions together to build denser housing. Still, these efforts will have to overcome those who will want local governments to stay their own course.

Towns that restrict road access to app users only address the symptoms and not the bigger issue

The decision in a New Jersey suburb to fight back against drivers directed to their streets by apps raises all sorts of questions:

In mid-January, the borough’s police force will close 60 streets to all drivers aside from residents and people employed in the borough during the morning and afternoon rush periods, effectively taking most of the town out of circulation for the popular traffic apps — and for everyone else, for that matter…

But Leonia is not alone. From Medford, Mass. to Fremont, Calif., communities are grappling with the local gridlock caused by well-intentioned traffic apps like Waze, which was purchased by Google in 2013 for $1.15 billion.

Since Waze uses crowd sourcing to update its information, some people — frustrated at the influx of outside traffic — have taken to fabricating reports of traffic accidents in their communities to try to deter the app from sending motorists their way. One suburb of Tel Aviv has even sued Waze, which was developed by an Israeli company….

“It’s a slippery slope,” said Samuel I. Schwartz, the former traffic engineer for New York City known as Gridlock Sam, and the author of the early 1990s book “Shadow Traffic’s New York Shortcuts and Traffic Tips.” “Waze and other services are upsetting the apple cart in a lot of communities. But these are public streets, so where do you draw the line?”

See an earlier post about a Los Angeles neighborhood that raised similar objections.

I can see the reasoning by small communities: the roads are partly or mostly paid for through local tax dollars and thus they should primarily be reserved for the use of locals. These sorts of situations can become big deals in suburbs where residents are often resentful of ways that their local tax monies serve others.

At the same time, this hints at a larger issue: efforts like this by single communities could end up having deleterious effects on the region as a whole. What if every suburb or community employed such tactics? Traffic would only be worse. This then suggests a metropolitan approach is needed to tackle these congestion issues. This might be difficult to do considering how local residents like to hold onto their own monies but drivers across the region might be too mad at that point to care if there are no alternative routes. The best way to tackle this issue may be to lobby for more mass transit and decreased reliance on cars in the New Jersey suburbs.

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.