An additional reason to dislike Chicago McMansions: contributing to lower population density

One Chicago observer suggests teardown McMansions impoverish the city in three ways: they suburbanize neighborhoods, they are poorly built and do not fit in with the architectural context of the city, and help lower the population density of neighborhoods. More on this third point:

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But Chicago’s density is declining, and some of the city’s most prominent neighborhoods have actually started to lose residents. Lincoln Par, once home to 102,000 people, barely housed 70,000 in 2020. Lakeview, once holding 124,000, was at 103,050 around the same time. North Center had decreased from 48,000 to 35,114, and nearby community such as West Town and Bucktown had similar fallen in scale.

These neighborhoods are becoming more expensive, and much of this de-densification may be due to a “spreading out” of sorts; wealthier people are moving in and are able to afford more space.

But there’s more to it than that. Previously, when a neighborhood in Chicago was in demand, builders capitalized, and the housing stock swelled. Chicago’s zoning laws, however, have changed, and while they allow for high-rise development in various downtown areas, they prohibit this same approach in neighborhoods. One thing is for sure, though: No matter how strict the zoning ode is in residential areas, single-family homes are pretty much always allowed.

One theory, termed “The homevoter hypothesis,” speculates that this is due to the control that homeowners have on urban development. Their interests have the most influence on local aldermen and, therefore, residential development. The good of the community and the city is not a factor in their agenda, which instead focuses on home value growth, and how to wield zoning changes in order to achieve it.

The argument seems to make sense: those who want to live in more well-off Chicago neighborhoods bring resources and an interest in larger homes. This could mean converting structures to single-family homes or tearing down older structures and starting over from scratch. If there is indeed an increase in larger single-family homes in Chicago, there should be data to support this. Anecdotally, my occasional travels in some of these neighborhoods suggests a good number of new homes nestled between two-flats and three-flats.

Additionally, there may be other forces at work that could also be leading to de-densification in Chicago neighborhoods:

  1. Chicago residents are leaving neighborhoods faster than people want to come in, regardless of what housing stock is available. The population is down in a number of neighborhoods across the city.
  2. The demand for new housing is higher in locations in and around the Loop because of the concentration of jobs and cultural opportunities plus the activity of developers. While Chicago has been known as a city of neighborhoods for a long time, the neighborhoods might not be as hot as the center.
  3. Developers and builders also want these new single-family homes because they can make a lot of money on each property.

Put all of this together and the new Chicago McMansions represent a change to numerous streets and neighborhoods.

Fighting the 2020 Census population count in Aurora, Illinois

Leaders in Aurora, Illinois are not happy about the 2020 Census results that suggest the second largest city in Illinois lost 17,000 residents:

Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin said this week the city will continue its fight to get what it considers a more accurate census count…

[The 2020 Census] showed Aurora had lost about 17,000 residents during the past 10 years – about the equivalent of one of the city’s 10 wards – and officials have said they doubted that kind of population loss would have gone unnoticed among other city metrics, such as housing stock, water customers and traffic counts…

The big concern is that the city has estimated the new count could cost Aurora about $31 million a year in lost distributions of motor fuel tax, sales tax, income tax and money from federal programs for housing and education…

He has called for a review of the numbers by the government, and has even said the city could call for a special census down the line.

Another loss for the large suburb: no longer being able to highlight the growth of the community. Looking at the dicennial Census figures on Wikipedia, Aurora has never lost population over a decade until the 2020 count. And the growth has been particularly strong since 1990; the city had 99,581 residents then before growing to 142,990 in 2000 (43.6% increase) and then to 197,899 in 2010 (38.4% increase). In American communities, “growth is good” so a population loss is a sign of something wrong.

A special census could be worth calling for given the money and status at stake. I recall that neighboring Naperville had at least a few special censuses in recent decades as they sought to benefit from a rapidly growing population. The goal would be similar here – acquire more resources – but also different in that the population may have dropped rather than increased.

Given my own knowledge of the area, a drop of 17,000 residents does seem large. This could go against the larger trends of the region – Chicago suburbs and the City of Chicago – which slightly gained population in the 2010s.

Ghost town, suburban O’Hare industrial property edition

Ghost towns in the American West are well-known. Recognized less frequently are suburban communities or neighborhoods that disappear. A neighborhood of over 100 homes in Bensenville will be demolished to expand industrial facilities near O’Hare Airport:

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The 106 houses where people had raised families since 1956 will be gone.

Rising in their place will be 1.2 million square feet of top-of-the-line industrial space in four buildings…

By knocking down the houses, the new owners will have a 68-acre site in a very hot O’Hare International Airport industrial real-estate submarket…

When the project was proposed, “I thought about what happened to Bensenville with the O’Hare project,” DeSimone said. He means the loss of about 600 homes and businesses near York and Irving Park roads in 2009 when Chicago bought the properties to expand the airport.

The area surrounding O’Hare Airport is desirable because of the amount of passenger and freight traffic that goes through the airport each year. Because of its particular location, the airport is near all sorts of land uses, including residences. This has caused noise problems over the years and this agreement seems to be a mixed bag: the residents got a lot of money for their money and they were not forced into the change but an established neighborhood of 65 years will be gone and the suburb of Bensenville continues to lose residents.

How will the neighborhood be remembered? Will it be commemorated in any physical way beyond the memories of the residents who used to live there? This is the opposite of what many assume will happen with suburbs and American communities. The expectation is for continual growth while population stagnation or loss is seen as undesirable. To have a neighborhood with its homes, families, and activity disappear is not a thought many would want to dwell on.

Illinois lost residents 2010 to 2020; discrepancies in year to year estimates and decennial count

Illinois lost residents over the last decade. But, different Census estimates at different times created slightly different stories:

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Those estimates showed Illinois experiencing a net loss of 9,972 residents between 2013 and 2014; 22,194 residents between 2014 and 2015; 37,508 residents between 2015 and 2016; about 33,700 residents between 2016 and 2017; 45,116 between 2017 and 2018; 51,250 between 2018 and 2019; and 79,487 between 2019 and 2020…

On April 26, the U.S. Census Bureau released its state-by-state population numbers based on last year’s census. These are the numbers that determine congressional apportionment. Those numbers, released every 10 years, show a different picture for Illinois: a loss of about 18,000 residents since 2010.

What’s the deal? For starters, the two counting methods for estimated annual population and the 10-year census for apportionment are separate. Apples and oranges. Resident population numbers and apportionment population numbers are arrived at differently, with one set counting Illinois families who live overseas, including in the military, and one not.

Additionally, the every-10-years number is gathered not from those county-by-county metrics but from the census forms we fill out and from door-to-door contacts made by census workers on the ground.

The overall story is the same but this is a good reminder of how different methods can produce different results. Here are several key factors to keep in mind:

  1. The time period is different. One estimate comes every year, one comes every ten years. The yearly estimates are helpful because people like data. That does not necessarily mean the yearly estimates can be trusted as much as the other ones.
  2. The method in each version – yearly versus every ten years – is different. The decennial data involves more responses and requires more effort.
  3. The confidence in the two different kinds of estimates is different because of #2. The ten year estimates are more valid because they collect more data.

Theoretically, the year-to-year estimates could lead to a different story compared to the decennial estimates. Imagine year-to-year data that told of a slight increase in population while the ten-year numbers provided a slight decrease in population. This does not mean the process went wrong there or in the narrative where the yearly and ten-year estimates agreed. With estimates, researchers are trying their best to measure the full population patterns. But, there is some room for error.

That said, now that Illinois is known as one of the three states that lost population over the last decade, it will be interesting to see how politicians and business leaders respond. I can predict some of the responses already as different groups have practiced their talking points for years. Yet, the same old rhetoric may not be enough as these figures paint Illinois in a bad light when population growth is good in the United States.

States that are losing Congressional seats did not necessarily lose population

With new Census data, the United States House of Representatives is going through reapportionment. Here is the breakdown of who is gaining and losing seats:

This could be an easy narrative to follow with the absolute number of seats: there are winners and losers and there are patterns to which states are winning or losing (Sun Belt and West versus Midwest and Northeast). This would fit with a prevalent American narrative that growth is good and states with growing populations are rewarded with more political representation.

But, there is a more complicated story behind these numbers. States did not necessarily lose population to lose a House seat. They might have just grown more slowly than other states. The overall growth rate for the United States over the decade was 7.4%:

At a Monday press conference, census officials said the U.S. population increased to nearly 331.5 million, a 7.4% growth rate over the past decade and the second-slowest pace since 1790. The growth rate dropped from the previous decade of 9.7% between 2000 and 2010.

More details from the Census:

The state that gained the most numerically since the 2010 Census was Texas (up 3,999,944 to 29,145,505).

The fastest-growing state since the 2010 Census was Utah (up 18.4% to 3,271,616).

For nearly 2 million more residents, Texas gets two more seats. Utah’s population was up over 18% but get no more seats. The apportioning of seats is based on relative populations between states:

The distribution must be rejiggered after every census to account for expansion or shrinkage of each state relative to the others. Even states that grow in population may still lose seats if their growth is less robust than that of other states.

The case of New York is illustrative. Yes, it is interesting that is was 89 seats short of holding on to that House seat but it is also interesting that the state’s population increased.

Census officials said that New York had a “negative net domestic migration,” but that its population grew overall because of immigration.

Population loss is a tricky topic in the United States. No city or state wants to admit that people are leaving or that population losses outweigh gains. Similarly, few would want to address a loss of political power. All of this adds to the competition for residents where more people is seen as a plus and population loss or not enough population growth compared to others is seen as failure.

Declining Mexican immigrant population in Chicagoland

The population stagnation or loss in the Chicago region extends across groups of residents, including the Mexican immigrant population.

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The Mexican immigrant population in the Chicago metropolitan area has decreased by 15% over the last decade, shows a new report published this week.

That’s a 104,000-person loss, roughly the equivalent of the entire population of Chicago’s Lake View neighborhood disappearing, according to a report by the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC). The tri-state Chicago metro area includes the city, suburban Cook County and eight surrounding counties in northeast Illinois, four in northwest Indiana and one in southeast Wisconsin…

Cooper said most of the narratives about the population loss have focused on middle-class and upper-middle-class white residents leaving Illinois because of high taxes and the state’s pension woes…

The net loss of Mexican immigrants since 2010 is the continuation of a larger trend that has seen immigrant growth slow to a near halt over the past 30 years. In the ‘90s, Illinois had a net gain of 576,786 immigrants, according to the MPC report. From 2000 to 2010, the state witnessed a net gain of 230,801 immigrants. But from 2010 to 2019, the state’s immigrant population slowed to a net growth rate of just 0.4% — a net addition of only 6,622 immigrants. That trend helps explain why Illinois is near the bottom in population growth since 2010. Immigrant population growth had largely buoyed the state’s population growth in previous decades.

See this earlier post about how immigration to Chicago helped hold off population loss and this earlier post about the exit of Black residents from Chicago.

The point of this research makes sense: many locations in the United States talk about what might happen if wealthier residents leave. Would the 1% move elsewhere if taxes were raised? Will white flight continue? This emphasizes the structural conditions and decisions affecting just part of the population even as immigration has been important for many areas of the United States in recent decades. And then the next question to ask is why immigrants are not staying in this location or coming to this location in the first place; where are they going instead? Growth is good in many American communities but highlighting only certain kinds of growth provides an incomplete picture.

Another question based on these numbers: is Chicago welcoming to immigrants in 2021? Chicago has long been a traditional gateway city but it this now not the case for certain groups or immigrants overall?

Chicago slowly losing population and a few suburban counties barely gaining people

The population of Chicago has declined slightly in recent years. New figures suggest that the population in four surrounding counties have increased slightly.

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The study showed the Chicago region as a whole was estimated to have lost 4,279 people between 2010 and 2019, a 0.05% decrease. The region, with a population of nearly 8.5 million, includes Cook and the five collar counties plus Kendall County.

Over the same time period, DuPage County grew by 2,575 people, or 0.28%. Will County grew by 7,207, or 1.06%, and Kane County grew by 9,502 people, or 1.82%.

Kendall County saw the highest rate of increase of any Illinois county, growing by 6.65%, or 7,860 people…

Growth in Kane, DuPage, Kendall and Will is likely tied to people already in the region moving farther into the suburbs, he said, and to better job growth in the Chicago area than elsewhere in the state.

If one was just reading headlines, this sounds like a big contrast: Chicago is losing residents and suburban counties are gaining them.

The actual estimates present a more complicated story about recent years. Chicago has barely lost any residents. The suburban counties have barely gained any residents. The region as a whole is relatively stagnant regarding population. The state of Illinois has lost a lot of residents but not necessarily from the Chicago region.

Even though this is not a story of massive population loss in recent years in the Chicago region, stagnant populations are usually not regarded as positive. For American communities, growth is good. And populations are not stagnant or declining everywhere; people in Illinois and other locations with population issues can see that other parts of the country are booming. In particular, Sunbelt metropolitan areas are growing at rapid rates.

This is not a new position for the Chicago region. For decades, the city and suburbs have considered the effects of a decline in Chicago’s population (and a rebound for a while) and a growing metropolitan region. Yet, other places are growing faster. Chicagoland is not in the same category as some other Rust Belt metropolitan areas but it is not exactly the attractive location that some other places are.

Census data on how Chicago would have lost more residents in the 2010s if not for international migration

I was looking at Census Bureau data recently on population change in metropolitan statistical areas from 2010 to 2019. Here is what I found about Chicago:

The data shows the Chicago MSA lost nearly 3,000 residents over the decade. This is something urbanists, demographers, and Chicago area leaders have been tracking and trying to explain.

The data above helps provides details on this population change. The net migration data shows the region gained nearly 200,000 residents via international migration. If you rank all of the MSAs over the decade, Chicago was #10 on the list of international migrants. Chicago continues to be an important center for immigrants (even as it lags behind New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Houston, Washington, Boston, Dallas, San Francisco, and Seattle).

This means that if the Chicago area had fewer international immigrants, it would have lost a lot more people. If international migration was more like San Diego or Tampa or Minneapolis, the region would have lost more than 50,000 people. While I suspect few in the Chicago region would like to lose any residents over a decade, the situation would be much worse without the city and region continuing to attract immigrants.

Losing population in other Illinois cities

Chicago gets a lot of attention for losing population but it is not the only Illinois city facing that issue:

RockfordCityWebsiteJune1120

Rockford, Illinois website – https://rockfordil.gov/

Decatur, in central Illinois about 40 miles east of Springfield, has lost 7.1% of its population since the 2010 census, according to the recently released 2019 population estimates. That drop is the third-largest percentage loss in the U.S. among cities with a population of 50,000 or more. Rockford comes in at No. 15 on that list. The northern Illinois city, the fifth-largest in the state with an estimated 145,609 residents, has lost 5% of its population during that nine-year period.

Rockford’s total population loss of 7,676 people over the last decade places it ninth nationwide among large cities, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, with Decatur (-5,385) at No. 15. Four of the five cities that have lost the most people since the last census are in the Midwest. Detroit has lost the most people, about 43,000, since 2010, followed by Baltimore, St. Louis, Cleveland and Toledo, Ohio…

“I think those cities are very susceptible to having populations hurt by the new service economy or the new postindustrial economy, and that’s because they have such a historical reliance, and a current reliance, on manufacturing and heavy-duty industry,” Wilson said. “And for those city economies that have not diversified, they really get hurt, they get pummeled. And what does that mean to get pummeled? People have a very difficult time living there and earning a living wage. They simply can’t make ends meet. And they become primed for thinking about leaving and trying to find something better.”…

“It’s going to create a further divide between the haves and the have-nots in places like Joliet, Aurora, Rockford,” Wilson said. “And people are going to want to leave.”

Three quick thoughts:

1. The population growth of the Sun Belt is a major force in American change in recent decades. Americans obsess over population growth and it is not in the Midwest so status and attention goes elsewhere.

2. This reminds me of Jennifer Egan’s book Look at Me where one of the main characters dreams of restoring Rockford to flourishing and growth. Yet, it is hard to imagine cities like Rockford or Decatur recapturing their past glory or entering a significant revival.

3. The narrative around population loss in Chicago often revolves around problems specific to Chicago. But, this article hints that it is a state-wide issue or a regional issue. If true, this would require a more coordinated effort across communities and groups that sometimes spend more time sniping at each other than working together (for example, feuds Illinois has with Indiana and Wisconsin rather than regional cooperation).

 

 

Fitting COVID-19 into the cycles of American cities

Derek Thompson writes about how COVID-19’s effect on retail and restaurants will affect American cities:

The song of American urbanization plays on an accordion. Americans compressed themselves into urban areas in the early 20th century. By mid-century, many white families were fanning out into the suburbs. Then, in the early 21st century, young people rushed back into downtown areas. But in the past few years, American cities have begun to exhale many residents, who have moved to smaller metros and southern suburbs. As with so many other trends, the pandemic will accelerate that exodus. Empty storefronts will beget empty apartments on the floors above them.

The American cities waiting on the other side of this crisis will not be the same. They will be “safer” in almost every respect—healthier, blander, and more boring, with fewer tourists, less exciting food, and a desiccated nightlife. The urban obsession with well-being will extend from cycling and salads to mask design and social distancing. Many thousands of young people who might have giddily flocked to the most expensive downtown areas may assess the collapse in living standards and amenities and decide it’s not worth it. Census figures will show that the urban exodus went into hyperdrive in the COVID years. There will be headlines exclaiming the decline of the American city or, more punchy, “Americans to New York: ‘Drop Dead.’”

Then something interesting will happen. The accordion will constrict again and American cities will have a renaissance of affordability…

But the near death of the American city will also be its rebirth. When rents fall, mom-and-pop stores will rise again—America will need them. Immigrants will return in full force when a sensible administration recognizes that America needs them, too. Cheaper empty spaces will be incubators for stores that serve up ancient pleasures, like coffee and books, and novel combinations of health tech, fitness, and apparel. Eccentric chefs will return, and Americans will remember, if they ever forgot, the sacred joys of a private plate in a place that buzzes with strangers. From the ashes, something new will grow, and something better, too, if we build it right.

Several thoughts in response:

1. Thompson hints at one of the vital pieces that makes cities work: the density of people and activity. Restaurants and retailers are not just functional entities that provide jobs and revenue; they bring in extra people who want to visit, eat, browse, be around other people who are doing similar things. The kinds of everyday activity that make urban neighborhoods unique and attractive are difficult to maintain during COVID-19 when restrictions limit contact and social interaction.

2. After just reading The Death and Life of Great American Cities with one of my classes, I wonder: what would Jane Jacobs do in times of global pandemics?

3. Thompson describes populations moving in and out of American cities as conditions change. From a broader perspective, I am not sure I would agree with the accordion example: the longer-term trend in the United States since the early 1900s has been toward suburban growth and development. The percent of Americans living in cities has stayed relatively stable since the beginning of the postwar era while government policy, cultural ideology, and population shifts have swelled suburban populations. If American cities can gain and lose residents, it is a relatively small accordion compared to the tremendous suburban growth over the last century.

4. A problem with predicting future urban trends is that the patterns of the past may not happen again in the future. COVID-19 is the sort of event that is difficult to know the effects of, particularly years down the road. Will life return to normal or will the effects of a significant economic shutdown and shelter-in-place for many people change future behaviors? We do not know. At the same time, I do not think Thompson’s predictions are unreasonable. How exactly the affordability of land plays out could be an arduous process; land that was relatively overvalued before COVID-19 may not quickly become affordable and it may take time to clear significant debts or mortgages for numerous urban properties.