Buying vacant Chicago lots for $1

Many Rust Belt cities have plenty of empty land and the city of Chicago is selling some of these lots for $1 a piece:

In an effort to combat urban blight and the illegal activity that often follows, the City of Chicago has announced a major expansion of its Large Lots program that offers empty city-owned parcels to nearby homeowners for just $1.

After debuting in Englewood and East Garfield Park in 2014, more than 550 homeowners have so far taken advantage of the program. Now, thanks to its recently expanded scope, Large Lots will extend to 33 Chicago communities on the West and South sides, offering 4,000 empty properties at the extremely discounted rate…

Not just anyone can swoop in and grab real estate for a buck, however. To purchase a lot, buyers must reside on the same block, be current on their property taxes, and be in good financial standing with the city in order to be eligible. Large Lots will be accepting applications on its website through the end of January.

The city tells the Chicago Tribune that all lots in the program are reserved for residential uses such as extended side or back yards, gardens, parking pads, or landscaped green space. In addition to improved neighborhood aesthetics, the Trib also cites a study that found the program yielded a notable drop in nearby littering, drug activity, and prostitution.

Eliminating empty properties is probably a good first step. But, what is the next step? What is the long-term solution to reviving both these properties and neighborhoods?

I will occasionally get questions from students as to why people or businesses don’t see vacant land like this as opportunities. On one hand, the Chicago metropolitan region is in desperate need of affordable housing. On the other hand, these properties are often located in poorer neighborhoods. But, a collection of residents or organizations could really make something interesting out of cheaper properties and the city would benefit from better uses.

When urban non-profits represent residents better than local government

A sociologist suggests the role of non-profit organizations has changed in urban areas:

To Levine, the incident illustrates something he’s been tracking over four years of monitoring the interactions between neighborhood nonprofits, city leaders, and private organizations in Boston. Based on his observations, he argues in the journal American Sociological Review, the role of nonprofits in disadvantaged city neighborhood has been changing. They’re no longer just extensions of the state or representatives of a few interest groups. They’re “legitimate representatives of poor urban neighborhoods,” and in many cases, “supersede” elected officials…

What’s happening now is that these organizations are directly negotiating for resources from public and private sector entities that hold the proverbial purse strings. Community organizations are now authoritative voices at the table, and often regarded by both private companies and bureaucrats as more invested and deeply knowledgable representatives of the neighborhoods. In Boston, “district-based elected officials, by contrast, attended ribbon cuttings and groundbreakings but were largely absent from substantive discussions of redevelopment planning,” Levine writes.

The phenomenon is particular to low-income communities for a reason: These communities have very specific needs for services. But also, these are the places where voices of residents can be easily unheard by politicians. Think about neighborhoods in Detroit left to fend for themselves for basic needs in the city’s worst days. It’s community organizations that are transforming them into livable spaces. In Flint, where residents’ concerns about poisonous water were essentially ignored for the longest time, it’s nonprofits that are stepping in to address the damage done. “There’s a political vacancy in these poor neighborhoods that these organizations can fill.”…

Obviously, this phenomenon has a lot of positives. For one, it’s a “victory for the motivation of the war on poverty,” Levine says. Empowered community organizations present a stronger front against displacement, environmental racism, and transit inequity. They can be more consistent than elected officials, because they don’t suffer from political turnover. But the good stuff only happens if these organizations know what the entire neighborhood actually needs. Sometimes they don’t. And in those cases, it’s not possible to vote them out or hold them accountable. If a nonprofit dissolves, it’s hard to pick up the pieces quickly, because the infrastructure for a new organization has to be rebuilt from scratch.

I’ve recently heard or read several critiques of national and local urban policy in the United States that suggest much of what has been tried has been ineffective. At the same time, this doesn’t necessarily mean that government needs to be completely eliminated from the equation. At times, only a larger government body can access certain resources or leverage certain opportunities. But, this new analysis suggests perhaps the best conduit between government (with the resources) and the people is a non-profit. Perhaps government can’t do everything, particularly in responding to local needs when politicians need to answer both to local voters as well as politicians and leaders above them.

Of course, we want to know whether the role of non-profits leads to better outcomes. National and local governments have been fighting a war on poverty and/or trying to address the issues present in poor urban decades for roughly half a century now.

Miami in front of the Supreme Court arguing for damages due to subprime loans

The Supreme Court just heard a case presented by the city of Miami that they should receive monies from banks because of the subprime loan crisis:

The story begins, Rugh said, in the late 1990s, when banks began marketing high-risk, high-fee home loans to black and Latino borrowers, especially those living in segregated neighborhoods. In a study published in 2015, Rugh and his co-authors examined 3,027 home loans in Baltimore (one of the few cities that has successfully settled a Fair Housing Act lawsuit against a bank) made between 2000 and 2008.When they controlled for basic loan characteristics such as credit score, down payment, and income, they found that black borrowers were channeled into higher-risk, higher-fee loans than were white borrowers with similar credit histories. These findings were compounded for black borrowers living in predominantly black neighborhoods: The study found that relative to comparable white borrowers, the average black borrower in Baltimore paid an estimated $1,739 in excess mortgage payments from the time the loan was made, a figure that was even higher for black borrowers in black neighborhoods…

In an amicus brief filed in support of Miami, a group of housing scholars argued that there is a direct link between the harm to borrowers documented by people such as Rugh and financial losses incurred by cities. Citing more than a decade of economic and sociological research from a variety of sources, Justin Steil, a professor of law and urban planning at MIT and one of the authors of the brief, explained, “the data is well established that foreclosures do lead to decreases in neighboring property values, which then lead to decreases in city revenues. Foreclosures,” he added, “also lead to more expenditures by the city in re-securing those properties, dealing with the vandalism, squatting, fires. And if the neighborhoods don’t recover, it just remains an ongoing problem for those communities to deal with.”

Supporters of the banks in this case say that if anything, leaders of cities like Miami encouraged the influx of credit into their municipalities. “I really think Miami wants to have this both ways,” said Mark Calabria, director of financial regulation studies at the Cato Institute. “If the banks weren’t doing business in Miami, they’d have a problem with that. It’s hard for me to believe that Miami would have been better off if Bank of America and Wells Fargo hadn’t been there.”

There are a lot of interesting aspects of this case, including the question of whether cities were harmed by loans made to individuals. But, there is little question in the sociological and additional social sciences literature: minority borrowers were steered toward loans with worse terms. (And other research suggests these worse terms for minorities extends to other areas including car loans and rental housing.)

Let’s say the court case goes in Miami’s favor and they receive some money. Two questions: (1) what do they do with this money? (2) What responsibility does the city have for not combating these loans in the first place and what are they responsible forward regarding disadvantaged neighborhoods? I hope one of the outcomes of this effort is not that cities can punt on their own policies and solely blame banks.

Redeveloping a few closed Chicago public schools into apartments

While many of the closed school buildings in Chicago are drawing little attention, a few are being redeveloped:

In a blog post on Medium, the Chicago Department of Planning and Development (yes, the DPD apparently blogs now) offered a first look at one of these adaptive reuse projects. They offer some details on how the process works: developers express interest in a property, seek landmarking designation for tax credits and waivers, and then begin the renovation. A suburban developer, Svigos Asset Management, is currently working to renovate the Elizabeth Peabody Public School at 1444 W. Augusta Blvd. and the John Lothrop Motley Public School at 739 N. Ada St. — of which both have addresses the highly coveted West Town area. The group is also working on getting landmark status for the Lyman Trumbull Elementary School in Andersonville for an adaptive reuse project there.

The developer is renovating these schools and turning them into new residential developments. In their post, the DPD reveals photos of the former James Mulligan School being transformed into apartments. To be fair, the Mulligan School has been shuttered for much longer than the schools that were closed a few summers ago. However, the building is nearly ready to go and the DPD indicates that the building’s new owner is gearing up for pre-leasing.

Not too surprising that the ones that are more attractive to developers are ones that are in more desirable locations.

Given the response to the closing of these schools, I’m a little surprised progress has been so slow. Granted, there are other major concerns in Chicago but given the city’s debt and the need for resources in some neighborhoods, these buildings represent an opportunity. Apparently there are plans for some other buildings:

The shuttered schools that have not been sold off still belong to the city and its residents, and some neighborhoods are looking to take these buildings back as community centers, food pantries, or other uses that would serve the surrounding residents.

These could be worthwhile ideas. Is the city determined to hold on to many of these structures rather than find community partners who could do some good? All of this reminds me of some of the fate of the properties where public housing high-rises stood for decades: often located in poorer neighborhoods, this land can sit empty for years. In fact, while Detroit gets a lot of attention for empty lots, Chicago has plenty of open space in certain neighborhoods. Outside of a long-term project of a land bank, what could be done to positively utilize these lots?

Urban segregation leads to bad outcomes – and what if the city is okay with this?

Following recent events in Milwaukee, NYMag summarizes some of the sociological research on urban segregation. As noted, the results of persistent segregation are not good.

However, what if this segregation is desired by the city or by large percentages of residents, whites in particular? The outcomes of segregation may be bad but the alternative might be considered worse: whites would have to live near blacks and share more resources and social spaces. With segregation, the problems are largely confined to certain areas (though there can be widespread fear if bad things happen in whiter and safer areas) and can be explained away by being attributed to particular groups. The segregation can be a self-fulfilling prophecy: there are neighborhoods for different groups because these sorts of things keep happening.

At some point, the negative consequences of segregation may be too much to ignore and stronger action might be taken. One good example is the destruction of public housing high-rises in many cities in order to deconcentrate poverty. City and national leaders perceived that something needed to be done. Yet, less provision was made for helping residents move elsewhere and find better opportunities. A less helpful example might be the uptick in shootings in Chicago: this is widely decried by leaders and the public but will much action be taken to (1) counter segregation and (2) provide more economic opportunities? At the moment, it appears not.

tl;dr: the outcomes of segregation are bad but how much will is there to consider alternatives?

Replicating American style suburbs outside a growing Ugandan city

In the United States, wealthier and whiter residents tended to leave big cities and their problems for the safety of the suburbs. Is the same process underway in Africa?

In many ways, Akright City, 15 miles from the capital city Kampala, feels like the anti-African city, a polo-wearing, golf-playing suburban inversion of the continent’s teeming metropolises. And that is exactly the point. Akright, like other private cities sprouting up across the Africa in recent years, offers a tantalizing answer to the question of how to fix the continent’s creaking colonial cities: Give up. Start Over.

It’s a trend repeated across the continent, from Johannesburg’s Steyn City — a walled town twice the size of Monaco — to Lagos’ Eko Atlantic, a beachfront cluster of skyscrapers and condos that bills itself as Africa’s Dubai. Private cities are not unique to Africa, but they have special significance on a continent where most urban infrastructure was designed for a long-gone colonial elite, rather than the millions who now crowd in searching for economic opportunity. By some calculations, this is the world’s fastest urbanizing region, and from Dar es Salaam to Luanda, its overtaxed cities are ill-equipped to keep up. By grafting entirely new cities onto the edges of these metropolises, their builders say they can leap-frog the region’s development challenges and create outposts of first-world luxury on the world’s poorest continent…

But it hasn’t quite worked out that way. Today, neighborhoods with dreamy names like “California Village,” “New World Village,” and “European Village” stand less than half full. Soaring mansions sit beside gaping construction sites, many on roads that are little more than a gash of dirt cut into the hillside. A lush golf course stands completely empty on a recent afternoon. Midway through the project, the money dried up, and many of Akright’s more grandiose components were abandoned, including a massive call centre that once ambitiously promised to help Uganda displace India as the world’s outsourcing darling. Kamugisha promises the slowdown is only temporary…

“Life is more or less like Europe: it’s enclosed, we don’t see our neighbors, everyone goes away during the day,” says Grace Amoah, who has lived in Akright for a decade and runs a small convenience store here, one of the few businesses open on a recent afternoon. “They want more people to come here, but I think the distances are too far, it’s too expensive.”

I wonder if the lesson is this: it is difficult to develop and maintain American-style suburbs without an advanced economic system that can support lots of private housing away from employment and cultural centers. In other words, this represents an attempt to take a shortcut through the development process by which cities in the United States were successful and then gave rise to suburbs. The sorts of American suburbs we have today couldn’t have developed without the rapid growth of cities from the mid-1800s onward. (This leads to interesting questions for today such as whether suburbs can continue for long periods with a decaying or dead urban core – think the suburbs of Detroit where many are well-off even as the city has struggled for decades.)

Claim: white Americans unwilling to sacrifice for poor African Americans

A review of Mitch Duneier’s new book Ghetto ends with one of the book’s claims:

Despite the program’s vaunted successes, Mr. Duneier concludes that its limitations reveal a cognitive and moral dissonance at the heart of American life: No project to end the ghettos can work if it requires the white community to make tangible sacrifices on behalf of black people.

It is one thing to not intentionally commit racist acts and another to make certain sacrifices.